Jane Austen. Gossip Girl. Shonda Rhimes. Diverse casts. If one or more of these things speak to you, you're probably hooked on Netflix's latest marathon-able show. The new series Bridgerton follows the well-to-do Bridgerton family — a widow and her eight, alphabetically named children — as they navigate Regency era English society. And guess what? Regency era English society is full of gossip and secrets. There’s a fake relationship, a surprise pregnancy, a dramatic deathbed vow, an affair with an opera singer, an actual duel, and a sassy narrator voiced by Dame Julie Andrews. And that’s all in the first few episodes.
Bridgerton is based on the Bridgerton series of romance novels by Julia Quinn. Each novel focuses on one of the eight Bridgerton siblings. The first, The Duke & I, is the primary focus for season one of the show. So, while all of the siblings are seen and there are overlapping storylines, the story of Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon, the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) is featured most heavily.
But aside from all the soapy drama, one cool aspect of the show is that it has a diverse cast that is not typically seen in period pieces. And while it appears to be colour-blind casting at first, as the series goes on, it’s revealed that this is more like an alternate reality. “We try to imagine history and the world in the way we wanted to see it,” executive producer Betsy Beers told Entertainment Weekly.
The show moves quickly from ball to ball as Daphne attends the season’s biggest parties and tries to determine whether her fake relationship with Simon is actually leading to real love. Let’s get into it and see where this innocent debutante and “rake” of a Duke and end up.
Episode 1: “Diamond of the First Water”
The first episode introduces us to our very big cast of characters. There are the Bridgertons, which include the widowed Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) and her eight children. As the episode kindly notes, the children were named in alphabetical order, which reminds us that Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) is the eldest, and that Daphne is the fourth-born. We also meet the Featheringtons and their three daughters, Prudence (Bessie Carter), Philippa (Harriet Cains), and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan). Lady Portia Featherington (Polly Walker) feels she is competing with the Bridgertons. Penelope Featherington and Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) are best friends.
Eldest Bridgerton daughter Daphne and the three Featherington girls are all entering the social season to search for a husband, and their first stop is being presented to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel). The Queen tells Daphne that she is “flawless,” which sends her into the season as the one to watch.
And she is watched, particularly by one Lady Whistledown. This is where the Gossip Girl aspect comes in. Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) is an anonymous source who publishes a gossip newsletter. “You do not know me, and rest assured you never shall,” Whistledown says in voiceover. “But be forewarned dear reader, I certainly know you.” I’m gonna just guess it’s Penn Badgley.
We learn that Lady Featherington is not only helping her own three daughters into society, but also a cousin, Marina Thompson (Ruby Barker), who recently lost her father.
While this is happening, a dashing man rides into town on a horse while swigging from a flask. This is Simon, the Duke of Hastings, who has recently inherited that title from his dead father. He meets up with a woman named Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), and introduces himself to us in the process — he knows he's a hot commodity, and he's only London to sort my father’s affairs. That’s it. Lady Danbury is like, “Whatever. Just come to my party.”
Danbury’s party is the first event of the season. Daphne is accompanied by her brother, Anthony, who steers Daphne away from all of the eligible bachelors who approach her, finding fault with all of them. She only gets to talk to some creep named Lord Berbrooke (Jamie Beamish). Fleeing Berbrooke, Daphne literally runs into Simon romantic comedy style. It turns out Simon is an old friend of Anthony’s from Oxford.
I’ll mention here that Anthony is secretly having sex with a opera singer, Siena (Sabrina Bartlett), and rents her an apartment on the other side of town. He doesn't want to marry, and figures one of his brothers will have an heir to carry on their family name.
The next day, Daphne wakes up excited for all the gentlemen callers she’ll be receiving, but only two show up, one of whom is Berbrooke. Meanwhile, Marina gets dozens. Lady Whistledown publishes a newsletter about how Daphne is so over.
Later, at the opera, Lady Bridgerton and Lady Danbury devise a plan to get Daphne and Simon together that starts with Simon having dinner with the Bridgertons. Dinner goes well, but afterward, Anthony tells his mom that he sees through her plan, and but she says not all of her kids are going to live their lives boning some singer in secret, so he's better step up or shut up. Anthony breaks up with Siena the next day.
At the next social event, Anthony tells Daphne that she’s going to marry Lord Berbrooke and should be grateful he figured out her life so quickly. She storms off, but Berbrooke finds her. After she declares she’ll never marry him, he starts to attack her and she punches him in the face. Simon arrives and is like, “Nice one!” and they devise their own plan to pretend they’re together so Lady Whistledown will stop writing about him being single and Daphne will get the attention of jealous eligible men. They walk back to the party together and dance while pretending to look madly in love.
But that’s not all. Marina is pregnant, which Lady Featherington finds out after checking her bedsheets to see if she got her period. Marina says Featherington would never understand and she didn’t want to come live with these snobs, anyway. Featherington slaps her in the face.
And that’s the first episode. We have a classic rom-com setup and a secret pregnancy.
Best Lady Whistledown bon mot: “It has been said that of all bitches dead or alive, a scribbling woman is most canine. If that should be true, then this author would like to show you her teeth.”
Episode 2: “Shock and Delight”
Through a series of flashbacks we find out that Simon’s mother (Daphne Di Cinto) died in childbirth, and that his father was a jerk who only cared about having an heir for the Hastings dukedom. When Dad Hastings (Richard Pepple) found out his son had a stutter, he called him an “imbecile” and said he never wanted to see him again, among other abuses. A maid took care of Simon in private until Lady Danbury, who was his mother’s best friend, stepped in and made him into the suave man he is today. When his father was on his deathbed, Simon vowed he would never marry or have children so that the Hastings line would end with him. This was his father’s biggest fear, so it was the best way he could get back at him.
In the present day, Simon is continuing his ruse with Daphne, while sleeping with some random other woman. Simon and Daphne argue over how many balls they should attend together and whether he should send her flowers. He says if he was actually trying to seduce her he wouldn’t need flowers, he’d “need five minutes alone with you in a drawing room.” That’s very romance novel of him.
At the next ball, there’s drama when Simon reveals to Anthony that Berbrooke tried to attack Daphne. Anthony tells Berbrooke he can no longer marry his sister. Daphne is annoyed at Simon for bringing it up without her knowledge. Afterward, Berbrooke approaches Simon in an alley, talks a bunch of crap about his upbringing, and questions whether Daphne is really a virgin. Simon beats him up. Deservedly.
Soon, there’s a picnic, and Berbrooke shows up to tell the Bridgertons that he has special papers that mean he can marry Daphne in three days. (Not sure how that works. It isn’t explained clearly.) Berbrooke threatens to tell Lady Whistledown that Daphne came onto him when they were alone, if they don’t go through with the wedding. This would bring down the family, because nothing’s worse than an unsubstantiated rumor about a woman being unladylike. Daphne’s like, well, damn, guess I better marry him.
Not so fast. Lady Bridgerton devises a plan to get her maid to gather dirt from Berbrooke’s mom’s maid. They find out that Berbrooke has a secret child who he banished and doesn’t support. Convenient! Lady Bridgerton spreads the gossip like wildfire. Whistledown writes it up. Berbrooke is dunzo.
Simon and Daphne go to yet another ball together, where they dance with their faces really close together while swearing they’re just doing this to find her a husband and spare him the wrath of Whistledown.
The other storyline of this episode starts when Penelope finds out about Marina’s pregnancy. She shares with Eloise that she knows someone who is pregnant, but doesn’t know how it happened. Eloise doesn’t know, either. They thought pregnancy could only happen to married women and don’t want to become pregnant by mistake, so they need answers. Marina tells Penelope that pregnancy comes from “love” and shares that she’s in love with a guy named George who writes her letters and is fighting in a war in Spain. Neither Penelope nor Eloise find out the truth about sex this episode, and… I’m sorry, how old are they supposed to be? Penelope is out for her first social season, so I was guessing about 16. It doesn’t help that the actors playing Penelope and Eloise are 33 and 31, respectively. At one point Eloise is shown smoking a cigarette and with her deep voice she’s reminiscent of Florence Pugh playing young Amy in Little Women. It’s just not believable. And, please, someone get these girls an encyclopedia.
Best Lady Whistledown bon mot: “There will forever be just two words that come to this author’s mind the morning after any good party: ‘shock’ and ‘delight.’”
Episode 3: “Art of the Swoon”
So Daphne is really into Simon now. She’s dreaming about almost kissing him — they’re clearly making us wait for the real smooch. Lady Whistledown updates us that Daphne has now turned down three proposals. She and Simon are glad their plan is working, but she hasn’t found The One yet. (Well, I mean, she has. It’s Simon.)
At the next ball, Daphne dances with several men, but there’s something wrong with all of them. There’s a new suitor in town, though. The Queen arrives with Prince Friedrich of Prussia (Freddie Stroma), who seems nice enough, but Daphne ditches him to hang out with her real crush, Simon.
Daphne ends up asking Anthony why his buddy Simon doesn’t want to get married, and he tells her about Simon’s rough upbringing, including his horrible dad who disowned him.
At a royal art exhibit the next day, a debutante named Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen) wins over the prince by “swooning," also known as deliberately pretending to faint in a really elegant way so he has to catch her. While looking at a painting that was Simon’s mom’s favourite, Daphne and Simon briefly hold hands.
The next next day (I think? This show moves so quickly), Simon and Daphne take a stroll and she asks what a marriage really means, besides just friendship. She says there must be something “physical” and “intangible” about it. When he says that there’s both, she’s suddenly confused. Basically, Simon realizes that Daphne doesn’t understand sex — or that she should be looking for sexual chemistry with a potential husband — and he explains that something happens with married couples that is a “continuation” of what happens a night “when you touch yourself.” It’s immediately clear that she doesn’t do this. This is a really bizarre way to explain sex, and also, as with episode 2, it’s confusing that none of these young women seem to have even heard of the concept.
Of course, Daphne tries out masturbation that night. The next day, she approaches Simon like any other day, but he says their arrangement is over, he shouldn’t corrupt her any further, and he’s leaving town. He’s really mean about it to the point that you don’t even want to root for them to work it out in the moment. (If we continue with the theme of Gossip Girl, it feels like rooting for Chuck and Blair after all of his emotional abuse and manipulations.) Daphne ends the episode by getting super dolled up for the next ball and flawlessly wooing Prince Friedrich.
Another storyline this episode is that Lady Featherington wants to get Marina back out on the market, so that she can find a husband before becoming visibly pregnant. Marina’s not into this, because she still loves George in Spain. So, Featherington and her maid write a fake letter from George that says he’s done with Marina forever. Harsh.
Lastly, we have a plot about Siena trying to seduce Simon to no avail. Instead, Anthony wants to get back together with her, and swears it’s not only because she hit on his best friend who has a higher ranking title than his.
Best Lady Whistledown bon mot: “These days, the modern young lady must display a miscellany of talents in her quest for a suitor. She must be a witty conversationalist, an accomplished musician, and an expert in the art of the swoon. For managing to faint with nary a petticoat out of place is a most coveted talent indeed.”
Episode 4: “An Affair of Honor”
Prince Friedrich and Daphne are the talk of the town. He’s so into her that he gives her a huge, expensive diamond necklace. They attend a boxing match together as a date, and Daphne is surprised to see Simon there since he said he was leaving town. They don’t talk, but do exchange meaningful gazes. She also gets all hot and bothered while watching him roll up his sleeves.
Later, Daphne admits to her mom that she and Simon’s situation was a ruse after Mama Bridgerton encourages her to go for Simon over the prince if she loves him more.
In a scene mirroring this, Lady Danbury tells Simon to propose to Daphne, if he loves her. She also makes the first mention of race we get on the show. Regarding the white king (who we haven’t actually seen) and Black queen, Danbury says, “We were two separate societies, divided by colour, until a king fell in love with one of us.” Simon points out that this might have allowed Black people to hold titles, but it doesn’t change everything. There’s no mention of slavery — or anything specific, really — but he says that their people were previously seen as “novelties.” This raises a ton of questions. A previous episode implied that Simon’s father had long been a duke. Black people wouldn’t just suddenly become accepted in every aspect of society in the time the queen and king have been together, but it’s not explained further. (This Queen Charlotte seems to be based on the real Queen Charlotte, who was rumored to have been mixed race, but the real Queen would have been much older during the 1813 setting of the show.) This conversation makes a scene in which an old white man considers Marina, a young Black woman, as a potential wife while studying her body read differently than it would have if this was a story where race didn’t exist.
Anyway... During the next ball, the prince starts to propose to Daphne, but she says she needs a minute and runs outside. Of course, she comes across Simon. They argue about whether she could truly be happy with the prince, then they start making out at long last. Unfortunately, Anthony finds them, punches Simon in the face, and demands that Simon marry Daphne since to do anything else would be dishonorable. Simon refuses, so Anthony challenges him to a duel. Man, olden times were weird, huh?
It turns out that Anthony might want to duel as an excuse to leave the country. Apparently, if he doesn’t die, he has to flee the country since duels are illegal. He goes to Siena’s place and tells her he might have a way for them to finally be free.
At the duel the next morning, Simon and Anthony are getting ready to shoot when Daphne rides a horse right into the middle of it while Anthony is shooting. Everyone thinks she was shot at first, but she’s fine. (Is her horse? No one checks on it.) Daphne then talks to Simon and demands he marry her, especially because she realized Cressida Cowper saw them making out, so they’re screwed. Simon says he can’t marry her because he “can never give you children.” (“Can’t or won’t”? I say to my laptop screen.) As Simon goes back to the group to resume the duel, Daphne says, “There will be no need to resume. The duke and I are to be married.” End of episode.
In other storylines: Benedict seems somewhat flirty with an artist he met. Marina has a crush on Colin Bridgerton, which makes Penelope Featherington jealous because she does, too. Eloise is set on discovering Lady Whistledown’s true identity. Lady Featherington discovers that her husband has driven the entire family into debt and lost their daughters’ dowries.
Best Lady Whistledown bon mot: “In a town filled with ambitious mamas and fortune-hunting gentlemen, marrying above one’s station is an art form, indeed. But Miss Daphne Bridgerton’s advance from future duchess to possible princess is an achievement that even this jaded author must applaud.”
More to come. Check back for the full recap next week.