When Bridgerton ended its first season, romantic hero and heroine Simon and Daphne were settling into marital bliss, a baby on the way. Daphne’s older brother, though, announced his intention to find a wife but to excise love from the proceedings. Season two catches up with Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey), in the season of 1814. Armed with a checklist of desirable traits in a wife—including “suitable hips for childbirth” and “half a brain, though that’s more of a preference”—Anthony begins his search and quickly find the ladies of the ton lacking. Enter two newcomers, the Sharma sisters, with elder sister Kate (Simone Ashley) a spinster at age 26, and younger sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran) declared the season’s diamond by the queen. Deciding the diamond will do, Anthony sets about courting Edwina. Just one problem: he can’t stop staring at Kate, and they develop a habit of flirt-fighting and breathing intensely on each other wherever they go.
For those looking for a redux of season one’s frothy, bubbly rom-com fun, season two of Bridgerton might be a disappointment. The froth factor is lower, the bubble quotient much reduced. Kate and Anthony are a splendid pair, bolstered by the tangible chemistry of Bailey and Ashley, but they are mired in an increasingly untenable situation. Both are so stubborn they cannot admit they are wrong, which means Anthony won’t back down from his courtship of Edwina, and Kate won’t just be honest and tell her sister she likes Anthony. And so the love triangle grows thornier and more fraught the deeper into the season we get, and Bridgerton pushes this plot to the absolute max, backing the characters into a corner that is inescapable without making Anthony and Kate out to be assholes at one point or another. While that serves to deepen the costs of what is usually a facile romance novel plot and explore the true consequences of declaring your heart for the wrong person in the Regency era, it doesn’t make for the same kind of fun escapism as season one.
Also, book readers, be warned. The show takes a HUGE swing away from the books. In and of itself, that’s not a problem because to be truly successful, adaptations must stand on their own. But in the case of Bridgerton season two, the show’s writers, headed by showrunner Chris Van Dusen, abandon the deus ex apis provided by Julia Quinn in her novel The Viscount Who Loved Me, but they never quite work out what this season is about, if it’s not going to be another romp through the Regency complete with compromising positions and speedy marriages and extended honeymoon sex scenes. Indeed, the sex scenes are vastly reduced here, and whether that’s a function of filming during the time of COVID or a desire to move the show away from its licentious reputation isn’t clear; either way, season two is tons of foreplay and little follow-through.
But, oh, that foreplay. While the season struggles with its story engine, the thing that moves the characters and ties the various storylines together through themes, it NAILS the foreplay. (Lainey: confirmed – DOES IT EVERRRR.) Kate and Anthony are all about the LONGING and the YEARNING and the PINING, and in one critical scene, Bailey crushes a speech about how compelling Kate is, how irresistible, and in that moment, you truly believe Anthony to be a man desperately clinging to his honor and yet knowing he is about to chuck it out the window anyway. It’s very hot and ought to give “I burn for you” a run for its money. There are lots of individual moments like that one that work spectacularly well. The family Pall Mall game is exquisite, exactly the kind of frothy fun Bridgerton delivered in its freshman season. There’s a painfully awkward family dinner, several brilliant needle-drops that perfectly underscore the emotions of a given moment, and the show continues to look amazing, with its candy-colored frocks and flower-drenched sets.
But to return to the idea of the story engine, Bridgerton season two never quite gels. The engine of the first season is gossip, and all the many storylines weave in and out as various characters deal with gossip from myriad angles. In season two, though, there is no uniting factor. The central love triangle has little to do with Eloise’s foray into political radicalism, and nothing to do with Benedict’s continued pursuit of art or the Featheringtons scheming to save their fortune; and the queen hunting Lady Whistledown feels even more removed from all of this, even though Edwina is, ostensibly, her trojan horse in the affair. There is something missing at the heart of season two, and it has to do with how the show handles the respective childhoods of Kate and Anthony. We get a series of flashbacks showing the terrible day Anthony’s father died, and what it meant for him to inherit the title and estate—and responsibility for his family—at 18.
There is no corresponding flashback for Kate, though. She touches on her own parental losses, but she seems much more emotionally stable, on that front, than Anthony, which means that when he lays his heart bare, she has nothing to offer in return. (Book readers, I hear you, and I KNOW.) It creates an imbalance in their relationship that then undercuts why they’re so determined to take the love triangle as far as they do. For Anthony, it is a desire to not marry a woman who tortures him as Kate does, he simply cannot make himself vulnerable to that kind of love for fear of losing it, or leaving his wife behind, as he saw his mother mired in grief after his father died. He clings to Edwina because she is the easier option, the less challenging partner. But Kate’s motivations are strictly plot-driven. She has a reason for dissembling with Edwina on the plot level, but no deeper story reason for her self-denial. WHY is Kate doing this? Sure, she doesn’t want to hurt her sister, but at a certain point, it becomes clear Edwina will be hurt no matter what. At that point, WHY does Kate keep going? There’s never a good answer for Kate’s behavior, which is when she starts to just seem like an asshole.
And so the conclusion of the season feels very rushed. The pacing is wildly off this season, with new subplots being introduced deep into the season that then must resolve within only one or two hours. The last 20 minutes of the final episode blaze by at breakneck pace as the writers try to tie everything up before we move onto Benedict’s story in season three. But there is no bigger victim of the bad pacing than Kate and Anthony, who yearn and long and angst over one another forever and then barely get any catharsis. I don’t even mean the sex scenes, I mean the characters never get a moment to just breathe as Kate-and-Anthony, the emotional payoff of all their pining is rushed and undercut by all the other stuff going on as the season winds down. Bridgerton season two isn’t bad, and I suspect non-book readers will take to it better because they just won’t know what they’re missing. But there is no denying that rushed ending or the hasty resolution to Kate and Anthony’s epic dilemma. The setup is great, the YEARNING is delicious, but the actual romance of it all falls flat in the end.
Bridgerton season two begins streaming on Netflix from March 25, 2022.