It takes six episodes for the characters of “Bridgerton” Season 2 to acknowledge the obvious. Ever since they first laid eyes on each other, Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and formidable newcomer Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley of “Sex Education”) have shared such overwhelming sexual tension that most everyone in the same room can feel its vibrations of longing. At first glance, that might put them in the same company as Anthony’s younger sister Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and his dashing friend Simon (Regé-Jean Page), whose scintillating romance drove the first season of Netflix’s breakout hit. The difference this season, however, is that both Anthony and Kate are so completely committed to sacrificing everything for their families that they refuse to admit what they themselves actually want until it’s almost too late.
Forbidden love — even that which is self-inflicted — is nothing new for a costume drama, or indeed Julia Quinn’s romance novel series from which this show takes its inspiration. What is new for Chris Van Dusen’s “Bridgerton,” however, is how long and relatively chaste this version of the trope ends up being. There have been plenty of Regency-era dramas that run on longing; by virtue of its romance novel origins, “Bridgerton” had the added advantage of throwing rather explicit sex into the equation. So while Season 2 does some smart character work to explain exactly why both Anthony and Kate so stubbornly keep their blinders on, it also gives in to their determination to stay as far apart as possible — to “get off on being withholding,” in the words of “Arrested Development” — for a surprisingly long time.
Does that make the season less worthwhile, or less immediately special? Well…yes and no. But for plenty of eager “Bridgerton” viewers, at least, this season will likely come as a confusing surprise.
In fairness, the second season was always going to have a steep hill to climb. For one, Quinn’s corresponding novel (“The Viscount Who Loved Me”) is one of her most beloved — and fans of it should be advised that this TV adaptation takes a sharp turn after the notorious bee sting scene (if you know, you know) to become something else entirely. For another, the first season became a Netflix phenomenon thanks to the perfect storm of a perfectly timed premiere (Christmas Day of 2020), providing silly and sexy entertainment after the first terrible year of COVID, and Page’s breakout turn as a duke smoldering with self-loathing and excessive hotness. (For those wondering if there’s a sneaky Page cameo despite his insistence of being done with the series, I can unfortunately confirm that he’s remained true to his word.) Following that singular sensation up would be difficult no matter what.
That said: It’s undeniably strange to watch this second season and feel like the “Bridgerton” team might’ve forgotten what made the show such a delightful distraction in the first place. Yes, the costumes and production design are still sumptuous. Yes, it’s still wicked fun to watch Adjoa Andoh’s Lady Danbury, Polly Walker’s Lady Featherington, Ruth Gemmell’s Lady Bridgerton, and Golda Rosheuvel’s Queen Charlotte (a character that will soon be getting a Shonda Rhimes prequel series of her very own) team up and/or spar. And sure, by the time the show finally does let its lead characters succumb to their passions, the moment of release (as it were) is gratifying, even if rather frantically filmed. But over the course of the season’s eight episodes running a solid hour-long each, this “Bridgerton” return too often feels like a luxurious carriage stuck in the mud, spinning its wheels before eventually heaving itself back on the road.
This even holds true even for the season’s subplots, which almost entirely prove threadbare until the finale tries to accelerate the action. Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) still spends her free time following clues towards the identity of mysterious gossipmonger Lady Whistledown, but still can’t see that it’s been her best friend Penelope (“Derry Girls” star Nicola Coughlan, whose clear-eyed acting remains more nuanced than her repetitive material) all along. Meanwhile, Penelope continues to nurse her crush on Eloise’s brother Colin (Luke Newton), newly insufferable after returning to England after traveling abroad, as her family struggles to keep themselves afloat via a connection Netflix won’t allow me to divulge.
All these storylines go around in circles until too deep into the season, far past when they were last interesting or relevant. I even continued to hold out hope that maybe Benedict Bridgerton (Luke Thompson) might at least spice things up by indulging some less strictly heterosexual stories while in art school, but no. (Thompson continues to generate too much chemistry with every scene partner for his character’s own good — which is at least good news for the next couple seasons of “Bridgerton,” one of which should focus on Benedict’s search for love.) Somehow, bafflingly, the romantic fantasy that is “Bridgerton,” with its cotton candy gowns and string quartet Ariana Grande covers, remains a 99% queer-free affair.
The good news about Season 2, though, is that for as deliberately frustrating as the main love story becomes, the actors playing it are very, very good. As Anthony, whose hard-headed approach to Daphne’s search for a husband alienated many viewers last season, Bailey has an extremely hard job to do. Luckily for “Bridgerton,” Bailey delivers, shading in Anthony’s obstinate demeanor with enough vulnerability and naked hunger to make him a compelling lead.
The eldest Bridgerton, this season emphasizes, had to grow up long before he was ready after his father’s sudden death. As both his mother and sister Daphne learn in a series of genuinely moving scenes, the only way Anthony could cope with both the loss and subsequent rush of responsibility was to force himself to prioritize logic over emotions at all costs. When he finally agrees to find a wife, he insists that she can’t be someone he might be tempted to love – which is how he ends up courting Kate’s sweet sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran), much to Kate’s dismay. It’s clear almost immediately that Anthony’s more intrigued by Kate than her sister, and also that Edwina deserves better than to become some ornament on the Bridgertons’ shelf. But neither of them want to see that truth (despite many, many warnings from everyone else around them), and so watching their courtship creep along becomes as much of an agony for the viewer as it does for Kate.
In this pivotal role, at least, Ashley is undeniably arresting enough to justify why Kate becomes such a source of exquisite torture for Anthony. Despite Kate’s determination to remain as stoic and dutiful as possible (sound familiar?), Ashley lets her true personality — a bit snobbish, a lot competitive, and tenderhearted despite her best efforts otherwise — peek through the cracks at exactly the right moments. Her deft performance of Kate as essentially a heady mixture of both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet makes her worth following, even when she’s stuck in a loop.
There is, of course, more to the story of Kate, Edwina, and their mother (Shelley Conn) than meets the eye. They didn’t make the journey from India to England for nothing, after all (though once again, Netflix won’t allow a whisper of it to make it into this review). Much of their backstory differs from the books — in which the Sharma sisters are instead the white Sheffields — and much of it serves to make Kate’s story run even more parallel to Anthony’s. Unlike Daphne and Simon, these two are cut from the same cloth — which only makes them more terrified of what might happen if they give in to the magnetism drawing them together. Whenever they feel the shock of an unexpected spark, they draw their hands away like they’ve been burned, but can never quite stop themselves from feeling the heat between them.
So, no, Kate and Anthony’s “Bridgerton” arc isn’t as outright sensual as the one that preceded it. But in the precious moments that find them entangled despite all their better instincts, they’re seductive all the same. Even when it’s excruciating to watch Kate and Anthony deny their feelings over and over again, the moments in which they fail can be just as thrilling. It’s just a shame, then, that it takes the show as long as its characters to realize it.
“Bridgerton” Season 2 premieres Friday, March 25 on Netflix.