Occasionally, it is necessary to convene a conversation between Vulture writers to discuss an important and timely issue in culture. This time, Jen Chaney, Jackson McHenry, and Emily Palmer Heller convene to discuss how Bridgerton season two’s slow burn stacks up next to the hot-and-heavy expectations set by the show’s steamy first season.
Jen Chaney: There is less sex in season two of Bridgerton. This is not an opinion or critical judgment. It’s just a fact. The central will-they-or-won’t-they courtship this season, between Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma, unfolds much more slowly and with a lot more smoldering than the main relationship of season one, between Daphne Bridgerton and Simon, Duke of Hastings, which smoldered and then got very hot and heavy on the moaning. What we’re here to discuss today is whether the relatively scarce amount of sex in season two makes Bridgerton less sexy, which sounds like a dumb question. But it is not dumb! Often there is something more sexy about watching two people pine for each other across crowded ballrooms than hearing them do the deed loudly enough for the staff to hear.
As I said in my review of this season, though, I think Bridgerton’s problem is that it established in season one that it will show much more explicit sex than we’d expect from a period romance, thereby setting up an expectation that explicit sex was part of the show’s DNA. For that reason, season two feels like a tamer version of Bridgerton and, therefore, kind of less sexy. But what do you think? Jackson, since you have a master’s degree in sexuality and its depiction in Netflix programming, I’ll throw it to you first.
Jackson McHenry: Here’s where I out myself as someone whose romantic worldview was shaped from an early age by watching Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh bicker in Much Ado About Nothing, because it wasn’t until midway through this season that I noticed just how little sex there is in this season of Bridgerton. And I didn’t mind much! Instead of last season’s steamier “Let’s pretend to date and then actually fall in love” plot, this season’s A-plot opts for the reliable “enemies to lovers” arc with Jonathan Bailey’s Anthony Bridgerton and Simone Ashley’s Kate Sharma facing off. He’s the cad who just wants to marry her sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran), and get it over with, and she’s the ultracompetitive spinster who distrusts his motives. They race each other on horses, verbally spar at horse races, and have a very intense game of pall-mall, which as far as I can tell is like croquet but not quite? It’s a tried-and-true trope for a romance plot, but yes, it makes it so that Anthony and Kate can’t get hot and heavy until very near the end.
Really, it’s a whole season about edging, which I kind of appreciated as a change of pace, but I can see where you might get fed up with the tease of it all after seeing a lot more graphic, non-lawn-game-based activities back in season one.
Emily Palmer Heller: I found this season hotter than season one, sorry! The pining across ballrooms really works for me; my romantic worldview was shaped by Pride and Prejudice, Pirates of the Caribbean, and slow-burn fanfiction. Sex is a tension reliever, so letting the sexual tension build up makes it all the more satisfying when our beautiful protagonists finally give in to that temptation. It’s why a crush is so much more fun than a hookup. There are so many little moments that got my heart racing way more than a full-on sex scene: Kate’s heavy breathing, Anthony’s jaw clenching, Anthony’s little smirk when Kate walks in front of him. It’s those moments that I think really make the show sexy, like Mr. Darcy’s famous hand flex in Pride & Prejudice. I would agree that this season is less horny, but I think that makes it more sexy.
Jen: So what I am taking away so far from this conversation is that I am the pervert who demands more sex. Cool, perfect!
But seriously, I agree in principle with what both of you are saying. The fighting of one’s desires became a classic romance trope for a reason: because it’s very satisfying to watch that process play out. But the trope-y quality of it within the context of Bridgerton is in fact what I object to because so much of what distinguishes this series is the fact that it pushes against the traditionalism of the genre in everything from its casting to its music cues. And in season one, the more explicit sexuality landed like another way Bridgerton was veering away from the norm. The way the Kate-Anthony relationship unfolds feels like something I’ve seen a million times before, where the first season of Bridgerton seemed to be injecting something new into this type of drama. Does anybody else feel me on this, or am I alone out here on Sex-Positive Island?
Jackson: I’ll happily take a little boat trip from the Repressed Feelings Are Hot mainland to say that I agree with your frustration with the way a lot of those tropes are deployed. I have a Pavlovian response to many of the romance standbys Bridgerton throws at Kate and Anthony, especially once they’ve realized they have feelings for each other but they just can’t because of a misguided sense of duty (nothing’s hotter than a misguided sense of duty). But the actual deployment of those moments is as chintzy as some of the show’s costuming. When Anthony emerges from a lake sopping wet, a direct crib from the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, he’s hunched over the whole time. Jonathan Bailey is a very handsome actor — you’re not going to have him lean back so we actually get a good chest shot? What is the point? And while I haven’t read the books, as I understand from our recap, the big scene between them there involves Anthony trying to suck out bee venom from Kate’s breast, which sounds much more in the vein of the sexcapades of the first season. All of which is to say that I’m team “Yearning Is Hot” but watched this season feeling that this particular yearning could be a lot hotter.
I suppose this also might be less noticeable if the show weren’t spinning its wheels elsewhere. The duke-and-Daphne romance of the first season was bolstered by Anthony romping around in the background of that one. This time around, Anthony has to be a lot more chaste, and the show feels like it was scrambling to fill in the B-plots. The other son who is somehow not gay wants to go to art school? Penelope is worried about being found out? Those plots didn’t exactly elevate my heart rate.
Emily: From the deck of the USS Mutual Pining Makes the Best Romance, I will concede that this season was extremely trope-y, and I can see how that would be grating if you liked season one for its bucking of trends. I guess personally that didn’t bother me because I think those tropes are part of what’s fun about romance as a genre. There was of course the wet-shirt moment Jackson mentioned, and I clocked another Pride & Prejudice (2005) reference when Anthony and Kate had a covert conversation in a statuary hall. (Can you tell I think about Pride & Prejudice a lot?) I don’t mind that it’s a story I’ve seen over and over again because I just enjoy a plucky heroine and a broody hero. I don’t want to think or be challenged in any way; I just want to feel and to pine.
When I found out about that bee-venom scene in the books I was also devastated that wasn’t how it played out on the show. I understand why the show’s writers may have thought it would visually come across a little too goofy. It wouldn’t have read as hot; it would have read as a joke. That would have been fine by me — sex can be fun and silly! — but it’s not really the tone Bridgerton is striking.
Jen: I suspect many people will watch the show from a similar POV as you did, Emily, and find the tropes comforting in their familiarity. And that’s a valid response. When there’s so much TV, as a critic, I always find myself asking whether the show I am watching is doing something truly new or different. Anything that feels too familiar usually goes down a few notches in my estimation, but I imagine most people probably don’t watch television that way.
Of course, if a show does something expected but does it really, really well, I don’t mind that it’s not breaking new ground. But to Jackson’s point, I would argue Bridgerton isn’t doing what it’s doing as well as it could in season two. It drags at times, and the ancillary story lines are, as Jackson said, not particularly compelling. I do still enjoy the Lady Whistledown stuff, probably because I like Nicola Coughlan’s portrayal of Penelope and the stakes for the character in that story line are very high.
But Jackson, you really said it with “this particular yearning could be a lot hotter.” That is what I wanted from Bridgerton season two: much hotter yearning. While the actors certainly do their best, there are times where I can feel the mechanics of the scenes too much. Like Bridgerton is blatantly going, See this yearning? Isn’t it hot? as opposed to just being hot.
In conclusion, my feeling is that Bridgerton doesn’t necessarily need more explicit sex to be sexier, but it absolutely needs to be sexier than it is in season two. And I will die on a hill shouting that Anthony should have sucked that bee sting out of Kate’s breast even if it looked stupid because it still would have been wild and fun, and I have no doubt we at Vulture would have written a whole post about it.
Emily: Now that I can agree with.
Jackson: My proposed course correction: Make season three a full-on, unrelenting orgy. It can be about art school! Art school is like that, right?