The hallmark of Netflix hit Bridgerton’s first season involved the beyond-steamy sex scenes between Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the Bridgerton family’s jewel of the social season, and attractive bachelor duke Simon (Regé-Jean Page). This season instead places priorities on unbridled longing rather than the fulfillment of those desires, switching inspiration from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Pride & Prejudice.
After all, this season eldest Bridgerton offspring Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) takes center stage, determined to find a suitable candidate to become his Viscountess (as Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury puts it: “Marriage is a business”). Unfortunately, Anthony makes Mr. Darcy look like the life of the goddamn party. He selects the younger of the stunning sisters from the newcomer Sharma family, Edwina (Charithra Chandran), despite his obvious friction with Edwina’s elder sister Kate (Simone Ashley). Kate is “six and twenty,” so, essentially an old maid in the Bridgerton universe, whose primary desire is to get her sister married off so that she can return to Bombay and live out an independent life as a governess.
But as the Bridgerton tagline this season warns us, “Love never plays by the rules.” It’s instantly obvious that the tension between Anthony and Kate is a weak veneer over a white-hot sexual chemistry. You can’t really blame Anthony, as Simone Ashley is so good-looking it’s difficult to look at her directly, like the sun (an attractiveness only heightened by her succession of jewel-toned gowns by the genius Bridgerton costume design department). Plus, where Daphne was a bit of a milquetoast heroine, her bland innocence key to her sexual awakening by Simon, Kate is much more formidable. She not only rides, but hunts, and is as ferociously competitive at lawn games as Anthony himself, where her sister is much more accommodating, albeit less exciting.
We would almost delight in the romantic quandary that bossy, overbearing, and humorless Anthony (does the A stand for “arrogant”?) is trapped in, except that Bridgerton has the good sense to include a series of flashbacks to indicate just why he is the way he is. Thrust into the head of the family role at too young an age due to tragedy, Anthony never again wants to endure that kind of torment. (Ruth Gemmell, who plays his mother Lady Bridgerton, is especially effective in the years-earlier scenes.) Simon never wanted to marry and have kids because his dad was a jerk; Anthony aims for a pleasant but loveless marriage in an attempt to save himself and his future spouse from soul-crushing loss.
Yet as he and Kate continue to swirl around each other over the course of several episodes, it’s clear that love has other plans for Lord Bridgerton. It’s to the show’s credit that the numerous scenes featuring extreme close-ups of the pair breathing heavily and millimeters away from actually kissing are in their way as steamy as Simon and Daphne’s clinches last season. Ten episodes may seem like a long time to stretch out a entangled love triangle, but the romantic complication rings true: Kate may long for Anthony, but her true loyalty lies with her sister, and she can’t ever be with him without hurting Edwina irrevocably. It’s an effective plot hurdle with no easy out.
If only any of Bridgerton’s myriad subplots were half as compelling. Since last season ended by revealing that scandal sheet author Lady Whistledown is in fact young Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), various players are out to expose her, from the frustrated Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) to Penelope’s own BFF, Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie). Eloise kicks off the season by coming out in society, but still rejects the endless pile of manners and customs her mother would like her to adhere to. She even manages to stumble across a women’s rights rally, so her arc has the definite possibility of being intriguing, if only it was a bit more focused.
None of the other Bridgertons are ready to step up to the plate just yet: Benedict (Luke Thompson) still strives for artistic pursuits. (A scene in which he downs some hallucinogen-laced tea his brother brought back from his travels is pretty funny.) Colin (Luke Newton) refuses to recognize that his perfect match Penelope is right in front of him. Curiously, “F” Bridgerton chid Francesca (Ruby Stokes) is almost as absent as Simon himself (as Regé-Jean Page very publicly left the show after season one). The Featheringtons, also-rans to the Bridgertons, continue to clamor for respectability, even as the machinations of matriarch Lady Portia (an excellent, over-the-top Polly Walker) seems destined to get the family in even deeper financial trouble.
Still, those looking for romantic escapism with picture-perfect historic detail could do a lot worse than Bridgerton. While series like Downton Abbey and its new American offshoot The Gilded Age utilize their historic era to explore issues like class differentials, Bridgerton boasts no such lofty pursuits. We’re here for those gorgeous gowns and smoldering glances, which the show supplies in earnest. There’s even a callout to Mr. Darcy’s dip in the Pemberley pond; we get it, Bridgerton.
For Bridgerton season two predictions based on a close reading of the books, get Alison Foreman’s take here.