Let us first address the Duke-Who-Is-Not-In-The-Room. Simon Bassett (Regé-Jean Page) and his particular brand of Genetical Blessedness do NOT appear in the second season of Bridgerton. But, before you heave your bosoms in despair, let me reassure you that there are many goodly faces, both new and old, blessed by deoxyribonucleic acid upon which to rest your weary eyes, though I do understand this is a highly subjective assertion and that your particular taste may vary. (Either way, a moment of silent recognition, if we may, for the tireless work of the casting directors who must, I imagine, plow through heaps of fit men to find these fine actors. Whither their Oscar? I ask you!)
This season moves away from the ample and steamy sexcapades of last season in favor of more backstory, character development, humor, and much Bridgerton family bonding. A lot of these things work well, making the season feel full, grounded, and satisfying to watch in a different way. And the romantic leads? Gird your loins and all that jazz, because they have some explosive chemistry! Though I do wish they had structured the love triangle differently, refrained from stretching out the main romantic tension like a piece of silly putty until it’s almost too thin to hold together, and not browbeat us nearly senseless with their characters’ sense of duty, resolution, and obstinance. It was a lot, you know? But, does this snarky lady protest too much? Was it not she who swooned with each stolen glance, each overwrought declaration, and each impassioned disagreement? Indeed, it was.
But, enough of this idle chatter, my patient readers, let us forge ahead into Season 2 with the eagerness of Cressida Cowper’s Mama upon espying a new eligible bachelor!
Lord Antony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey)—who is, yes, quite Blessed Genetically from his top to his buttocks—has cast aside his rakish ways and set his sights upon the marriage market. He’s even got himself a list of musts for his future bride—”tolerable, dutiful, and suitable enough hips for childbearing”—optional is that she have “at least half a brain.” Ew! His family take turns all but breaking their eyeballs from rolling them so hard (polite Regency era-style, of course) at this rather sanitized approach to courting, which adds a layer of humor and levity to the season, and immediately takes the air out of the obvious sexism of his demands. (The Bridgertons as a unit are always the Bridgertons at their very best.) Behind his false façade of dickheadedness, sexism, and intransigent views on love, marriage, and familial duty, of course, lies a big old squishy heart absolutely terrified of true love. (I will not spoil the reason for that, but it’s explained.)
So, it’s no surprise when early one morning on his way home from, erm, less than pure pursuits, he sees a lone woman riding astride (rather than side saddle) a cantering horse across the misty fields. He calls to her to see if she needs assistance, but instead of answering, she only rides harder and faster, her cape streaming behind her. He chases her across the fields until she loses him by jumping a hedgerow, something that impresses him a great deal. (Yes, we’re all aware of the sexual innuendos here, and we like them.) He finds her again in the woods and they have that kind of needling and competitive conversation that always constitutes flirting and love in romances like these.
She, he will soon learn, is Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), who, along with her sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran) and mother, Lady Mary (Shelley Conn), are staying with THE Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) for the season. Lucky them! Kate is equally as headstrong, independent, and Emotionally Unavailable ™ as Antony. In addition to going out riding alone, she outshines Antony when it comes to horse racing knowledge, and we find out later that she knows her way around a gun, though Antony still has a thing or two to show her about British ones. Euphemism, I assume, entirely intended. She, like Antony, also feels bound by family duties and obligations. Years ago, Lady Mary scandalized society by marrying Kate’s widowed father (a mere clerk!) and moving to India where they had Edwina, he worked for a royal family, and they lived quite happily. Since his death, Kate tells Lady Danbury, who nods knowingly, she has been shaping Edwina into a proper young lady by “teaching her twice as much and watching her work twice as hard as anyone else” so that she can make a good match in England. Lady Mary’s parents, who are pure society snobs and have shunned her and her children for decades, have guaranteed Kate that if Edwina marries a noble that they will provide her a dowry and allowance. Kate plans to make sure this happens and then return alone to her beloved India where she’ll live out the rest of her days as an old maid. (Yeah. Fat Chance.) Obviously, Kate hasn’t told anyone else this minor little plan, and is trying to pull all the strings from behind the scenes. Lady Danbury catches wind of all this and beseeches her to tell Edwina the truth (I LOVE Lady Danbury), but we all know the likelihood of that happening are about the same as Lady Featherington (Polly Walker) opting for understated dresses this season. Obviously, I like Kate a lot. She adds to the long list of women in Bridgerton who don’t break the patriarchy, but, through their words and actions, demonstrate its many flaws and weaknesses. She also just seems like someone who would be fun to hang out with and a good fit for the Bridgerton family. Edwina is also a fantastic woman who is extremely well-read, level-headed, even-keeled, and mostly conflict avoidant. So just great for someone who isn’t a Bridgerton.
Kate quickly comes up with her own list of appropriate suitors for Edwina, which basically includes everyone except Lord Antony Bridgerton, who she insists is a vile man not worthy of Edwina’s time. I mean, two things: 1.) What better way to get a teenager (which I’m pretty sure Edwina is) to be interested in an attractive older guy than to tell her he’s absolutely off-limits? 2.) There is no surer sign of true love in Regency Romance than absolute hatred between the lead characters. And, man oh man, do Kate and Antony ever despise the pants off each other.
Meanwhile, Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is being dragged kicking and screaming into society. Her first presentation to the Queen (Golda Rosheuvel) gets interrupted by the much-anticipated return of Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet, but it’s only a momentary reprieve. After Daphne’s (Phoebe Dynevor) highly successful turn as last season’s diamond, everyone is expecting great things from Eloise, which she has no interest in living up to. But, as she explains to Penelope (Nicola Coughlan), it “doesn’t make it any easier to know you are constantly disappointing everyone just by walking into a room.”
There is actually some question of whether Eloise will be named the season’s diamond, but much to her relief, the Queen bestows the honor on Edwina, who immediately becomes the sole focus of Antony’s ambitions. He schemes and plots to get around Kate’s gatekeeping in order to win Edwina’s hand, while very clearly falling more deeply in love with Kate herself with each passing day. It should be noted that the moments when Antony looks at Kate and appears to be shocked by the depth and strength of his own yearning are reason alone to watch this season. That man gives excellent slow burning longing looks that are coupled with ragged breathing, and you may want to keep your smelling salts at the ready. Also great fun are the moments when those around them who are more experienced in love start to notice their simmering attraction.
All of this, along with the many other subplots, are watched hawkishly from the edges of society events by Penelope Featherington, who we now know to be Lady Whistledown herself! It’s absolutely delicious to watch her switch from meek wall-flower Penelope to her bold-as-care Irish-maid persona, haggling for a better price at the print shop for Lady Whistledown. Unlike Eloise, Penelope does like the trappings of society. She still crushes hard on Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), who returns from his long travels abroad to still not notice her deep affection for him. At one point he explains how her long, frequent, and encouraging letters while he was traveling helped him to GET TO KNOW HIMSELF. Dear reader, if you could throttle a character through the screen I would have. The writers are going to have to do some real restorative work on Colin if he is ever going to be the main romantic lead. Anyway, back to Penelope, who tells Eloise that “no one truly notices me. I suppose that’s what I like. When you’re invisible you can have all of the amusement without any of the expectations popularity brings. It frees you.” I’m not sure if she’s being entirely honest there, but what does free her is her quill, which allows her to say all the things that she overhears and thinks. Though, as Eloise starts starts to develop some proto-feminist ideas, she grows less sure about Lady Whistledown’s approach to gossip, and that, at least temporarily, pushes Penelope to adjust her tone, which in turn pushes the Queen herself to reconsider her approach to some things. Imagine wielding that much power and simultaneously feeling powerless? Oh, well, not so hard for so many of us to imagine, now that I think about it.
The growing divide between Penelope and Eloise is also interesting this season. As Eloise works to unmask Lady Whistledown, she meets Theo (Calam Lynch), a Genetically Blessed man who works in a print shop, who exposes her to more radical ideas about gender and equality and society. You can watch her grow less and less comfortable with her own place in society. At one point, after Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) tries to set Eloise up with some awful man, Eloise sobs that her “rebellion is not some party dress I put on to play a part…and it’s certainly not some accomplishment I’ve developed, like singing or painting to help me attract a suitor.” Eloise mostly only gets to talk about being free, while Penelope actually gets to experience it under the guise of Lady Whistledown. Meanwhile, Penelope clearly wants to have power over society while wishing to be a part of it. In that way, she is not so different from her constantly scheming, plotting, and conniving mother, Lady Featherington, who, this season just as last, ended up earning my ultimate respect for the way she uses her smarts to protect herself and her daughters within the confines of a deeply sexist society. In the end, though, I felt like the drama between Eloise, Penelope, and Lady Whistledown was somewhat confusing and short-changed. For all the space they had across the season, they chose to have the characters run in circles for most of that time and then cram a lot into the last episode. It was frustrating, since I feel like their relationship carries as much weight as the principal romance.
The same is true of the tension between Kate and Antony, much of which was squandered. Okay, squandered is definitely too harsh a word, but they spent an inordinate amount of time reminding us of their shared personality traits over and over again, which sometimes made them feel one-note as they harped on and on about their unwillingness to budge. Yes, as I said before, there are many longing looks and many times we get to witness their pent up desires overflowing, but there are so, so many speeches to each other and other people about how they must stick to their duty to their families and not be swayed by love and blah, blah, blah that you start to wonder if the writers couldn’t come up with enough material to keep them apart for as long as they did. (I get that. They do feel drawn together like magnets.) It just felt…slightly unnatural and stilted at times. And sometimes even made their flirting feel stilted. Gasp! The horror! Without giving away spoilers, I was also deeply perturbed by how big a wedge they drove between Edwina and Kate with the love triangle. If you read any of my reviews, you know my thoughts on pitting women against each other as a romantic plot device. To paraphrase: it sucks. The bond between all three Sharma women is quite beautifully forged out of love and acceptance. It was heartbreaking to see that, at least temporarily, crushed as a way to advance the main romance. There could have been other ways to do it without endangering the sisters’ bond. It also makes Edwina’s later transition into self-realization seem somewhat clunky and unnecessary. These young women do know themselves. They just got caught up in a bad situation and forgot to prioritize communication.
The inclusion of Indian women as principal characters this season is, in and of itself, very exciting, especially since it’s done without exotifying or othering them, but with acknowledgements of class, culture, and possible racism. Kate explicitly expresses her disdain for English tea and is shown carefully selecting whole spices to make her tea one morning. There is a scene where Kate gently comforts Edwina as she oils her hair. In another scene Kate, Edwina, and Lady Mary perform an intimate pre-wedding Haldi ceremony, which is contrasted with English men performing the tradition of drinking whiskey and talking around their emotions.
A lot has been written about what the show got right and wrong, culturally speaking, but I certainly don’t feel like it’s my place to weigh in whether their usage of words like appa, bon, didi, Hindustani, and/or the last name Sharma are correct. There are plenty of places around the internet where you can read more about that debate, though. One question I do have is how Kate will feel if she ends up staying in England. In the beginning, all she talks about is how much she loves and misses India, so how will they reconcile that if she ends up staying in England? Of course, there is no mention that during this time India was very much under English colonial rule. Is that erasing history or entering into a fantasy world? I vote for the latter, but it’s certainly a larger question than I have space for here. So, you know, I’ll just drop it like a bomb and walk away. You’re welcome.
Look, I feel like this review, with so many words, is beginning to resemble one of Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheets. I think to enjoy Bridgerton you need to allow for a certain amount of campiness in your Regency Drama. This season in particular seems to be giving itself some broad winks. Like when the men at Lady Danbury’s soiree took it upon themselves to outdo each other with a “talent” show. Or the many times when Lady Danbury and Lady Bridgerton were eavesdropping and giving each other sly looks. (I would very much like a spin-off series where the Ladies Danbury and Bridgerton are sent on various missions by Queen Charlotte that involve a lot of spying on young people while also giving them timely and direct advice. Obviously, every episode would end with the three women drinking tea and gossiping mercilessly.)
I’m sure that hoitier toitier types have much to say about the pop songs reworked as classical bops, but I squealed when the first ball opened to strings playing “Material Girl.” And I do not care how on the nose it may be, I am not ashamed to admit how verklempt I got when two lovers finally came together on the dance floor to the sounds of a string ensemble playing “Wrecking Ball,” a song I do not even particularly like. Friends, I love a good Masterpiece Theatre production as much as the next person, but that doesn’t mean I can’t also have space in my heart for a slightly fantastical world where a little modernity seeps seamlessly into my steamy and sometimes snarky 19th Century romance. If I have not yet convinced you to watch, perhaps it will help you to know about the parts where Lord Antony Bridgerton, overcome by his longing for Kate, leans toward her and growls, “I am a gentleman,” as if he is trying to restrain himself by reminding himself of that fact. It’s a line delivered with so much pent up desire and frustration that you can understand why dates were always chaperoned. I felt like I almost needed a chaperone. Trust me. You want to watch it for that, and Kate’s response, alone.