In a year so beset by loss, historical romance novels have offered an escape even beyond the usual joys of the romance genre as whole. I wondered for a while why the genre had taken over my reading list more than usual until I looked at the Bridgerton book series family tree (which I’ll resist linking to for fear of spoiling the many seasons potentially yet to come). There are the marriages, offspring, and dates of birth for the characters who earned their on-page happily ever afters. Entirely absent are dates of death. Side characters and first spouses die, but happily ever after (HEA) means reaching a sort of HEAven of eternal life. No wonder the inhabitants of the long 19th century AU are willing to battle through the Dark Moment and endure countless poorly ventilated routs and balls.
Bridgerton adheres to one of the most unshakable requirements of historical romance: the baby epilogue (there are exceptions, but they’re the exception). I need to admit something: I live for the baby epilogue while simultaneously dying over the fact that I, a person who has even less desire to procreate than early Simon, love a baby epilogue. Even Tolstoy did a baby epilogue. There, see, it’s literary and male, maybe we can just have this. There’s something about the fact that a baby is happening in the closing pages of a book that must end with a happily ever after, or at least a happily for now, that really lifts the period-correct terror off. Everyone will survive and be happy, and mom and dad can hand that child off to a spare family member or someone on their enormous staff in order to get back to what they do best: fucking within reach of a charcuterie board on a lawn maintained by home and garden professionals.
To lift from Hamilton, “who lives, who dies, who gets a love story” is one of the most interesting parts about reading romance. Given that the reward is a sort of immortality where couples are happy, sexy, and making baby epilogues forever, you can see why Bridgerton’s inclusive universe matters so much. It’s a serotonin bomb costume romantic drama that specifically includes people of color. The show gave a glimpse of an important storytelling twist that explained the origins of that inclusive society, and then said almost nothing more about it in the last half of the season. Simon didn’t trust its foundations, we see that King George III is unwell, and then… nothing. I understand the need for storylines that transverse seasons, but this isn’t the one I’d leave even slightly open.
After dancing through a court fairy tale universe in the first half and a historical romance 19th-century AU in the second, we’re yanked back to something closer to historical reality in the end. Daphne and Simon snatch happiness from the jaws of defeat, but indebted Lord Featherington is dead, Marina Thompson accepts a duty-driven proposal to wed unhappily ever after, and Siena turns Anthony away at the door for what feels like the last time. The woman who has everything she wants at the end is the former Daphne Bridgerton, a rare character who has the full benefit of her family’s love and protection — and thank goodness she does, because that degree of incuriosity would probably land any other woman in a proto-Dickensian gutter. Simon does some thinking about his childhood and spends a half moment with the little Bridgerton kids, and he’s now cool with continuing his father’s lineage. Big Patriarchy lights a cigar at White’s gentlemen’s club and accepts some handshakes. My opera glasses are raised and ready for the announcement of who will play Kate in season two, because so much of the bliss-to-pain costume drama calculus hasn’t actually changed in Bridgerton.
Our final episode begins with Lady Whistledown reminding us that one can’t know what goes on in a marriage behind closed doors, as the Duke and Duchess of Hastings pose frostily for a portrait done by Henry Granville. They negotiate how to break up without drawing whispers, but when Simon places his hand on Daphne’s shoulder — at the instigation of Sir Henry — the old heat and longing are back.
At the Bridgerton house, Eloise fishes for clues about Madame Delacroix from Benedict while Anthony teases book fans about the forthcoming appearance of his lucky Pall Mall mallet this summer. Across the street at the Featherington house, Marina has recovered from the side effects of the abortifacient tea she took last episode, tells us she’s no longer pregnant, and plans to get out of London now that the Season is over. Marina apologizes for her actions and says that one day Colin will see Penelope’s love for him. Someone pulls up ominously outside the house.
At an outdoor flower market, Daphne lets Violet know that her marriage is toast due to Simon’s unending grudge against his father. Lady Featherington approaches and finagles an invitation to the Hastings ball from Daphne. News comes that a Crane carriage pulled up at the house, and everyone heads off to beat the shit out of Sir George for making Marina solve an impossible problem like unwed pregnancy in the early 19th century alone all season. But the man in the Featherington drawing room is not Sir George, but his brother Phillip, bearing news of George’s death and a love letter to Marina recovered from his things.
Eloise shows up at Madame Delacroix’s shop outside opening hours to warn the modiste — who she believes is Lady Whistledown — about messing with Featheringtons, Bridgertons, or the queen, as Benedict creeps around looking freshly fucked.
As the Hastings residence prepares for the Season-ending ball, Daphne encounters Simon in the hall while wearing a more mature gown with the cutest little ruffle in the back. Deeply resistant to couples counseling, Simon declines to open up about his father when Daphne asks to know more, leading her to hunt down his childhood letters a few scenes later. Lady Danbury arrives to help with ball preparations, but really to illuminate Simon’s painful backstory.
Will justifies his openness to losing the boxing match in order to start a less dependent business to his wife Alice, who isn’t buying it. Lord Featherington wagers the deed to his house on The Beast, Will’s opponent, despite Will being heavily favored. Simon shows up and senses that something is amiss. Siena shows up on the arm of a man with the most Statement Hair of the season, looking like the hair team used a whole bottle of spray-in silver (with strong hold!) on his coiffure. They both arrange to go to the concession stand at the same time, and by concession stand I mean a standing fuck under the bleachers. Will goes down despite being heavily favored while the bookkeepers exchange glances like they know what’s up. In the post-match recovery tent, Will and Simon lecture each other about their marriages and of course tell the other to butt out.
Back in the Featherington drawing room, Sir Phillip asks Marina to marry him, much to her surprise. Marina declines the offer since she’s no longer pregnant. After the match, Lord Featherington dumps his ill-gotten banknotes on the desk and discloses his insider trading to Portia.
Now aware of the backstory driving Simon’s behavior, Daphne takes steps to defrost the marital thaw by bringing Simon around to the Bridgerton house, since time with the in-laws has a great track record for marriages. Anthony accepts the news that Benedict is seeing Madame Delacroix without yelling or punching anyone, which makes everyone suspicious. Colin reveals that he has a charming singing voice right as Penelope walks in to fall further in love with him and share some of those CBD chocolates with Eloise. With the identity of Lady Whistledown settled, they discuss the difficulty of not having a duchess for a sister and realize that more chocolate is the only solution for now. Simon does some origami on the couch and decides that, hey, kids are fun.
As the Featherington girls receive their new gowns for the ball, Marina feels a quickening in her womb, the surest sign there was an early modern fetus on board. A few scenes down the line, a doctor shows up to dismiss the effectiveness of abortifacient teas and he’s somewhat right, but only because knowledge of effective contraception and abortion were suppressed a few hundred years before.
Anthony and Siena roll around in bed in that soft way couples do before being ripped apart by tragedy and circumstance. Though Anthony extends an invitation to the ball to Siena, she shuts down the dream as fantastical.
We get a great shot of Wilton House’s interior (which is playing Hastings house for Bridgerton), open-air courtyard just in case you need some Zillow inspo. Daphne and Simon are back to doing what they do best: negotiating their plan for how to fool the ton. Simon reaffirms his commitment to childfree life and they seem to be moving ahead with plans to informally separate after the ball. We’ve got about 30 minutes to go and the show has not resolved the central wedge in this marriage, I! Am! Stressed! But not changing the channel for anything. Guests enter for the ball and the pressure is on to wrap up a lot of plot before the season ends.
At a brothel across town, Lord Featherington is surprised to find that his room contains two bookmakers and a bottle labeled “Laudanum poison,” which I believe is a bad sign that he’s going to get laid, but a good sign he’s about to get laid out.
At the ball, Colin apologizes to Penelope for dismissing her warnings about Marina. Pen sees an opening to confess her feelings, but Colin drops the bomb that he’s leaving the UK to finally get in that travel Penelope recommended and brothel-visiting Anthony recommended.
Eloise attempts to approach the queen to share her Whistledown find, but Brimsley stops her from approaching. Some flattery results in her learning that the Bow Street Runners have worked out the location of the Whistledown offshore hosting and IP address and plan to arrest her tonight. Eloise takes off to save Madame Delacroix from arrest and signals to Lady Whistledown’s carriage to move along to avoid a trap.
Sprayed On Silver Fox answers Siena’s door when Anthony comes to pick her up, flowers in hand. Having reviewed her 401(k) statements, a made-under Siena knows it’s time to look out for her future, and demands that Anthony let her go. Proving herself to be more invested in the maintenance of social status than a Viscount, she wishes to carry on as she is, accepted for who she is. And with that sincere apology from Anthony, I wipe away a lot of his missteps and move him up the chalkboard of eligible bachelors at White’s.
Daphne and Simon stare at each other across the ball, but they’re no closer to thawing the marital glacier. Violet gives Daphne a pep talk about the choice to love and also suggests maybe adding some peacocks at the next ball for a hint of danger. This speech is the romance equivalent of the inspiring sidelines speech right before the final play of the game, in case you have more experience with Dad Movies than love stories. Violet tells Daphne that she’s a Bridgerton and can therefore make a field goal from any yard line, wind velocity be damned.
The couple make their way to the dance for … is that a polka? The jaunty dance summons the wrath of the rain gods and the interior courtyard gets wetter than Portia Featherington surveying new patterned fabrics at the modiste. Lady Danbury sends everyone home, Simon apologizes, Daphne reasons away the abuse heaped on Simon by his father, and she confesses her unconditional love for him.
At the Featherington house, the Lord is dead, his money is gone, and Portia Featherington is finally broken.
The morning after the ball, Simon — looking hotter than ever — confesses that he doesn’t know how to be the husband Daphne needs. They agree to remain together, and get down to the business of reconciling by making love, complete with a finish where Simon takes the active role and doesn’t pull out at the end.
Pulling out of London are members of the ton at the close of the Season. Among them is Colin Bridgerton heading to Greece (as Penelope sobs into Eloise’s arms). Elsewhere in the Featherington house, Marina asks Portia how she survived twenty years of marriage without love. And with that, Marina heads off to wedded non-bliss with Sir Phillip Crane. Lady’s maid Varney hands over the name of the man who will inherit the Featherington estate, but we don’t see the name on the card that brings Portia no joy.
Simon and Daphne have changed their plans and plan to bang on every available surface at Hastings house. Anthony tells them NBD, he just plans on quickly finding a wife, any wife. He can’t wait to remove love from the equation and make things much simpler. Oh honey, I cannot wait for your season, ha!
Eloise discovers that Benedict was with Madame Delacroix at the moment Lady Whistledown’s carriage arrived at the printer’s shop, meaning she cannot be Gossip Lady. As the voice of Julie Andrews taunts readers that she will not be unmasked unless she does it herself, Penelope Featherington lifts her hood in the escaping carriage.
And in the end, there’s a baby and we love them, as Daphne reassured Eloise in episode two. Daphne is delivered of a boy, who fits perfectly in his father’s arms and is going to end up with a name beginning with the letter “A” due to the family traditions. From the window, a bumblebee watches and then buzzes away. Umm is that supposed to be the reincarnated Bridgerton pater familias, who is very dead after being stung by a bee before Hyacinth was born? Why would he come back as his killer? Or is it the killer bee itself? Or a tribute to 2020’s wildest movie plot twist? Lots to explore in season two!
• Some suggestions for next season: Anthony Bridgerton needs to get a damn lawyer! So many moments that made him look like a real mess (his cancellation-fee-free first breakup with Siena and the dowry negotiations with Simon stand out) could have been avoided if there were as many lawyers in Bridgerton as there are writing romance novels today. Eloise needs a sexier hobby that is not sitting on a swing or hunting down journalists. By my count, she’s got three brothers to marry off before getting the spotlight and finding love. Can she become a much-needed labor organizer so these overworked servants at least have pensions and hazard pay for standing guard when rakes pull over for a shag? Or maybe she can get a full-scale Veronica Speedwell-ish mystery side plot going? We both want her to be liberated from this society bullshit, and having her stuck for seasons is going to grate.
• As a historian who likes fiction that does not resemble academic monographs, I’m not going to argue for Regency 101 lectures inserted mid-episode. I thought Bridgerton handled well the history connected to high-stakes storylines on race, pregnancy and abortion, and same-sex love, but a few more splashes of history elsewhere might have served the story. Early in the season, some historical context could have been used to counter the court fairytale imagery and reinforce the idea that despite the prince storyline, this is a story for adults. No need to get all E.P. Thompson or anything, just throw in the equivalent of historical ipsum lorem so I don’t grab my neck like a drama granny when a masturbation storyline materializes. There were also some missed opportunities to add some period-correct tension and character development. I’m not looking for much! Example: A line from Eloise about how Sir George’s regiment has been in the same spot in Spain for months now due to a stalemate with Napoleon, and is therefore perfectly able to receive and send letters, would establish her as an informed reader of the news and suggest more firmly that Sir George is a total cad. Not looking for a season-long exploration of the impact of Waterloo on two families here or a big deviation from the 19th-century AU, just some use of the past to give the characters a pinch of extra spice.