How does a TV show live on without its main character? It’s a dilemma that producers have had to solve plenty of times over the decades – from George Clooney in ER to Kevin Spacey in House of Cards – and has now fallen upon the creators of Bridgerton. When the romantic drama became an instant hit on Netflix in late 2020, something essential to its success seemed to be the racy relationship between Regé-Jean Page’s Simon, the dashing Duke of Hastings, and the town’s “diamond” – or, the Queen’s favourite of society season’s new debutantes – Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor). Their enemies-to-lovers arc was a trope that’s not new to the genre, but captured the attention of 82 million in its first four weeks of release nonetheless. Video compilations of their steamiest scenes spread across social media, while “I burn for you” – a line of dialogue spoken to the Duke by a besotted Daphne – became one of the most discussed moments of the season. In short, everyone wanted a piece of the Duke, and the promise of Page’s involvement in a second season guaranteed that many Netflix subscribers would be back for more.
So when Page announced last April that he wouldn’t be returning for the show’s second run, fans were distraught. Viewers feared that Bridgerton was losing its sexiest element and that the show wouldn’t be the same without Simon’s smouldering gaze. Based on this new run of episodes, which can be streamed on Netflix from Friday, they’re right – without the Duke and Daphne’s relationship as a focus, Bridgerton is not the same. In fact, it’s better.
Even before Page’s departure was confirmed, the plan was always for the story to shift focus to the relationship between the Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and haughty heiress Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), in line with the Julia Quinn novels the series is based on. Instantly, season two’s central couple has more going for them: for one, there are higher stakes involved. Though they have an electric first meeting, full of flirtation and promise, things become fraught between them when Kate’s younger sister, Edwina (Charithra Chandran) is named the diamond of the season. With Anthony being London’s most eligible bachelor, a relationship with Edwina makes sense: it keeps society in order, and pleases Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel).
But however “right” their pairing may seem, there’s no ignoring the tension between Anthony and the elder Miss Sharma. As the courtship between Edwina and the Viscount develops, he and Kate try to pass off their growing feelings for each other as hatred. Yet life keeps throwing them together: competitive rounds of a croquet-like game that results in them both covered in mud; a hunting trip where they’re up close and alone in a forest; a bee-sting that culminates in a panicked Anthony resting a hand on Kate’s chest, feeling her heartbeat. Yes, it’s incredibly convenient for there to be so many opportunities for these so-called “arch rivals” to interact as intensely as they do. But any cynical eye-rolls slow to a stop after a while; their connection gets harder to deny.
Midway through the season, the pair are pushed into dancing together at one of the town’s many formal events. Though they of course protest at first, they quickly fall into perfect step with one another, soundtracked by an instrumental rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own”. Their chemistry crackles, and though their magnetism has long been clear to the viewer, it becomes increasingly obvious to those around them, too.
Though the actors do a great job of creating this tension, the added element of Edwina as an innocent yet major obstacle to their romance makes watching it play out all the more exciting. In Bridgerton’s first season, the reasons for Daphne and Simon’s initial reluctance to be together were flimsy at best – the attraction was there, but their union was stilted by their own stubbornness. With Anthony and Kate, not only is there the matter of their strong personalities standing in the way, but there’s an additional layer of betrayal should they ever act on how they feel. It’s a love triangle where no side is really in the wrong, and the viewer is placed in the guilty position of willing Kate and Anthony together, even if it results in Edwina getting hurt.
Such forbidden love means that a satisfying payoff isn’t guaranteed; episodes go by with Kate and Anthony coming close to acting on their desires, before pulling back at the very last moment. It’s frustrating, yet compelling – you keep watching because surely, surely, you’ll finally get what you want out of them soon.
But even without this, these characters make a more dynamic pair to watch on screen. As the daring but regimented eldest siblings of their respective households, they share many similarities and butt heads more often than not. Jonathan Bailey and Simone Ashley are convincing in their performances, walking an ever-thinning line between resentment and yearning. Plus, it’s satisfying to see these emotions play out between characters who aren’t – in society’s eyes – meant to feel such a way. Kate isn’t the “best” pick for a Viscount; in fact, it’s stated early on that at the age of “six-and-20”, she’s more or less past her prime. (It’s the 1800s, after all.) There’s something satisfying in seeing an outspoken, “imperfect” woman embroiled in such a story, rather than the “diamond”: it simply has more bite.
Though the absence of Simon and Daphne’s love story might take some getting used to, fans can rest assured that the chemistry in Bridgerton is far from lost. Granted, there’s no way to completely replace the Duke, a character that put the show on the map so starkly. And sure, there’s less outright sex, which may seem like a disappointment to those who were drawn to the show’s first season for those reasons. But with the show making us wait through season two for the pinnacle of passion, the reward is all the greater.
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