My Dearest Reader,
Before we discuss all the ins and outs of the Bridgerton series, please permit me a few questions. Firstly, do you enjoy period dramas? Secondly, can you suspend disbelief if said drama’s historical interpretation allows for creativity? Thirdly, do you enjoy diversity, sex-positivity, strong women, and Genetically Blessed male bodies? If you answered negatively, then you should likely take your gentle eyeballs elsewhere. (And perhaps pause to contemplate what hinders you from enjoying good things.) However, if you answered affirmatively, then read on and consider Bridgerton for your next binge watch.
And now, my beguiling bingers, loosen the laces on your proverbial corsets and get ready, because I have a lot to say about this deliciously juicy and fun romp.
We meet the Featherington and Bridgerton families just as the 1813 London Social Season is beginning. The eligible young women must first present themselves before Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel), which is a stressful affair, since her opinion can make or break a woman’s prospects for marriage.
The men, of course, do not have to suffer any such indignity, nor do they have to worry about marrying before they get too old and undesirable. Why? You know why! It’s always the patriarchy. But, wait! What’s this? There’s also another opinion in town that will soon matter to anyone and everyone in the London social set, perhaps (GASP!) even more than the Queen’s. A mysterious writer going by the alias Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews!) is distributing a pamphlet that is filled with all of society’s hot goss. Not only is she reporting on the most intimate scuttlebutt, but soon enough her cutting insights will begin to influence people’s future actions and choices. Scandalous! (And a really good vehicle by which to move the storylines forward and add a layer of mystery to the whole shebang.)
The Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) has a brood of eight attractive children—four boys and four girls, all named alphabetically—who live in a happy (and well-appointed) tumble. They do wild things, like eat dinner with the children at the table and enjoy each other’s company. In addition, she and her late husband were very much in love, which is also pretty abnormal. Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), the eldest daughter, will debut into society this season, and she desperately hopes to find herself a love match as well. But she is also acutely aware that the fortunes of her three younger sisters rest on her modestly covered shoulders. Daphne, with her delicate features and wide-eyed wonder, quickly wins the Queen’s favor. But, as Lady Whistledown points out, “the brighter a lady shines the faster she may burn,” which basically boils down to women being fucked over either way. No surprise there, amiright?
Daphne’s older brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) is trying (and failing) to balance protecting Daphne’s virtue with his desire to spend all his time in bed with a very lovely opera singer (Sabrina Bartlett). (He does not see the irony in sleeping with one woman while being panicked that another will be ruined by speaking to a man without a chaperone.)
Meanwhile, Daphne’s younger sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) dreads ever entering society and is constantly scheming up ways that she, along with her best friend Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), can avoid marriage and attend university.
Things are quite different at the Featherington house where Penelope lives with her two older sisters Philipa (Harriet Cains) and Prudence (Bessie Carter) and their parents Lord (Ben Miller) and Lady (Polly Walker) Featherington, who most certainly do not have a love match. He spends much of his time gambling and leering at Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), his distant cousin (or some such thing) who has come to stay with them for the season. Marina, who is young and pretty and harbors a possibly ruinous secret, will join the three Featherington daughters in being, to use the words of Lady Whistledown, “foisted upon the marriage market like sorrowful sows by their tasteless and tactless mama.” I personally wouldn’t use quite such harsh words toward Lady Featherington, though she does insist on her daughters wearing the most lurid colors in the hopes that it will attract more suitors. And yes, she is conniving and cruel. But I think when you consider her position as a woman whose fortune is forever tied to a dreadful man and who, in order to maintain her precarious perch in society, must ensure that all three of her daughters marry well, you’ll find she deserves more sympathy than Lady Whistledown affords her.
To fully address all of the swirling subplots would take even more words than I’m using here, but rest assured you will not go wanting for secondary and tertiary plots. I was wholly confused for most of the first episode about who was who and what was happening, but it all shakes out nicely in the end.
So, what with the impending season and Lady Whistledown’s biting gossip sheet, everyone is already quite worked up—in a very proper sort of way, of course—when Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page), the newly anointed Duke of Hastings, comes to town. And then all hell breaks loose (relatively speaking, of course) because he is… Well, if you have seen anything about Bridgerton you have likely seen the Duke’s face (or chest or abs or shoulders or buttocks). And what a fantastically Genetically Blessed Personage it is. Dear readers, words fail me, so gaze upon this screenshot of him instead.
Due to the fact that his mother died in childbirth and he had the WORST father in the history of fathers, the Duke has sworn off both marriage and children, which makes him Extremely Emotionally Unavailable. This, of course, only makes him more enticing to all the young women (and I would hazard a guess to several of the young men). Honestly, I’m pretty sure his physical beauty transcends sexuality.
Sorry, where was I? Right. The Duke gets roped into at least attending the ball held by Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), his late mother’s close friend who helped to raise him. Lady Danbury is an older Black woman who lives alone (with a bazillion servants), uses a walking stick, and takes no one’s shit. When he tries to extend his regrets for her ball, she says simply, “Your regrets are denied.” And then she tells him to leave the flask—that he thinks he’s cleverly hidden in his coat pocket—at home. Obviously, she’s one of my favorite characters. (The actress is also one of my favorite audiobook readers.)
Anyway, the Duke goes to the ball and everyone wants a piece of him. (Of course they do because LOOK AT HIM!!! Though, to be entirely honest, I kind of prefer his boxing partner who is not at the ball but, never fear, I will show you momentarily.) Well, everyone except Daphne, of course, who is too busy trying to get Anthony to stop disqualifying every single eligible man who tries to talk to her. While trying to escape the especially awful Lord Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish)—the way he slurps his drink is the stuff of nightmares—Daphne runs into (literally) Simon. In a shocking turn of events that no one could have foreseen, they do not get off on the right foot. He assumes that she, like all the other women, is trying to finagle an introduction and she thinks he’s an arrogant twit. Ah, the way love blooms! After Anthony manages to scare off all the suitors except the horrid Lord Berbrooke, Daphne and Simon cook up a scheme to pretend they are courting. Thus protecting him from all the other ladies and luring more men to vie for her affections. What could possibly go wrong?!? Oh, you know exactly what’s going to go wrong, and by wrong I mean very right. While pretending to be in love, they forge a friendship in the best way possible: By standing on the edge of a party making snarky remarks about other people. And, as it so often does, mutual snark leads to mutual love. But you knew that already because why else would we be here!?!
Of course there will be many scandals and arguments, misunderstandings and near catastrophes before Simon and Daphne have any hope of a happy ending. And thank goodness for that because a huge part of the attraction of a show like this is watching the breathless tension build as two people unwittingly fall in love. There are a multitude of moments when it’s clear that they are no longer play-acting at courtship and bushelsful of longing looks—at which they both excel. At one point he explains some rather intimate things to her and it’s a moment you won’t forget. There is a scene when they find themselves alone in a room and their hands reach toward each other with an aching slowness that is filled with longing and passion. And it’s magnificent.
But let me be clear, Bridgerton is not just about the longing, it’s about what happens when all those pent up desires can finally be released in the form of a lot of very steamy and enthusiastically enjoyed sex scenes. Hats off to the intimacy coaches who must have worked some very long days on set! Now, if at the beginning of the series you wonder what the heck I’m talking about, please wait for episode six, which is just…well, a real journey. (Though, you should also be aware that there is a non-consensual sex scene at the end of the episode that is disturbing, could have easily been avoided, and is never really addressed.)
One of the many things I like about the show is how they approach the discussion of sex. They make it clear exactly how sheltered the young women are from knowing anything about it. When Penelope and Daphne learn that an unmarried woman is “with child” they are at first confused and then determined to get more information so it doesn’t accidentally happen to them. Daphne is at first clueless about her own pleasure and even the basic mechanics of sex. It’s both hilarious and horrifying that young women could be on the brink of marriage, where they will be expected to immediately begin producing children, and yet be so naive. I wrote in my notes three separate times to make sure to tell you what a sex-positive series this is, and how focused it is on women’s pleasure. So consider yourself informed of that. Did I mention it’s positively steamy as well? I think I did.
I also very much appreciated the way that the show repeatedly pokes at the ways in which women are utterly screwed over by the system. After Anthony scares off her potential suitors, Daphne explains that he “has no idea what it is to be a woman. What it might feel like to have one’s entire life reduced to a single moment.” “This is all I have been raised for,” she continues. “This…is all I am. I have no other value.” Showing why these young women and their mothers scramble and scrabble for even a good-enough husband lets us see and understand the darker side of these stories. I like seeing the women’s awareness about how society limits them. You might think it takes away from the romance and enjoyment, but I’d argue it adds depth, humanizes the characters, and is another way to show the women’s strength. Of course, you may also argue that it doesn’t go deep enough into these issues, but I would argue that Bridgerton walks the line between including weightier issues without sinking the frothy romance. And, sure, these are very privileged women, but they are still hamstrung by societal mores, and it takes fortitude to keep going in a society that refuses to see you as a whole person unless you are properly attached to man.
While norms, and the fucking patriarchy in general, leave women with little to no power over their own lives, the women in Bridgerton are shown as incredibly strong and constantly pushing against or trying to work around the limitations. Not only that, but many of their characters grow and develop over the course of the series. By the final episode, for example, Daphne is a long way from the wide-eyed girl who presented herself to the Queen. She has grown into an adult who is self-assured, passionate, and flawed. Without giving too much away, I also loved the way, over the course of the season, Lady Bridgerton grew stronger and more decisive, while also recognizing her mistakes. (Lady Danbury did not really develop, but that’s only because she was already perfect.) This kind of development isn’t something we always see in romances, and it’s incredibly refreshing to find it here.
Another refreshing aspect, but still thorny issue? The diversity. Which is almost entirely devoid of colonialism or racism in the same way that Schitt’s Creek was devoid of homophobia. I am someone who enjoys period pieces (see also: The Great) that insert diversity and inclusion to create an aspirational reality. Though, I do think it’s harder to add diversity to something historical. I caught myself wondering if slavery existed and if Marina, who is a Black woman, would have been held to different standards than her white peers. But I ultimately accepted the series as a parallel reality, but I realize that won’t be true for all viewers. And I still do wish that there were more diversity in the two main families. But, even with these questions, I still think that more non-token and positive inclusivity is almost always beneficial.
Can we take a moment to talk about the costumes and set design? I mean, we all know that at least half the fun of period drama like this is the costumes and set design, and Bridgerton does not disappoint. I read that there were 7,500 costumes designed for the series. I have absolutely no idea how that compares to other shows, but it sounds really impressive. The Queen’s wigs deserve special note because they are gravity-defying wonders, though I worry for the actress’s neck muscles. Did she have physical therapy included as part of her contract? I hope so!
And let me tell you of the bosoms. Oh, the bosoms! They are hoinked up into great mammarian mounds that seem to defy both the logic of gravity and anatomy, and they are absolutely sublime. (Though, as I did when I watched Harlots, I do fret for the state of their areoles. Can someone please confirm that no nipples were harmed in the making of the show?) And here is a place where the older women most certainly outshine the youngs. Sure, the younger women have the advantage of additional collagen, but even so they are no match for the Ladies Featherington and Bridgerton, whose bosoms rise from their décolletage like mounds of perfectly risen dough. It’s a thing of wonder.
I fear that I have let my excitement about Bridgerton get the better of me and prattled on too long about its various delights. But if you’re still here with me, please be forewarned that every episode of Bridgerton leaves you thinking that perhaps you should watch just one more until you have feasted your eyes on every single one. Since chronically streaming is my life, I doubt it will impress you to hear how quickly I gobbled up all eight episodes. But my friend, who rarely allows herself an extended binge-watch, may have finished them faster than I did. And that—she says 10,000 words later—my persevering readers, should be all the review you need! Now, go forth and binge!