I launched this blog early last year with a post exploring the appeal of the Netflix series Bridgerton (if the details are a little hazy you can refresh your memory here). That post ended with a question: would season two be able to find a central thread as engaging as the romance between Simon and Daphne?
You’ll be pleased to hear that – taking my blogging duties seriously – I have now viewed the entire second season just so I can answer that question for you. And the answer is… yes and no.
Bridgerton 2 delivers more of what made the first season appealing. A glorious fantasy of Regency England, where people of various ethnicities in fabulous costumes dance, drink tea, gossip and flirt in a range of sumptuously decorated settings. A new activity is added to the mix this time: the sport of croquet, serving to showcase the charmingly boisterous Bridgerton siblings. The contrast between the wealthy, well-bred and effortlessly tasteful Bridgertons (predominant colours: white with hints of blue) and the garish yellow and orange frocks of the perennially cash-strapped Featheringtons (brought to you by the letter P) is as striking as ever.
There are plots and side plots galore. The independent-minded Eloise (Bridgerton sibling number 5) is due to be presented to the queen, and arrives at court a bundle of nerves at the beginning of episode one. She is spared the horror of the curtsey, however, when a copy of the latest Lady Whistledown scandal sheet is delivered to the queen mid-ceremony, distracting her from the debutantes. In the course of the season, Eloise’s intellectual and political interests and her curiosity about Whistledown lead her into a perilous friendship with a lowly printer’s apprentice. Will her reputation survive?
As in series one, the boys of the family are free to mix with whoever they want without endangering their social standing. Anthony’s opera singer from season one has vanished, but he satisfies his sexual appetites with a series of brief, transactional encounters, while Benedict (sibling number 2) enters the Royal Academy as an art student and consorts with an attractive life model. Dull Colin (sibling 3) is the only adult male Bridgerton not getting any action. Though still pining for the woman who nearly entrapped him into marriage in season one, he is beginning to appreciate the loyal attachment of Penelope Featherington, the girl next door. But can the two (whose love story forms the focus of the fourth Bridgerton novel) generate enough romantic and sexual tension to power an entire future season? I find it hard to imagine.
Penelope was the subject of a major and in my view highly implausible revelation in the final episode of season one: this sheltered 17-year-old, we are asked to believe, is behind the suave, knowing voice of gossip writer Lady Whistledown. Whistledown’s identity remains unknown to society at large, and the mystery obsesses both Eloise Bridgerton – oblivious to her best friend’s secret pursuits – and Queen Charlotte. The latter, taking liberal pinches of snuff and sporting a series of increasingly elaborate wigs (almost worthy of their own spin-off), launches a determined campaign to unmask the writer.
The queen’s only other narrative function is to choose her “diamond”, the most promising of the season’s debutantes. Here the makers of Bridgerton have somewhat implausibly taken a real expression – “a diamond of the first water”, the queen’s epithet for Daphne in season one – and turned it into a title, and an imaginary annual tradition: in episode one, high society is eagerly awaiting the queen’s choice.
This year’s “diamond” is the beautiful and accomplished Edwina Sharma, the younger of a pair of sisters recently arrived from India. Her debut coincides with Anthony Bridgerton’s decision to do his duty as the head of the family by marrying and producing an heir. The weight of those family duties, incidentally, is shown in a montage where Anthony pores over paperwork at his desk, glances frequently at his watch, and looks increasingly frazzled. The quest for a bride is just another of these burdensome duties, and he approaches it in businesslike fashion, with a checklist of the qualities he requires. Since Edwina ticks all the boxes, he chooses her. There’s an problem, though: her fiery elder sister Kate disapproves of him, and sets out to thwart his plans. The two clash; sparks fly. I think you can see where this is going.
What is surprising is how long it takes to get there. Despite his attraction to Kate and her obviously more suitable temperament (demonstrated in that pivotal game of croquet), Anthony persists in his pursuit of the wrong sister. As in season one, the obstacle to true love has its origins in the hero’s past and the mistaken conclusions he has drawn from it. Simon, leading man in the first season, had vowed never to produce an heir in order to spite his cold, unloving father. Anthony, in contrast, is haunted by the memory of a good father cut down in his prime (by a bee sting, of all things), and of his mother’s intense, debilitating grief. The lesson he has learnt is that love is to be avoided at all costs, since the death of a beloved spouse leads to unbearable pain.
Despite frequent admonitions from his mother and sister (Daphne, now a wife and mother), it takes a whole season for Anthony to realize what we all knew all along – that it is better to have loved and lost than never… well, you know how it goes. The question is: do we like him enough to wait around for this realization? Anthony doesn’t have quite the same sex appeal as season one’s hero, Simon, but he’s undeniably handsome and has a good line in smouldering gazes. His wrongheadedness is infuriating, as is his insensitivity towards both the Sharma sisters, but the revelations about the traumatic loss of his father make us more willing to forgive his faults.
Kate makes an appealingly spirited heroine, feistier and more resolute than Daphne in season one. But is there enough chemistry between the two to keep us watching? They certainly try hard. There are several near kisses, moments where their lips are millimetres apart, their breathing erratic. At one point Anthony’s nostrils actually flare – I have to say that’s something I’d always associated with horses, but there we go, it seems it’s a sign of attraction. Anyway, romance junkie that I am, I did keep watching and waiting. Was it worth the wait? Strangely I found their first actual kiss, despite the vertiginous camera work, slightly less thrilling than all those almost-kisses. Definitely something to be said for unresolved sexual tension.
It's been widely noted (and in some cases lamented) that season two has far fewer sex scenes than season one. I don’t find this a problem, but what I do miss here is the emotional rapport that was established between the romantic leads in the first season. Simon and Daphne talk to each other; Anthony and Kate barely seem to do so. Perhaps it’s inevitable in the “enemies to lovers” storyline. There’s ample evidence of physical attraction, but little sign that they actually like each other. A bit more dialogue wouldn’t have gone amiss here – though there is that all-important croquet match, where one shot is worth a thousand words.
Overall, I’d say Bridgerton 2 more or less pulls it off. Anthony and Kate are both easy on the eye, their parallel struggles to suppress desire and uphold duty win our sympathy, and the tension between them keeps us watching. As a conscientious blogger, I may even feel duty-bound to tune in to season three…