“I am looking out for myself. I am ensuring my own future. Because I know… in my heart… I know that there is no one else who ever will.”
After finishing a pretty heavy show a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were looking for something a bit lighter and funnier to watch: enter Bridgerton, a period drama created by television giant Shonda Rhimes and based on the popular Regency romance novels by Julia Quinn.
The show follows the Bridgertons and a couple of other aristocratic families as they begin the London season, where young debutante Daphne Bridgerton is making her entrance at only the fanciest high-society events, with one goal in mind: finding a husband. Soon, she meets Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who is handsome, but a notorious “rake” (womanizer).
In an entertaining combination of mild enemies-to-lovers and the well-loved fake dating trope, we experience their banter and watch their tumultuous relationship develop over the course of the season, all the while keeping up with several side characters and micro-plotlines. We also have an overarching story about the mysterious Lady Whistledown, an anonymous writer who prints “society papers” filled with the gossip of the season and the aristocracy’s most well-guarded secrets.
The development of the main romantic relationship, particularly the banter, was pretty good, and I was kind of rooting for Daphne and Simon. As the show progressed, however, I become pretty indifferent towards Simon and I even began to hate Daphne. Neither is a very realistic character (their motivations are often vague and inconsistently depicted) and though the better of the two is definitely Simon, that’s not saying a whole lot. The plethora of enthralling supporting characters was a saving grace for a show that, while entertaining and well-produced, left me underwhelmed and with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.
The show’s strongest aspect is its setting. I think that something many writers of the Regency romance micro-genre often forget is to emphasize and really toy with the glamour inherent to this setting (or at least, viewers’ romanticized perception of it) when crafting their narrative. It’s about more than just nice ball gowns and dancing with handsome men (though that’s certainly a fun part of it); it’s also about the intricacies of the aristocratic gossip, the charming mores of London high society at that time, and honestly, the ubiquity of the social struggles of non-conforming women across class lines. Maximizing the setting to serve the narrative is not something Bridgerton ever shies away from, and for that I was thankful.
I also want to mention the pretty diverse cast. I didn’t read the books, but this has Shonda Rhimes written all over it, and thank goodness, too. Historical romance is always overwhelmingly white, and Bridgerton‘s diversity is a nice change. I really like that they gave a historical justification for the presence of people of colour within London high society while not making the story entirely about race either. I ultimately think they actually ended up having the opposite problem; they didn’t really dig into race enough at all. Here’s a really good article that provides an astute race-focused critique of Bridgerton.
If you like steamy romance with lots of playful banter and any of the tropes I mentioned earlier, you’ll likely enjoy this show. Even if you’re like me and you prefer a romance that branches out a little more, Bridgerton’s hint of social commentary, its humour, its intriguing overarching plotline, and its memorable supporting characters will likely make it appeal to you as well, even if it does come off a bit soapy. If you’re looking for a nuanced romance with realistic, consistent characters you immediately latch onto and root for… frankly, Bridgerton might just disappoint you.
All in all, it’s worth a watch if you’ve got little else to do (and it’s pretty quick, with only ten or so episodes) but in all honesty, it’s not worth going well out of your way for if you don’t already have a soft spot for this genre. Also, content warning for sexual assault in the show.
*End of spoiler-free section*
I’ve already provided quite a bit of criticism of Bridgerton, but I still expect that I’ll continue with it when more seasons come out. This is primarily because the showrunners did a great job of making me care about many of its supporting characters, and based on the general feel of the last couple of episodes — what with Daphne and Simon having kids and apparently solving all of their problems that way — it seems like there’ll be less focus on their story moving forward (or so I hope). From the academically-driven Eloise Bridgerton, to the coy Lady Danbury, to the clever and beautiful Marina Thompson, I was definitely invested in their lives way more than in the main romantic pairing’s, and I’m excited to know what they’ll do next.
As a brief aside, I also find Daphne to be a huge waste of potential as a character. A calm, highly feminine character who genuinely aspires to be a wife and mother in a historical period where doing so was often the only available path for women could have made for really interesting character work. There’s power in many traditionally feminine traits, and Daphne could’ve showcased that really nicely.
Instead, we got “rape-your-husband-and-then-he’ll-change-his-inconveniently-stubborn-ways-and-forget-a-decade-of-childhood-trauma-and-have-babies-with-you.” (Can you tell that bit bothered me?)
Before I launch deeper into my three main criticisms of Bridgerton, I want to emphasize a couple more positives so that this review isn’t solely negative, because I really did have some fun watching this show. The banter between Daphne and Simon was good, and I thought there was a good amount of chemistry between them. I also loved the exchanges between Eloise and literaally anyone (but especially Penelope) and I thought the showrunners did awesome at prolonging the suspense and mystery when it came to uncovering Lady Whistledown’s identity. Finally, as mentioned earlier, I loved the setting. While I’m picky with my romance, Regency (if well-done) is a soft spot of mine and I thoroughly appreciated the costumes, the dialogue, and the delivery of most of Bridgerton‘s cast. Pretty typical of big-budget Netflix series, but I don’t want to take anything away from the actors and writers either.
The problem, I think, is the story itself. Again, since I haven’t read the books and don’t plan to, it’s hard to say what can be blamed on Quinn and what can be blamed on Rhimes and company (just trying to clarify that I’m not trying to shit on one specific person either, because I literally don’t know who made what choices or how faithful the show was to the books). Anyway, I personally had three main issues with the story.
#1 – When Daphne rapes Simon
I don’t think I need to talk about this one much since so many others have written great think pieces on this topic already. I didn’t like that rape was used purely for dramatic shock value and I think that its onscreen depiction (apparently made “better” by the fact that he said “wait” rather than “no” like in the book) is harmful, and perpetuates the idea that when men get raped, it’s not to be taken as seriously. It instantly made me completely write off Daphne as a character (whereas I only disliked her before). That action clashed so drastically with her initially sweet nature with little explanation that it just felt like poor writing to me.
#2 – Simon’s recovery from childhood trauma
The show started off well by demonstrating that much of Simon’s childhood trauma was still affecting his adult life because he had never coped with it healthily. In the last few episodes though, the show throws all of that out the door. Simon suddenly seems to get over all of his issues (after being recently raped by his wife!) all because his dearest Daphne wants children and will be sad if he doesn’t do the one thing that he has been traumatized into never wanting to do. Now, it’s obvious that Simon is not blameless in the way he chose to deal with his trauma in adulthood or in some of the ways he treats Daphne (pretty serious lying), and it’s clear to the viewer that his concerns about becoming like his father are misguided because he’s fundamentally a better person, but the fact remains that this idea that loving someone enough will fix all of one’s deep-rooted personal traumas is just false and feels like a cop-out for actual character development. Daphne remains inconsiderate of everything Simon has gone through, and because plot demands it, I suppose, he caves to her every demand while she does nothing to try and achieve a compromise with him or tend to his needs in any way. And I get that it’s romance, so things get romanticized, but in romanticizing Simon’s trauma and giving him an unrealistic recovery, Bridgerton flushed all of his good character development down the drain while actively perpetuating harmful myths about how men handle mental health difficulties.
#3 – Whistledown’s identity reveal
Finally, I was not a fan of Penelope turning out to be Lady Whistledown, purely because of the way they handled the “investigation”. What I mean with this is that we considered Penny as a potential suspect, then the show explicitly had us rule her out in favour of Mme Lacroix (for whom the Lady Whistledown identity made perfect sense), only to, at the last minute, yank us back to Penny. Clearly, the showrunners wanted a last minute, shocking twist for that final scene with the carriage leaving, and it totally would’ve worked if it had been, you know, someone we hadn’t actually considered and been clearly told to rule out. I personally felt cheated by this; the scene was being hyped up and I was thinking “oh my God, I thought I knew it was Lacroix but it isn’t, oh my God, who is it?!” only to then be shown a face I had been told it wasn’t (“oh.”). It took away from the drama of it all, drama that had been building up for the entire season. I have no problem with Penny being Whistledown plot-wise, but the execution was off for me. She should’ve been avoided entirely as a suspect earlier as it would’ve made the surprise all the more rewarding and effective.
In the end, clearly I have a lot to bitch about when it comes to Bridgerton. It had a lot of potential, but in more areas than not, it fell short of the expectations I had for it. I can’t help but wonder what it would’ve been like to have a Regency romance blow up on Netflix in the way this one did, but without all of this show’s significant pitfalls.