Bridgerton is back! The Shondaland global phenom created by Chris Van Dusen and based on Julia Quinn’s historical romance novels was once Netflix’s most popular show ever (only recently surpassed by Squid Game). Its return is highly anticipated, to put it mildly. A lush, colorful, and escapist Regency romp that caters unabashedly to the female gaze, the series seems to have single-handedly subverted our idea of period dramas. There’s chivalry, but there’s also sex! There’s modern music made classical! There’s melanin!
Of course, the first season drew critiques — mostly regarding colorism and a controversial nonconsensual sex scene. But Bridgerton’s most buzzed-about topic was arguably its breakout star Regé-Jean Page. Once it was announced Page wasn’t returning this season as the dreamy duke who wed Daphne Bridgerton, viewers threatened to boycott the show. But I’ll be honest: I wasn’t missing him watching the premiere. This season’s cast and story line feel at least equally promising (and I’d argue more!).
Each Bridgerton book and season chronicles the romantic journey of one of the family’s eight children, and this year we’re following Anthony, the eldest, played by Olivier Award winner Jonathan Bailey. I’ve been into Bailey since watching his audition for The Last Five Years, in which he nails brooding intensity and exasperated passion — essentially the bread and butter of a period drama’s romantic lead. He nailed the incredibly flawed Anthony in the first season, so peeling back his layers this time around feels exciting.
Also exciting? The show’s new additions! Our love interests Kate and Edwina are played by Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran, and their mother, Lady Mary, by Shelley Conn — all British actors of South Asian descent. A selling point of Bridgerton as a TV series is its inclusive reimagining of Regency London, and the introduction of three Indian characters into this world may feel new, but it’s also historically accurate. Thanks to British imperialism, the East India Company, and babies born through both, Anglo-Indian aristocrats were indeed a thing back then.
Can I also mention how hot these actors are? This might be why I don’t miss Page. My cup runneth over with eye candy! (I don’t want to objectify these people too much, but in my defense, Bridgerton operates as a visual feast!) Ashley is smoldering and striking, Chandran is bright-eyed and radiant, and Bailey is so handsome it feels rude. Has Bridgerton’s casting maybe put together the best-looking love triangle ever? I’d like to congratulate each actor for their stellar performances and faces. And with that, dearest gentle readers, let’s unpack this premiere!
Since last season, Colin’s still away bopping around Greece, and Anthony has shorn off his mutton-chops. New year, new him? Not entirely. He’s still dutifully handling his family’s affairs and being a consummate rake (a.k.a. fuckboy) — a montage depicts him as a habitué of brothels. But this year, he’s squeezing in time to finally find his viscountess. The qualities he’s seeking in a wife? “Tolerable, dutiful, suitable enough hips for childbearing, and at least half a brain” — the latter only a preference, not a requirement.
Eloise is also on the market this season, albeit begrudgingly. She narrowly avoids being presented to the queen when Whistledown’s latest drops. It’s a considerate gesture from her bestie, Penelope, who we learned to be the incognito gossip queen in last season’s finale. (I was worried the reveal meant we might lose Dame Julie Andrews’s narration, but luckily her regal rasp remains.)
One early morning, Anthony sees a single, cloaked woman speeding away on horseback, riding astride. Concerned for her safety, he gallops after her but can’t catch up. She clears a hedge, and he’s very into it. (This is the first time he appears genuinely engaged and turned on with a woman despite the merry-go-round of ménages we saw earlier.)
He finds her — Kate Sharma — in the woods. The viscount indirectly digs into her status: Does her maid or husband know she’s alone, straddling a horse? She informs him she has neither but is safely on her way to Mayfair. She suggests they pretend this whole meet-cute didn’t happen, and he assures her he’ll keep it a secret, especially since he lost their race. I could go on but will simply say the banter is great: full of teasing, charm, and smugness on both sides. When he reveals she’s been trotting away from Mayfair this whole time, she rushes off (on her “victory lap”), and he watches, again seemingly aroused by this mysterious, badass woman.
Kate’s detour makes her slightly late to join Edwina and Lady Mary. They’re meeting Lady Danbury, who’s hosting the Sharmas as the girls enter society this season. But Kate — an old, already rotting spinster at 26 — reveals she’s only interested in finding a match for her sister. And good news: Edwina won’t have to go through Danbury’s boot camp! She already speaks French, Latin, and Greek as well as Marathi and Hindustani. She can play the piano along with the sitar and murali. Bridgerton may exist in an alternate universe, but this overachieving Desi daughter part feels very real.
Finally, it’s time for Lady Danbury’s ball — our first of the season! Pop songs are still getting classical covers, though some might be less contemporary than last year’s Ariana Grande and T. Swift. Tonight, the Sharma sisters saunter up to the conservatory, gorgeous and glittering, as Madonna’s “Material Girl” plays. This imagery is stunning and warms my heart in ways I can’t adequately describe. It’s infuriatingly rare to see dark-skinned brown women as leading love or lust objects in TV or film (Mindy Kaling can only do so much). Granted, the Brits seem slightly less prone to colorism in their casting practices. But Desi women who appear in American and even Indian cinema remain overwhelmingly light-skinned. When it comes to progressive portrayals, at least in this respect, Bridgerton has bested Bollywood.
The queen recognizes Lady Mary at the ball and gives the Sharmas a tepid welcome. Overhead gossip economically reveals how Mary’s a former diamond who fell in love with a poor clerk who already had a child (Kate). She took off with them to India without alerting the queen. Her parents, the Sheffields, essentially disowned her.
Elsewhere in the room, Lady Bridgerton proclaims loudly that her son Anthony (a.k.a. “the Viscount”) will choose a wife this season. Kate spots Anthony from afar as he dodges debutantes and their dance cards. It turns out her flirty stranger from the park was actually the ton’s most eligible bachelor! Edwina and Kate have eyes, so they comment on his good looks.
Anthony flees the dance floor and finds some smarmy friends outside. Kate steps out in time to hear them advise Anthony to “pick the least objectionable [woman] and get her wed, bed, and bred” ASAP so he can keep screwing around. The viscount reveals he’s not looking for a love match, but he does have other criteria to ensure the good stock of his future kids. See Anthony’s list, 2nd ed: “A pleasing face, an acceptable wit, genteel manners enough to credit a viscountess.” He thinks this is little to ask, but every woman he’s met falls short. Maybe the queen’s diamond pick will be different?
Kate tries to slip away but bumps into a clanging basket. Anthony investigates and finds, to his delight, his enigmatic verbal spar-tner from the other morning. He remarks that he never got her name, but Kate only reveals she’s overheard him. She asks why he thinks his ideal woman would ever want him: “Are the young ladies of London truly so easily won by a pleasing smile,” at which point her eyes dart to his mouth (!). Anthony responds with a smirk, “So you find my smile pleasing.” Selective hearing at its best, folks! Kate says he’s full of himself and can’t ride for shit before bidding him good night. Once again, she leaves him bewildered. Great scene.
The night before the queen’s ball, Lady Danbury calls Kate out on her solo horseback-riding sojourns and demands the truth behind the Sharmas’ trip to London. After corresponding with the Sheffields, Danbury knows something’s up. Kate explains how the Sharmas became broke after her father died, and now Edwina must marry an Englishman of nobility — it’s the only way the Sheffields will cover Edwina’s dowry and care financially for Lady Mary. Kate’s not their blood relative, so she won’t benefit from the setup; the Sheffields are totally unconcerned if Kate ever marries. But so is she: She’s spent the past eight years teaching Edwina “twice as much and watching her work twice as hard as anybody else” to ensure her prospects for a better life — a familiar immigrant narrative.
Lady Danbury suggests Edwina should know about the arrangement, but Kate tearfully insists her sister remain in the dark so she might find a real love match (otherwise she’d settle quickly for her family’s sake). There’s a real sweet tenderness to the bond Kate and Edwina share; it reminds me a bit of Lizzy and Jane in Pride and Prejudice. Anthony and Kate’s chemistry is palpable, fun, and bound to only build, but Kate and Edwina seem most endearing together so far.
And suddenly, it’s time for the queen’s ball! Her highness anoints Edwina as the season’s diamond — a wave-making idea floated by Lady Danbury. Anthony quickly swoops in on the youngest Sharma. They dance, chat, and even bond over having dead dads; the ever-charming Edwina checks his boxes and then some.
She says the viscount needs her sister’s blessing to court her, and that’s when it happens: Kate’s and Anthony’s eyes meet, they realize their predicament, and he finally learns her name. Kate drags Edwina away, ordering her sister to stay away from him. Meanwhile, Anthony has good news for his mother: He’s found his wife! Someone, please, bottle this man’s confidence and sell it.
• Very good boy Newton is already a scene-stealer. This Corgi cutie gets my vote to play the next Bond.
• Kate’s great at shit-talking, but my favorite critique is when she gripes about English tea.
• Benedict asks the important questions: Who will Anthony marry if Eloise is the diamond?
• Best Performance goes to Portia Featherington using fake grief as a “get out of jail free” card when asked to pony up her daughter Philippa’s dowry.
• Penelope discusses the perks of being a wallflower.