Bridgerton is back, with its first new episodes in more than two years. Which means, of course, that it is finally debutante season in Mayfair again. Young noblewomen will vie for the coveted title of Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuvel) hand-picked diamond—and eligible men will, in turn, compete for the heart of that sparkling specimen. In a missive that marks the opening of the annual marriage market, the pseudonymous gossipmonger Lady Whistledown articulates the hopes of the show’s legion of viewers as well as its cast of characters: “Whoever it is that makes the finest match this year, let us hope that their pairing brings some titillation.”

This is what you might call a self-fulfilling prophecy. As fans have known since finale, Whistledown is none other than Penelope Featherington—the clever wallflower (played with verve and empathy by Nicola Coughlan) who has languished long enough without nuptial prospects to be considered an old maid. Although the show, like , follows the successive courtships of the eight unfeasibly attractive Bridgerton siblings who are her closest neighbors, Penelope is its secret catalyst, the character whose writerly mischief has always driven the plot. In taking up her long-neglected love life, Season 3, whose four-episode first half is streaming on Netflix (another four episodes will arrive on June 13), transforms her into a full-fledged heroine. She is easily the series’ most compelling protagonist to date.

No one can deny that the Bridgerton kids and their fiercely loving, widowed mother, Dowager Viscountess Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), are charming. Season 1 follows the debut of eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), a prototypical diamond who manages to crack the hardened heart of ’s life-ruiningly handsome Duke of Hastings. The next season shifts focus to Daphne’s older brother Anthony (), who has been the family’s de facto head of household since witnessing his father’s untimely death years earlier. Burdened by duty and determined to find a worthy Viscountess, he courts the season’s perfect-on-paper diamond, Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran), but ends up falling for her mouthy spinster sister, Kate (), instead. Sex and smolder abounds. But amid those predictable pyrotechnics—and such familiar tropes as the love triangle, enemies to lovers, and the fake relationship that turns real—the characters themselves could be a bit flat.

Penelope is different, in part, because we’ve already spent two seasons gradually getting to know her by the time her romance arc takes off. We’re well aware that she’s harboring a lifelong crush on her dear friend Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton). But there’s a lot of other stuff happening in her world. Stuck in a repressive, perpetually cash-strapped household led by her gold-digging mother, Portia (Polly Walker), she conceives Whistledown as a creative outlet and a way of declaring independence from a family that has invested all of its resources in marrying off her nasty, airheaded older sisters (Bessie Carter’s Prudence and Harriet Cains’ Philippa).

Bridgerton House, whose residents are actually kind to Penelope, has always been her escape. But in Season 2, her -wave feminist best friend Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) discovers that she’s Whistledown—and thus that she has spread some hurtful, if in many cases well-intentioned, rumors about Eloise and the other Bridgertons. While the secret remains safe, their friendship is over; now Eloise is hanging out with catty Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen). That rift would’ve been enough to keep Penelope from pursuing Colin even if he hadn’t just returned from his latest European sojourn looking hotter and appearing worldlier than ever. Now every nubile deb has her eye on him, and our poor heroine doesn’t seem to stand a chance.

“I take comfort in knowing you will always be here to take care of me,” Portia tells Penelope in the season premiere. In fact, nothing scares Penelope more than the thought of spending her entire life under her mother’s thumb. The upshot is that she enters the season desperate to wed and has resigned herself to a marriage of convenience rather than a love match. In a painful Pygmalion riff, Colin volunteers to help her secure a proposal. “Charm can be taught,” he says.

If you’ve watched all of Bridgerton up to this point—or, really, consumed any since the beginning of time—you must know this couple is destined for more than a tutor-and-pupil bond. Their brand of will-they-or-won’t-they friendship is, after all, as old a plot as the ones that powered previous seasons. And Colin, it must be said, is not substantially more exciting than his blandly ideal siblings. It’s Penelope who makes all the difference.

She’s the only character in the enormous cast (with the exception of Queen Charlotte, whose origin story fueled an ) who comes off as a multifaceted person. Her alter ego, whose publication requires a modicum of brilliance to execute, is fascinating. While Penelope can be quiet, awkward, self-conscious, and painfully innocent about the physical elements of romance, Whistledown reads as the ultimate insider—bold, savvy, witty, bafflingly well informed. While the latter is perceived as a threat by no less an adversary than the Queen, it often seems as though the woman behind the nom de plume is not perceived at all. Like , Penelope is writing herself into a life beyond her family’s drawing room.

So what should she do when her future starts to take precedence, and it becomes clear that reality and fantasy can no longer coexist? Now that’s an interesting dilemma. Bridgerton takes it seriously, without sacrificing the gowns or balls or soft-focus love scenes the genre demands. Penelope and Colin’s season is also a season about her broken friendship with Eloise and her rebellion against her mother’s agenda (and her mother’s fashion sense, thank God) and her dawning realization that she’s capable of finding a partner who will satisfy her, body and soul.

Coughlan deserves a huge amount of credit for the vividness and sensitivity with which the show chronicles Penelope’s transformation. While her open facial expressions radiate a very real vulnerability, the gleam of intelligence never leaves her eyes. One look reveals the war going on inside the character. With Girls, Lena Dunham expanded the then-tiny range of body types depicted in TV’s sex scenes—an overdue choice that fueled years of often-depressing discourse. Tasteful though it is, Couglan’s nudity feels, in some ways, even more radical. If Girls reminded us that , then Bridgerton, in giving Penelope the same steamy, aestheticized pleasure Daphne and Kate enjoyed, is insisting that women who don’t look like Dynevor or Ashley have great sex with partners who truly adore them.

“You don’t know me,” Lady Whistledown once informed her readers, “and rest assured, you never shall.” It remains to be seen whether she’ll ever be unmasked to the ton at large. But in Season 3, viewers get to know Penelope better than we’ve ever known any of the show’s characters—and Bridgerton has never been as good as it is with its real heroine in the spotlight.