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Season 2 of Bridgerton is better for everyone — except fans of the book

Despite its many weaknesses, Bridgerton might be wobbling its way toward becoming a good show.

Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey keep a respectable distance between them in the latest season of Bridgerton.
Liam Daniel/Netflix

Bridgerton is back, with all the pomp and dazzlement of a quadrille at Almack’s. But while the show’s Regency romance pedigree is still on full display, just as it was throughout its controversial first season, the tone of this season is much more restrained, far from the heady, hypersexual chaos that nearly overwhelmed the show’s debutante season.

Instead, Bridgerton season two has gone in the opposite direction. The result is a season that will likely delight returning and new Bridgerton viewers, but may disappoint fans of the source material.

Season two turns away from the torrid passions detailed in the original Bridgerton romance series by author Julia Quinn, and flings itself into the arms of the slow-burn, UST-filled, well-trodden Jane Austen cinematic milieu. For the first half of the season’s eight episodes, out on Netflix on March 25, this chaste change-up signifies mainly good things: richer, more interesting character development, more time with our ensemble Bridgertons, and plenty of opportunity for our main couple — eldest son Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and his fiery nemesis Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) — to indulge in all the smoldering longing any romance fan could want.

There’s truly a lot to enjoy about this season, which is every bit as opulent and beautiful to look at as its predecessor. Our main characters exchange lots of sultry touches. The characters you loved from the first season get more lovable — and so do characters you hated. The Bridgertons get to spend more time together as a family, which is always the best thing the show has going for it. Eloise discovers proto-feminism! Pen’s dresses get marginally less citrus-colored! Lady Danbury gets in a few good cane taps! There’s lots of good stuff happening in season two, and thankfully the plot will cause far less controversy than last season’s.

Eventually, however, despite the best efforts of a strong ensemble cast, the season begins to lag considerably, both in pacing and ingenuity, as its plot, much like the first season, gets weirder and more unwieldy. Despite beginning with a host of interesting concepts, a huge budget (season one reportedly clocked in at $7 million per episode), and an utterly talented ensemble to venture forth with, season two winds up spinning its wheels in its final few episodes.

The point at which Bridgerton starts to wobble is also the point at which it departs drastically from the novel it’s based on. That devolution has infuriated die-hard fans of the Bridgerton novels — because Kate and Anthony aren’t just a Bridgerton couple; to many fans, they are the Bridgerton couple. Their book, The Viscount Who Loved Me, is generally considered to be the best and most beloved book in Quinn’s series, which devotes a book each to all eight Bridgerton children. And while there’s one big reason some kind of major plot change had to happen, the execution of season two has left “Kathony” shippers wildly divided over the results.

I won’t spoil the plot too greatly, but if you’re longing to know what works and doesn’t work about season two, then gather your petticoats and polish your Hessians, because Bridgerton season two has more twists than Beau Brummell’s cravat.

The biggest change to the second Bridgerton novel is, of course, the introduction of multiple characters of color. This includes swapping Kate’s origin story. Where before she was your standard white girl from the shire, now, along with her half-sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran) and her stepmother Mary (Shelley Conn), she hails from India. Bridgerton’s raceblind-ish casting approach continues to draw criticism for lacking depth and historical accuracy, just as it did during season one, and Kate’s Indian culture barely intrudes upon the story except to provide fodder for her status as an Unconventional Heroine™. (She rides horses and hunts, because something something India.)

When Kate arrives in London in pursuit of an eligible suitor for her sister, she doesn’t have to wait long: Anthony, a capital “R” Rake who takes his duties as the eldest Bridgerton extremely seriously, has arbitrarily decided now is the time for him to marry. He sets his sights on Edwina because she’s won the queen’s favor. The problem: he’s already met and started to fall for Kate, who in turn overhears him discussing his plans to marry for expedience rather than love and instantly decides she hates him — if hating means flirt-fighting and eye-fucking at every opportunity.

Unlike season one, however, which had plenty of onscreen steam, season two spends most of its time restraining its lovers from doing more than hungrily touching in private. The show, for all its sexual unrestraint in season one, buttons itself up tightly for the second round; it even comes perilously close to suggesting that sex before marriage is a death sentence. It might sound like it’s a general descriptor, because of all its puritan handwringing, to call this season of Bridgerton Austenian, but in fact, it’s rather specific. The show, after a point, borrows many of its romantic beats directly from Austen cinematic adaptations — everything from Darcy’s infamous wet shirt moment to the other Darcy’s infamous hand-flex to headstrong, impetuous maidens muddying their petticoats or venturing out in the rain and meeting with dire misfortune.

Spread out over eight Netflix episodes, all this Austen riffing becomes a tell for the flagging creativity of the Bridgerton writers’ room. These are incredibly well-worn Regency tropes, and there’s room for so much more imaginative uses of this time period and these juicy characters — one might just steal plot ideas directly from Georgette Heyer, for example.

You’ll notice I’m not suggesting the writers simply faithfully adapt Quinn’s book. That’s because The Viscount Who Loves Me contains a wrinkle that romance readers easily accept but which would absolutely baffle Netflix viewers: Its main plot is essentially the same as that of the first book. If you’ll recall, the first season sees Anthony catching his sister Daphne and her dishy duke Simon alone in a compromising position, after which the two wed. Although they’re in love, Simon’s wish to never father children creates a huge conflict for them following their wedding, which the series spends the second half of season one trying to unravel.

In The Viscount Who Loves Me, the exact same thing happens to Anthony and Kate: Before Anthony’s attempt to woo a disinterested Edwina is far underway, he and Kate get caught in a rather extraordinary compromising position involving a bee sting. (It’s actually super angsty, albeit ridiculous.) They immediately get engaged and marry, then spend the rest of the book ironing out their deeper conflicts, misunderstandings, and insecurity.

While romance readers are used to seeing this “caught in a compromising position” trope happen over and over again in novels — it even repeats as a tossed-off side plot in season two — it’s easy to see Netflix viewers questioning a season two that does exactly the same thing as season one, just with different characters. So it makes complete sense that after the pivotal “bee sting” scene, Bridgerton departs from the book in a major way: Anthony proceeds with his courtship and eventual engagement to Edwina, all the while trying to resist his attraction to Kate. The stakes for Edwina to pull off a great marriage are much higher in this adaptation, so there’s theoretically more pressure on Kate to resist her own attraction to Anthony. It should all make for a delightful confection of sexual tension.

But after this plot divergence, Bridgerton’s second season suffers from a weird dual problem of compression and emptiness. Around the main plotline, the season works in plenty of plot points taken from later Bridgerton novels. It’s a clear attempt to consolidate the series’ eight novels into a much more condensed timeline. That approach seems preferable, given that the Bridgertons are always more entertaining as a unit than broken up into individuals.

Still, this compression means more distractions from the main plot. It means that Kate and Anthony should sizzle that much more whenever they’re onscreen together. But they... don’t. Despite Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey’s best efforts (and they’re both fantastic!), their moments of intimacy feel obligatory rather than impulsive, as if the writers tossed in physical touches whenever they got bored of trying to develop their relationship. The irresistible chemistry Kate and Anthony are meant to possess just isn’t quite there.

The considerable age difference between Edwina and Anthony — he’s about 13 or 14 years older — never causes explicit concern, but it looms uncomfortably over the show’s back half, as Edwina gradually starts to care for Anthony, remaining ignorant of her sister’s feelings right up until everything implodes. Meanwhile, everyone in their lives urges Kate and Anthony to just act on their feelings and get married, already, and this “follow your heart!” monologue passes from character to character until it becomes monotonous. Despite upping the stakes on Edwina’s marriage, giving the Sharmas a more interesting cross-cultural background, and giving Kate an intriguing conflict over her dual role as surrogate parental figure and stepdaughter — the Kate/Anthony/Edwina storyline ultimately feels more like filler than the side storylines it’s competing with. The season’s production was also halted twice due to Covid; still, the delays fail to fully explain why, at just eight episodes, this season feels unnecessarily long.

Thankfully, there are plenty of other compelling reasons to keep watching — chief among them being the evolving storyline involving Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie), her search for the mysterious scandal sheet writer Lady Whistledown, and her best friend Penelope “‘Pen’ is for ‘pen name’” Featherington (Nicola Coughlan). Eloise and Pen, one fed up with society, the other longing to truly participate in it, deliver the show’s most intriguing conflict — and the most subtextually suggestive. Although all of the Bridgerton books feature heterosexual romances, including ones for Eloise, Pen, and the artistic Bridgerton brother, Benedict, these characters’ arcs in particular lend themselves to queer readings. Of course, the plot steering these characters toward heterosexual romances doesn’t preclude readings of them as bisexual or pansexual; but the text seems to actively resist such interpretations, nor has it really earned any of them, at least not yet.

Then again, that makes me excited for the show’s third season, and the potential further development of Eloise’s many awakenings, Pen’s growing self-confidence, and Benedict’s fledgling creative life. Around and in between the lackluster main romances, Bridgerton teems with liveliness, and fun, and a broader story about family, friendships, and self-discovery. That’s the Bridgerton that really came to life in season two, and ultimately that’s the version of Bridgerton that most viewers will enjoy. It may not be the version book fans were hoping for — but it’s the one that strikes closest to the show’s heart, and the one that keeps Bridgerton feeling fresh.

And if it can just learn to treat its romances with as much care and fondness as its friendships, who knows? Bridgerton might yet crystallize into a diamond of the first water.