Penelope Featherington’s hair is so big because it’s full of secrets: fake courtships. Concealed pregnancies. Financial ruin. Garden trysts. All the Regency tea the ton — and audiences — can’t get enough of.
Bursting onto the scene Christmas Day 2020, the series garnered acclaim as a televisual mille-feuille, its first season enticing viewers with the decadent trappings of a 19th-century costume drama and a mouthwatering duke (Regé-Jean Page), and then peeling off the corset to reveal a meditation on love, sex, gender roles, friendship, and family waiting under all those thirst traps.
As the first series from Shonda Rhimes’ megadeal with Netflix, Bridgerton carried expectations higher than Penelope’s titian tresses. But its winning mix of soapy drama, sexcapades, inclusive casting, and provocative storytelling catapulted the series to an instant success — becoming Netflix’s most viewed show (until Squid Game outplayed it) and landing 12 Emmy nominations, legitimizing an oft-scorned genre to naysayers.
While some speculated of Whistledown-worthy drama behind the scenes, Page had signed on for only one season, and both Rhimes and Van Dusen have repeatedly stated the grand plan was to pivot away from the romance of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dyvenor) and the duke. “It was always my intention to follow a different Bridgerton sibling for every season,” Van Dusen says of keeping with the serialization of the source material.
But heartbreak and outcry from Page fans leave many channeling Julie Andrews’ Whistledown voice-over and asking, “Can Bridgerton turn the page and remain a royal success with the loss of its ravishing rake?”
Well, dear reader, when Bridgerton returns March 25, it seems a whole tea tray of delights is on the menu. At the start of a new social season, we find the eldest of the eight Bridgerton siblings, Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), in want of a wife.
The Sharma family, new to London from Bombay, quickly catches the eye of everyone from haughty Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) to Anthony himself. Identifying Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) as his ideal match, the eligible bachelor’s courtship plans are hampered by her strong-willed sister, Kate (Simone Ashley).
It’s hard to say who tempts him more — the perfect diamond that is Edwina or the determined spinster Kate. “You can understand why he’s drawn to both,” teases Bailey. “And they’re both drawn to him in turn. It’s an interesting love triangle; it’s dangerous when it’s siblings. It’s bestial between them in a way season 1 wasn’t. They’re all animals with each other.”
If there’s anything Penelope — er, Lady Whistledown — can’t resist, it’s a love triangle. But she has troubles of her own, between her yearning for Colin (Luke Newton) and fending off the investigations of her best friend, Eloise (Claudia Jessie), who is obsessed with uncovering Whistledown’s identity. “The main theme of season 2 is head versus heart,” teases Van Dusen. “It’s true for Anthony and Kate, and it’s also true for Penelope. Her heart is with Lady Whistledown, but even she has to wonder if being London’s most notorious gossip writer is the wisest thing.”
One person loath to take a closer look at himself or society’s strictures is Bailey’s Anthony, who enters season 2 in a mode of self-preservation. Heartbroken after his mistress, Siena (Sabrina Bartlett), rejected him, Anthony has finally resolved to fulfill his duty to marry and provide an heir —but insists he can do so without entangling his heart.
Bailey isn’t interested in giving audiences a basic portrait of a strapping alpha male — savoring, instead, the quieter on-camera moments like when Anthony is alone in his office or leaving a woman’s bed. “That’s him at his most honest and fatigued and exhausted,” he says. “Everything outside that is a construct.”
Luckily, Kate Sharma has come to London to deconstruct men like Anthony, puncturing their egos. “She came with one goal: to take care of her sister,” says Ashley. The greater threat Anthony poses to that mission, the more he and Kate clash — enacting a tense, timeless dance. “Enemies to lovers is extreme,” teases Bailey. “They can hit each other’s buttons within a second, and it’s something that’s instinctive. Their sense of self they project to other people, they can’t do that [with one another]; they’re naked in front of each other.”
That connection pushes Anthony to do some soul-searching, as he vacillates between the woman who checks his pragmatic boxes and the one who ignites feelings he’s desperate to avoid. “Edwina and Kate are the embodiment of his approaches to love — one is head, one is heart,” says Bailey. “The push and pull [illustrates] how intense it is to fall in love in a society that is so rigid, where the gender roles are so specific, and how much those roles can be completely counterproductive to happiness, progression, and to love.” Embodying the tenets of the romance genre, Bridgerton strives to offer happily-ever-afters steeped in feminism and reflection… and lots of rippling viscount forearm cuz c’mon, who are we kidding?
Detractors may dismiss the show for its sensual content and its focus on the interior lives of women, but those spotlights are entirely the point. “There’s so many people who will go, ‘Oh yeah, Bonkerton,'” quips Bailey. “But the female gaze is so important because there are many ways people communicate by sex, and what sex means, and what your body means to someone else. It’s important that there’s an inversion of sexuality and how people are exploited in the storytelling of sex.”
No cutlery will be licked, but Van Dusen promises this season offers just as many “thirsty moments” as the last — though with slightly more savvy participants. Unlike Daphne, who knew little about the mechanics of bedroom activities, Kate is more aware of her desires. “There’s always been a familiarity deep down with what Kate wants,” teases Ashley, who previously appeared on Netflix’s Sex Education. “That’s what I love about shows like Bridgerton and Sex Education: They might be touching on slightly taboo topics, but these characters know what they want.”
The role of Kate was cast via Zoom due to the pandemic, but Van Dusen says Ashley’s electric chemistry with Bailey was palpable even virtually. “It’s out of this world,” he says. “The season is charged and transporting and romantic.”
Written by Maureen Lee Lenker
Published February 3, 2022