With Daphne Basset (Phoebe Dynevor) now engrossed in her duties as the Duchess of Hastings, and her husband offscreen for the foreseeable future — fare thee well, Regé-Jean Page — the Ton’s inquiring gaze must inevitably turn to more current prospects. Yes, Bridgerton is back, and with it the debut of a new social season, along with a fresh crop of marriageable lords and ladies. Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) would never forgo the opportunity to anoint a Diamond who shines brighter than the rest, of course. But behind the glitter and whirl, this once hot-and-heavy series now belongs to the wallflowers.
Aside from making the former Ms. Bridgerton a minor character in what was once primarily her story, the biggest change regarding Shonda Rhimes’ inaugural outing for Netflix is that for the most part, the bodices remain intact. Rather than unbridled copulation on the stairs of a well appointed manor home, this new season is all about bosoms heaving against silk brocade, stolen glimpses of a silky thigh, and the spark that passes between two hands that reach towards one another but dare not touch.
Much of the longing in the eight new episodes that dropped this past weekend takes place between eldest Bridgerton son, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) — who, having forsworn his rakish ways, has declared himself in want of a wife — and Miss Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley). An old maid at six and twenty, Kate arrives in London with her mother, Lady Mary Sharma (Shelley Conn), and younger half-sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran). The two grew up in India, where Lady Mary absconded under scandalous circumstances decades earlier after falling in love with [gasp] a mere clerk.
The Ton does not forget such a juicy bit of gossip, and neither does the Queen. But being a young woman of considerable intelligence, beauty and poise, Edwina manages to overcome her family’s past and secure her place as the season’s Diamond — with a little help from the legendary Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). The ensuing buzz attracts Anthony, who is more interested in finding a lady who ticks every box on his long list of requirements for a wife than he is in falling in love. All the while, Kate remains in the background, playing the devoted sister whose only concern is for Edwina’s happiness.
The fly in this particular sweet-smelling ointment is the “from enemies to lovers” trope so beloved in romance novels. This device comes into play the moment Anthony encounters the headstrong, independent Kate on an unchaperoned early-morning ride. Perhaps overly bound by their respective duties and senses of family obligation, the two are too alike to gain each other’s approval. But they’re also too alike not to fall instantly, madly in love — an attraction that’s obvious to everyone but them and poor, pliable Edwina.
Such a scandal requires even more social finesse than usual, posing a challenge to even Lady Danbury and her co-conspirator, Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell). The role of the mama in matters of marriage — and, therefore, wealth — is well documented. But Bridgerton Season Two hinges on the conflict between duty and desire, a choice that leaves these usually assured players unsure of how to proceed. And that caution may be for the best: Lady Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) is as confident as ever laying yet another foolhardy trap on behalf of her daughters, and her eventual humbling just as certain.
Oh, and we must not forget the ultimate behind-the-scenes puppet master: Lady Whistledown herself, now unmasked as Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan). Season Two spends considerable time exploring Penelope’s process of publishing her gossip sheet in secret. It’s not as thrilling, perhaps, as when her identity was a mystery to be explored. But it’s an empowering subplot for a show that often focuses on marriage and babies — that is, until it comes time to bring Penelope’s arc to a satisfying conclusion.
Weighed down by the same sense of obligation that prevents Kate and Anthony from just getting it on already — a diversion from Julia Quinn’s source novel The Viscount Who Loved Me, which follows an arc closer to Daphne and Simon’s in Season One — this sophomore run is simply not as effusive a watch. Each episode feels every minute of its hour-plus run time, and although Bailey really sells the ache in his character’s loins every time Anthony and Kate nearly touch, the will-they-won’t-they eventually becomes repetitive enough to dim the electricity. At least that storyline has its moments of delicious anticipation. By comparison, side plots involving Bridgerton siblings Eloise and Colin (Luke Newton) feel dutiful to a fault. And like Penelope’s adventures in gossip-mongering, they come to frustratingly inconclusive ends.
That said, many of the series pleasures still remain intact: Classical renditions of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” serve particularly resonant ends, continuing the show’s tradition of incorporating modern melodies into Regency-era dances. Eyebrows still arch when the dialogue comes thrillingly close to saying what must not be spoken aloud. Fresh flowers by the armful still adorn nearly every inch of the screen, particularly during a lavish wedding sequence. (Whose wedding, you may ask? That is not ours to tell, dear viewer.) And the dresses — oh, the dresses! There has never been a finer assemblage of embroidered velvet, beaded silk, effusive organza, and delicate lace, all rendered in fresh springtime shades of yellow, lilac, pink, and green.
But if your eye keeps wandering to the sumptuous decor, is Bridgerton really doing its job as a romantic drama? Should Shonda Rhimes and showrunner Chris Van Dusen be interested in longevity for the series, then yes, viewers will have to take their medicine in the form of plotlines and characters designed to lay groundwork for future seasons. Anticipation is sexy, after all. But so is the passionate lovemaking this season teases so often, and so rarely delivers.