By Raiyah Butt
Bridgerton is back, and I for one was excited for its return. When the first season aired, it initially felt like one of those guilty pleasure sort of shows. The ones you say to people, “don’t judge me” before telling them you enjoyed it and may have binged it in 48 hours. But there’s nothing to feel guilty about, it was a much needed light relief at the end of 2020. Bringing scandal to our screens, it quickly became Netflix’s most-watched show within two days of airing as we all tuned in to regency romance.
Now it’s back with its long-awaited second season, this time following Viscount Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) the eldest son of the Bridgerton family as he searches for a Viscountess. Taking us back to Regency-era London, he settles for finding a wife because it’s his duty to do so, with love being an irrelevant factor. He plans on marriage for practicality and because it’s expected of him. But that’s not so easy when a new family from India turns up to make their mark.
Enter: the Sharma sisters. Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) and Edwina Sharma (Charitha Chandran), accompanied by their mother Mary Sharma (Shelley Conn). As Anthony sets his sights on Edwina, he faces the strong-willed protective elder sister Kate. But tensions rise as their initial contempt for one another starts budding into a forbidden love. Who doesn’t love an enemies-to-lovers storyline, let alone one that’s this high stakes.
The main theme of this season is duty versus desire. This conflict presents itself differently to each of the characters, such as Eloise running from being a debutante and Penelope trying to keep her alter-ego hidden. Yet is most prominent to Anthony, Kate and Edwina as they navigate their feelings against their responsibilities.
And for us Desi girls, it’s exciting to see Simone Ashley and Charitha Chandran take the reins as Bridgertons new leading ladies. It’s not lost on me that Bridgerton takes place in the 1800s, a time when the East India Company ruled India. In a similar critique to many after the first season, the show is race-blind in this aspect, omitting mentions of any historical accuracy and opting for a simplistic “love conquers all” rhetoric. Whilst it is clear that the Sharmas are outsiders and frowned upon by high society, it’s because of Mary Sharma’s choice to marry outside of nobility against her parent’s wishes. And whilst it’s easy to frame Bridgerton as a show meant for escapism, it actually tackles themes of women’s rights and shines a light on the patriarchal roles and expectations on women at the time. So it’s interesting that it chooses to ignore race altogether whilst writing in diversity in the cast.
But despite that, I still enjoyed seeing actresses of Tamil and Indian heritage as two of the main characters, both of whom steal the show with their performances. Whilst Kate may seem overbearing at first, you soon get to see a complex character caught between what she thinks she owes her family and what she wants for herself. Her first witty and unwavering manner is slowly broken down as she struggles to conceal her true feelings and is riddled with guilt for her sister. But not just that, you can see how Kate struggles with her place in her family and society because of the shame and judgement enforced by others. This reveals the crux of her character’s conflict within, as her attempts to put her family first end up backfiring. Not to mention the chemistry between Kate and Anthony is truly electric. The brushing of the hands, the stolen glances, and in true Bollywood fashion, the catching of her bangle. Whilst the pacing of the “will they, won’t they” debacle is slower and more drawn out than Daphne and Simon in season one, the heart-racing tension keeps the audience engaged throughout.
Edwina also starts off as appearing quiet and pleasing, but really comes into her own in the latter half of the season. She takes pride in herself and her interests, she is wise despite being overlooked as her own person. You see her crumble under the weight of expectations and the duty she feels she must uphold, and when you take away the gowns and the crowns, it’s something South Asian girls can often relate to. But she really shines when she chooses herself and what she wants rather than the life and decisions other people have made for her.
At Netflix’s press conference earlier this week, Ashley and Chandran spoke about the importance of the cultural moments on screen, such as the traditional use of Haldi. “I think it's incredibly important, we are representing a minority of women in particular seen on television screens. And it's wonderful that more South Asian women can identify themselves within these characters,” Ashley said. “It was so special for me to even have that creative conversation together. I never really imagined we'd ever be on a set one day performing a scene like that. I learned so much as well, especially from Charitha, and there was so much of our own personal experience that we brought to those moments.”
I picked up a few other moments of South Asian cultural reference, such as Edwina calling Kate didi, and of course the violin rendition of the iconic song Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham from the film, which Chandran said made her tear up when she heard it. “I think what's really fascinating about the Sharmas is that essentially they're immigrants, they're different, not because of their skin colour, but because they come from a different background and they have different customs,” Chandran said at the press conference. “So then that is transplanted into London and they're trying to fit in and be as successful as possible within that community. But what I love about the show is that in moments of deep sadness and in moments of jubilation, you see them reverting back to their culture. So like when Edwina is particularly upset, what Kate does to make her feel better is a very traditional Indian thing of putting oil in your hair. And in moments of jubilation, like the haldi scene, that's what you see.”
She went on to say, “Often when you're people of colour, the stories that are told are that of trauma, but what you see here is something that they're owning, you're seeing joy and pride in their culture. I think we're from a particular generation where there was often a lot of shame attached to being different and you would want to assimilate to whatever the popular culture was at the time. By having this representation I hope that young girls and everyone that looks like us feels like they don't need to do that and they can own that part of themselves.”
Whether having two darker-skinned actresses in main roles and little pockets of South Asian culture dropped in the show is enough to balance out historical erasure is up to you to decide when watching. It sometimes felt like we were being seen, like when I immediately recognised Khabi Khushi Khabi Gham, but also felt like there was more to be desired. I mean, Kate’s full name Kathani is only mentioned once.
But Ashley and Chandran are both fantastic as the Sharma sisters, complex and exceedingly beautiful. And whilst they, in my opinion, were the standouts, there were so many other dynamics that made the season great. Some of the best moments were not about romantic love, such as the unexpected friendship between Eloise and Kate, the affection between Edwina and Queen Charlotte, and the discussions of grief between Anthony and his mother. The wisdom of my favourite character Lady Danbury, is so powerful to make Kate reflect upon herself.
It’s noted by the cast members too, that a lot of the drive behind the show comes from the female characters and their strong resolve. “The books were created by a woman, Shonda Rhimes is a very powerful woman, so the female energy and drive through the books then leading into the show is a really important thing to be celebrated,” said Golda Rosheuvel, who plays Queen Charlotte. “All these women in the show have their own identity, but also their own driven aspects emotionally and physically and intellectually. But at the core of it is love and humanity, connection is at the core of each of these women who structure the storylines. Even with the Sharmas that family energy, that female energy is really strong in their connection with love. They’re all driving the storyline in some way.”
That, for me, saves Bridgerton from being a one-note show that regurgitates the same formula for romance every season. Whilst the finale and Kate and Anthony’s ending felt like it took a while to get to the point, the other storylines supplemented the plot and left me wondering what’s next for the other characters in the following season. The friendships, the sisterhood, the way the characters face their challenges all made for a second season that’s just as good as the first. It’s a much slower-burner than the previous season, but one that can be enjoyed as we journey alongside the characters to find what they’re all searching for. Whether it’s love and companionship, or personal triumph over the expectations and burdens society puts upon them.
About the author
Raiyah is an International Relations graduate and one of TLP’s writers and editors. Follow her on Instagram @raiyah.blog