Set in a fictional version of Regency-era England, Bridgerton follows Daphne Bridgerton, a young debutante about to make her first appearance in the marriage market, as she grapples with society’s expectations of her as a young woman. Through her perspective and the plight of her closest family and friends, we begin to understand the oppressive nature of a society obsessed with titles and lineage.
… This is the story that Bridgerton could have told based on how the characters were established in the first episode, and as I continued watching, sometimes it seemed like the showrunners believed this, too. I felt like the presentation of the characters and the historical situation would have naturally led to this compelling message, but this expectation was shattered by the disappointing reality of the show. The string rendition of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” in the first episode should have clued me in immediately. The fatal flaw that keeps Bridgerton from actually following through on this premise is how it is rooted in a storyline that conflicts with it. Here’s the scenario:
In the first episode, Daphne is struggling to attract suitors because of the over-protectiveness of her older brother, Anthony. On the other hand, Simon, a young man who recently returned to London after his father’s death, has inherited a dukedom and is attracting unwanted attention from noblewomen. To up her desirability and demonstrate his unavailability, Daphne and Simon agree to enter into a fake relationship. In true fan fiction fashion, sparks fly and the two fall passionately in love.
As expected, the outcome of their fiery relationship is a tumultuous courting period resulting in marriage. I would have been fine with this – I like a spicy drama as much as anyone. But in the first episode, the show set up the characters in such a way that this conclusion felt like the characters had betrayed themselves. This undermines the potential that the characters had to tell the story of societal oppression that they were set up for. I admit that the show’s focus, based on its source material, was always going to be on spinning a whirlwind romantic fantasy. But then, why set up the characters to tell a different story?
Daphne, although seemingly excited about debuting in the marriage market at the beginning of the series, grows increasingly disenchanted over the course of the first episode and even openly (and emotionally) declares that her life has been reduced to this one moment – marriage. She even experiences trauma at the hands of Lord Berbrooke, who attempts to sexually assault her after she rejects his advances. The fact that she eventually marries Simon and is last seen adjusting to her life as a duchess seems to contradict her personal qualms about the process entirely.
Similarly, Simon has a deeply personal vendetta against the peerage system. Due to his father’s personal pride and obsession with continuing his line, in a final act of spite on his father’s deathbed, Simon vowed that he would never have children so that his family line would end with his own death. Despite these strongest of motivations, Simon both decides to commit to his duties as Duke and eventually have children with Daphne by the end of the series. It makes no sense to me that this vow, years in the making, would be so simply shrugged off like this.
I don’t buy the show’s “love conquers all” response to these complaints, which it so blatantly thrusts at the viewers in its last episode in the form of Simon and Daphne’s all-too-easy forgiveness of each other after deep betrayals of trust from both. It seemed equally unlikely that these two characters, who seemed to have deep issues with the way societal expectation had been dictating their actions in life, would choose to ignore all of that to live life, as society expected, as the newest happy couple.
These sorts of contradictions are a common pattern in the show, which constantly presents ideas that could make for compelling stories, but then withdraws from them to make way for its central love story. For example, Eloise, Daphne’s younger sister, aspires to be a writer and openly expresses distaste at her own future debut in the marriage market. For all her potential to disrupt the story and serve as a counterexample to Daphne’s reluctant obedience, it felt like her part in the story was reduced to regularly serving up quippy but inconsequential remarks about the oppression of women in Regency-era England. Honestly, I think the weirdest of these instances occurred in an off-hand explanation of why minorities were so well-represented even in the upper class in this fictional version of Regency-era England. In one brief conversation that is never elaborated upon, it’s explained that King George marrying a woman of color essentially solved society’s race issues. In my opinion, this conversation didn’t need to happen. I would have been happy to admire the show’s diverse cast as an attempt by the showrunners to demonstrate equitable casting. Acknowledging the diversity in the fictional universe of the show opens up questions that the show does not have the grace or the attention span to properly answer. Does most of society acknowledge this newfound equity, or is the apparent blindness to race simply an illusion? How did one woman of color’s appointment to the monarchy change everything so quickly? It doesn’t make sense to open these questions up only to never address them again.
Such additions to the story, just like Daphne and Simon’s initial disinterest and complaints about the system that they subsequently decide to fully participate in, seem tacked on. To me, this just felt like pandering to the tastes of a younger generation of Netflix viewers who want their media to be more self-aware of the flaws and inequities in society. Ultimately, this show feels like it’s trying too hard to appeal to the widest audience possible. It tries to be more than it is – which is a fun, spicy romp about two young people who are wild about each other – and that detracts from it. Maybe these issues will be resolved in the second season, which promises to explore more of the side characters as suggested by the last episode. However, this isn’t enough to keep me invested for a second season. Unlike Daphne and Simon’s apparently undying love, I can’t say I feel strongly about Bridgerton, and this is one show that I won’t be courting again.