It’s the second bite of a historical romance, and that means it’s time to unfurl some deep, parent-inflicted trauma that will haunt our main characters from now until the moment they’re seemingly past the possibility of reaching happily ever after! In all seriousness, one of the most hopeful parts of reading historical romance is encountering an array of human wrecks who have virtually no childhood to speak of — and then watching as they grow a whole lot, both for and through love, all without the assistance of modern psychotherapy.
Simon Arthur Henry Fitzranulph Basset is born as his mother dies. The number of names draped on the crying infant clues us in to the source of his inner pain: He’s viewed by his surviving parent not as a person but as a means of continuing the lineage. Simon is so resistant to the destiny envisioned by his father that he refuses to even have the dust covers removed on the duchess’s chambers for fear of discovering a wife therein that might continue what he views as a cursed family line.
In the opening scenes, we meet the origin of the season’s most formidable antagonist (Simon’s own resistance to love and family): the original Duke of Hastings, played with conviction and verve by Richard Pepple. “Shock and Delight” starts with the duchess’s death and ends with the duke’s, but while Simon’s mother remains a mystery, his cruel father is carved into his mind. The episode suggests that the Bridgerton Hastings lineage is not the long-established dynasty of The Duke and I, the source material, and Pepple’s Hastings views his son’s perceived deficiencies as fissures that will cause the dukedom just granted to the family to dissolve in one generation. Simon learns to control his stutter and menacingly hover over his father’s deathbed, but the first shoots of love strip away his defenses and compensatory strategies. For Simon, falling in love and continuing the family line would mean giving up a large slab of the bedrock on which his armored, assured, and rakish adult persona is based.
Whistledown announces that Daphne is back in the spotlight after her triumphant appearance at Vauxhall owing to dancing twice with the elusive Duke of Hastings. Simon, living up to his reputation as a raking rake who rakes, slides out of a burgundy-sheeted bed with a satisfied lady to promenade in Hyde Park with Daphne as part of their social ruse. Violet and Lady Danbury write some SimNe (or is it DaphOn?) fanfiction beside the Serpentine while watching them together. The faux couple negotiates their continued courtship with chemistry to spare.
Back in the Featherington house, the girls speculate on Marina Thompson’s condition, betraying that they have no idea where babies come from. Phew, ladies, there is a whole book genre that could help you out. Lady Featherington declares that Miss Thompson is to be kept away because her condition is “catching,” which is precisely what to say to a young person if you want them to launch a congressional investigation on the causes of pregnancy.
In the streets of London, Eloise delivers a feminist monologue, so we’re reassured that even if Daphne seems more or less willing to roll with the status quo, future seasons will deliver some Wollstonecraft-adjacent content. Penelope reveals to Eloise that she knows a pregnant woman — in this case, a “maid” — and both girls wonder how an unmarried woman comes to be pregnant.
In the Bridgerton drawing room, Hyacinth helpfully explains that third youngest sister Francesca will be off practicing pianoforte with Aunt Winnie in Bath this season, in case you’re keeping track of all eight siblings. Eloise enters and requests some sex education before admirers pour in to visit once-again hot girl du jour Daphne. Lord Berbrooke arrives and complains that he wore his satin knee breeches for the visit, which is I guess the early-19th-century dandy version of “I shaved my legs for this?”
Anthony, who is being extremely hard to love these days, has promised Daphne’s hand to Nigel Berbrooke, which prompts the question: Why on earth is everyone so anxious to marry this girl off? In the pages of The Duke and I, Daphne is in her second season — she appears to be no more than 20 — and therefore is a hair closer to being a spinster, but Bridgerton makes her a debutante fresh from the schoolroom. She’s rich, and she’d have some means of modest support even if she didn’t marry. I’m not looking to grind out points against the show owing to historical inaccuracies (especially since it’s speculative history) or deviation from the books, but clearly illogical moments like this give it a fairy-tale quality that clashes with later, more grounded plotlines.
The overblown pressure on Daphne to marry means that the duke romance needs to happen convincingly. Simon boxes with his friend Will Mondrich before Anthony shows up to do some protective-older-brother punching and yelling that seems a bit overblown and scary. The point is to show that the Bridgertons are a family, which flashback little Simon does not have owing to a father who rejects him on account of his delayed speech.
Original Hastings says that the Basset family has been granted this ducal line by the monarchy, but they’re in a precarious situation because it will only remain theirs as long as they remain extraordinary. The word choices call back to the famous speech by Papa Pope on Scandal about having to be twice as good. Given that Simon Basset of The Duke and I book is the tenth Duke of Hastings, flashback Hastings’s statements about needing to remain extraordinary for the newly granted dukedom to remain in the family is the biggest signal so far that there’s a logic driving the Bridgerton alternate universe that we don’t know yet, very possibly related to aristocratic Black families like the Bassets in the series. In Bridgerton, Simon’s father says his dynasty’s continuation depends on their excellence — which is at odds with how the historical hereditary aristocracy worked. There’s a whiff of a mystery and suggestion that we’re truly in an alternate universe, and it has me hooked.
Locked in her bedroom at the Featherington house, Marina Thompson reveals how she fell in love (and with child) by Sir George Crane while Queen Charlotte invites Violet Bridgerton over for some scandal broth.
Flashback Lady Danbury coaches young Simon on his stutter, and they walk into a ball in the present day. Simon dances adorably with Daphne — as a ruse, only a ruse! Berbrooke and Simon do a tense duet of “The Chit Is Mine” over the lemonade table. Simon, fed up with Berbrooke’s continued bogarting of the mic, reveals to Anthony that it was Daphne who put the bruise around Berbrooke’s eye. Anthony’s cranked up aggression proves useful for once and he dispatches with Berbrooke for good. Daphne, perfectly capable of laying a man out with her impressive right hook, isn’t pleased about Simon’s intervention.
Berbrooke follows Simon on his walk home and insinuates that Hastings hasn’t proposed owing to already sleeping with Daphne, then peels back the most painful and private details of the Basset family history. In this case, yes, the answer is violence! The fact that Simon merely beats Berbrooke’s face to a pulp rather than calling him out for a duel is a testament to his cool-headedness, and the show’s interest in quickly getting us back to flashback, where Lady Danbury presents a school-age Simon to his father, who has led everyone to believe the boy is dead. Original Hastings is deliciously cruel, leaving Simon with a pile of daddy issues and a stash of unopened letters to his father.
Daphne tries the new Cloud Paint cheek colors and decides they’re in keeping with her cool-girl brand before joining the family for a socially distanced picnic in Hyde Park. Simon gallops up in yet another statement waistcoat and tells Daphne — while heart-flutteringly buttoning her sleeve — that if he were to marry, she’d be the least objectionable option. Daphne manages to keep her clothes on despite the sexy negging, which is good because Berbrooke runs into the park, with a special marriage license to Daphne held triumphantly aloft and a speech full of blackmail threats.
Anthony considers a duel with Berbrooke, which is a rare actually valid idea from that quarter, but gets shot down by his family. Back at home, Daphne tosses out dreams of a love match along with the flowers from suitors while Violet reassures her that at least her children and the management of her household will fill her life. Eloise and Benedict smoke on the family swing set and do the dialogue equivalent of an “I Want” song with a side of chafing at contemporary gender roles.
At Buckingham Palace, Violet takes tea with Queen Charlotte, who is enjoying some period-correct snuff and indicating that her favor should result in Daphne landing, say, a duke. The implications are clear: Daphne’s successful and queen-pleasing match will benefit the whole Bridgerton family, which leads to Violet scheming on the way out of the palace about how to turn the Berbrooke mess around. Lady Berbrooke shows up for tea, which gives us the chance to discover that every member of this family is depicted as grotesque; the camera focuses on her mouth and the sounds of her chewing, just as it zeroed in on Lord Berbrooke’s mouth and teeth. It’s sort of an upper-body, more mannerly equivalent of a fart joke. This sort of grotesque humor at a bad family’s expense matches well with early-19th-century culture, but it feels a bit at odds with the tone of the other story lines in this episode.
Lady Berbrooke’s maid spills the family secrets belowstairs, namely that Lord Berbrooke has an illegitimate son with a former maid that he refuses to support. I didn’t expect this to be so disqualifying in the world of Bridgerton (do none of these rakes have accidental babies?), but perhaps the real sin is a general lack of control over bodily functions (including sex) that marks the Berbrooke family as vulgar and not good ton.
Violet knows how women turn public opinion — despite their lack of formal power — via gossip and sets out to plant the story about Lord Berbrook around town to let it filter back to Lady Whistledown. At the dressmaker’s, in the market, and in the park the story is circulated until Whistledown herself picks up the tale and runs it. Berbrooke leaves London in the wake of the scandal, freeing Daphne from a terrible marriage.
Eloise asks dolled-up Daphne if she’s scared of marriage and children. Daphne acknowledges the anguish their mother went through to birth youngest child Hyacinth but ends like nearly every reported article and personal essay on parenting with “But there’s a child in the end and we love them!” You say that now, Daph, but wait till you’re stuck supervising the kids’ Zoom alchemy lessons owing to an influx of plague. Eloise leaves a critical comment on the speech and takes off to complain about it on Twitter.
At the latest ball, Daphne gets her Natasha Rostova/Eliza Doolittle cosplay on while asserting her agency and dancing closely with Simon, who gets them on a first-name basis. Simon relinquishes Daphne to another suitor and watches from the edge of the ballroom, where he stutters when Lady Danbury asks what’s bothering him. In flashback, we see Simon enter his father’s sick room. Elder Hastings finally accepts his son, but Simon deals a blow at last: He will never marry or procreate, meaning that the Hastings line will die when he does. In a callback to his father’s cruelty years before, Simon commands his sire to speak as the death rattle rises. Simon’s grim smile as he surveys his father’s corpse signals that in the absence of modern therapy, it’s going to take a metric fuck-ton of emotional labor to get him sorted out. Luckily we have six episodes to go!
For more on premodern birthing practices, check out The Court Midwife, by 17th-century celeb midwife to the empresses Justine Siegemund. Curious about why Her Grace labored flat on her back when earlier female midwives such as Siegemund positioned most laboring mothers in a far more productive upright position? The Making of Man-Midwifery will spark oceans of rage.