Rory O’Sullivan watched Bridgerton Season 2 yet wonders why anyone would bother.
A period-piece represents the past and by representing dominates it.
In general, the past survives only mythologically, as a collection of loose figures and attitudes in the present. In a period-piece, the prevailing attitude imbues these figures with itself and alters the past in its image.
Strictly speaking this is inevitable, which is to say that there is nothing wrong with it. But as a result the hardest, most important task for a period-piece is to avoid smugness and try to be a little searching about its own time, the time representing rather than represented, which Bridgeton does not do, ever.
Season Two, Episode One: Kate and Edwina walk procession-style into what seems a purpose-built ballroom on the edge of a manicured think-of-Versailles Garden (the building looks weirdly like the White House), where two anonymous servants grandly open its doors to the dollying camera: inside there are innumerable pairs of perfectly in-sync dancers sashaying between neoclassical columns garlanded with floral wreaths. The music is a strings-version of ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna. Turning to Edwina, Kate says: “Remember to breathe”.
Eighteenth Century, Actors of Colour, Madonna, Ballroom: Wow!Bridgerton is smug. At the heart of it is not so much a sense of fun as of giddy triumph.
Some of this comes from the feeling all Netflix shows have that there is a joke everyone but the viewers is in on, but mostly it comes from this period-piece demeanour for which the normal and completely wrong word is irreverence.
Irreverence is what you do in front of something sacred, powerful, a defiant sort of thing that leaves others staring at you in shock and awkwardness. On the other hand, for what Bridgerton does the word is domination.
This show fills the eighteenth century with United States Democratic party donors: racists and sexists alike lose the day, every day, but no one says the obvious things about the British Empire; the country’s sarcastic but soft-hearted ruler and attendant are the queer-coded Queen Charlotte and Lady Danbury, the heads of the two main families are men in name but in fact women, and all the fun is had by the people who are either young or in charge; and the sex scenes, disappointingly fewer and less varied than advertised it must be said.
But if Bridgerton is about renewing our culture’s relationship with the mythology of the past, then the real lesson here is how much, in dominating these figures, in turn the show is dominated by them. Painfully so: ballroom-dancing, marriage plots, an absurd formal manner of speech that leaves you wondering why this show, so feminist-seeming, makes everyone say so often the words “My Lord”, and of course that soulless and destructive thing people mislabel ‘wit’.
In Bridgerton’s plot there is nothing to spoil because in each storyline everything is so familiar and laid bare from the beginning, besides which, from the start to the end the characters do nothing except identify themselves on the moving escalator of these implicit figures. This makes the dialogue so awful that sometimes the show sounds like a bunch of spliced-together video game cutscenes.
For example: Kate is in love with Lord Anthony Bridgerton, a fact to which she constantly alerts us by too much protesting – her every word is to do either with him or else how she loves her sister, who (from the beginning it is made obvious) is the romance plot’s blocking figure, and becomes engaged to Anthony until the viewer has waited long enough when she steps aside with the most figurative drama, but least actual fuss possible.
One confusing thing about the show is the exalted place it affords writing. The pamphlets of ‘Lady Whistledown’ give both a plot device and the voice of the show’s narrator, but also some strange lines of dialogue here and there such as “It is rather clever the way she uses plant puns to belittle”. They make an identification of good writing with cleverness, about which there is nothing automatic in a series that no one would ever turn to for a good line.
Indeed in general a healthy question to ask is why anyone would bother in this short life to turn to Bridgerton at all. Perhaps they wrongly think the colourful costumes and sets compensate for the bad writing, and those accents. Personally all I can think of is that if they were to opt to ignore it they would miss the last shot in the fifth episode of the first season, the greatest moment in the entire series – even if accidental, short – because for once almost it tells the truth.
In the first season Daphne, who is innocence pictured, meets and eventually marries the worldly Simon, and just before this moment, just married and with Bridgerton’s usual strings in the background playing Strange by Celeste, they have had sex for the first time in a scene which impressively skirts the line with porn.
It is interesting how that sex scene’s intensity comes from when Daphne tells Simon that she masturbates to him – meaning that they both have sex with, or in or else under, the idea of her masturbating just as much with each other – which nicely proves Lacan’s point that at the heart of sex is the imagination and there is barely anything carnal about it whatsoever.
But when they are done in bed Simon turns and asks, “How do you feel?” and lying there she says, out of breath, not very convincingly, “I feel…I feel wonderful”. There are at most three seconds before the cut to credits during which we see nothing except her face. What is her expression? Forcing a smile – but for some reason the barest emptiness. Yasujiro Ozu would have kept the camera there for twenty seconds.
Bridgerton is available to view on Netflix but may be streamed illegally without much difficulty.