REVIEW | BRIDGERTON - 1.01 DIAMOND OF THE FIRST WATER
IMAGE CREDIT: © Liam Daniel / Netflix
The sun has dawned on a bright, new day in an old world. All over town, silks and satin hems are falling to touch floors above well-heeled feet. Pearls are being fastened. Diamonds and the most intricate of curls and braids are being placed just so. Breaths and beats are fluttering wild as hummingbirds in the chest of every debutant who has trained and prepared for this very day.
For across town, dear reader, there is a Queen to be met.
Much like ducks during hunting season in Scotland, not everybody is thrilled this particular time of year has come around again. On one side of Grosvenor Square, a Baron's wife snips impatiently as the corset strings of one of her (far too) many unmarried daughters is reefed inward, with nary a care in the world if it pushes her pancreas up the girl's nose, as long as she makes herself a fortuitous match. One girl from the country readies herself to enter the home of the same family - with a secret that may bring about the ruin of them all - while another stares out a second story window at the house across the street, with a boy in her heart and her heart in her eyes.
For this is a house soon to welcome many a heart on its grand doorstep.
But none of them will beat harder, one imagines, than that of the beautiful eldest daughter of the house of Bridgerton, as it does today. As her mother and six of her siblings at home (not to mention the one currently examining the fortitude of local trees and stamina of local opera singers in a nearby field) rush to make haste in readiness for their sister's grand debut in society, Daphne Bridgerton takes the deepest breath of a life that has all, seemingly, been leading to this moment.
Maidens, men, marriage and mamas on missions that would put war generals to shame.
Amidst it all? A clever, faceless stranger with a quill she's unafraid to use.
The ton has returned. The tea is hot. And London, dear friend, is alive with anticipation.
One might almost say it was buzzing. 🐝
Image Credit: @Buzzfeed
Growing up, I lived with four lots of women who were central my idea of what it was to be a woman and do it well.
The ones in my family.
The ones we learned about in Sunday School.
Mary and Wendy from every Springsteen song ever.
The plethora of Elizabeths, Emmas, Annes and Janes bestowed on the world by Austen and the Brontes.
When I looked at them - individually, or as a whole cohort - all I could see was the kind of human being I wanted to be one day when I finally grew into my skin. Beauty was one thing. These women were smart. Resilient, brave, flawed, intellectual, honourable, awkward, complex, warm, funny, and more than a little fearless in standing up to the expectations of the men and world around them. And the way they loved...my gosh. All were different, but all were epic.
More than that, these were characters that operated with a courage I envied wildly. They pursued life with conviction: hearts always exposed to the elements of life, good and bad, for better or worse. They demanded respect and agency in a world designed to pigeonhole and constrict them.
Put simply, they were spectacular. They still are. Timelessly so.
So it made a heart full to watch this show and find it teeming with clever, bright, interesting, imperfect, strong female leads - of all kinds - in the regency setting I loved so much. Better still, I loved that there were so many different personalities and minds and life stages to connect with, right off the bat.
Obviously there's Daphne, who we'll get to shortly. But there's also Eloise: ferociously clever, observant, loyal, wordy and who deserves the universe on a platter. Siena, who pours skill and passion into every note she sings, and performs like she's pouring her soul out of her chest. Violet and Lady Danbury? I want them to be plotty best friends with my mum so they can adopt me and all tell me off affectionately over scones when I make terrible decisions about men. Which is most of the time. Then of course, there's Charlotte: magnificently, unapologetically boss, regal to a fault and sharp as a shard of cut glass. A queen in infinitely more ways than just the crown on her head.
And don't even get me started on Penelope. I've only just met her and already I would protect her with my life and run over her enemies at speed with a shopping trolley, at a moment's notice.
Indeed from Episode 1, you get the very real sense that In Bridgerton, there's quite literally going to be a heroine for every season. And if you know some of the heroines yet to be introduced *cough* PLEASE NOTE THIS IS A KATE SHARMEFFIELD STAN ACCOUNT *cough*, then my gosh we've got some good stuff to look forward to.
RAKES AND ROSES
IMAGE CREDIT: © Liam Daniel / Netflix
Showrunner Chris Van Dusen has made no secret of the fact that, like the books, he hopes to dedicate as many seasons as the show gets, to each love story of the Bridgerton siblings, in turn. First cab off the rank is Daphne, as she makes her grand debut before the Queen, who declares her to be a 'diamond of the first water': i.e. the most breathtaking prize of the season.
Truth be told, from the moment Eloise shoved her hot brothers out the road and screamed up the stairs at her sister while dressed like a Christmas angel, I sort of knew it was going to be impossible not to love this whole family. And while Daphne seems the gentler and perhaps more softly spoken of her siblings, sis still has some chutzpah and sass to go with that truly beautiful face and swan neck. Despite what she doesn't know fully of the world, she's not an idiot either. She's smart, hopeful and has a kind of starry, perpetual energy about her that I found myself appreciating more as the episode went on. From a reviewing perspective, that makes her really fun and exciting to write about.
Meanwhile, Simon Basset - red velvet cupcake in a man suit, and the newly minted Duke of Hastings - has arrived in London with a grimace on his face, a grudge in his heart, and little to no plans to hang around if he can help it. It's the height of the marriage mart frenzy and the last thing he wants during the dating Hunger Games of Regency London, is to be single and trapped by the ton amidst a veritable swarm of cunning mamas all with seemingly infinite daughters to spare. Plus, he's got a lot more important things on his plate than relationships.
I mean, all that brooding isn't going to do itself.
The first thing that leaps off the screen when these two characters finally get their meet cute, is the somewhat nuclear level chemistry they share, not to mention that between the actors playing them. Phoebe Dynevor is an utterly radiant piece of casting as Daphne - indeed, having now read the book it's really hard to imagine that they could have picked anyone more perfect to play the eldest Bridgerton daughter. As for Rege-Jean Page...I mean basically there was life before I knew this man was in the cosmos, and there is life after I discovered this man was in the cosmos. Because HOLY EFFING TOLEDO, BATMAN. He sassed, smized and smouldered so hard through this episode, I'm surprised my TV didn't melt off the wall.
But the second thing I noticed - and probably the thing I valued more - was that the potency and general sexiness of that chemistry, lay in just how equal it felt to watch. This was no delicate wilting flower meets scorching summer sun. There was intellect and banter and snark. A genuinely fun back-and-forth between two sharp people with very definite opinions about things, and each other. You can tell that it's going to get sexy and messy, but from the outset you also sort of can't help but like their chances of holding each other to social account as equals. Contrast that, say, to Anthony and his relationship with Siena - which is all about a power imbalance - and you start to get the vibe that Daphne and Simon are going to challenge each other in some really big, but also healthy, ways. Not simply as man and woman, romantically speaking, but on a more foundational level. One human being to another.
Indeed amidst all the steam of that moment in the garden, after she's socked Berbrooke (sis, he is every shitty man on Tinder and you whacked him for all of us) and they start to come up with their plan to fool the ton, you can't help but sense an air of two people who are about to equally drive each other crazy, and become each other's person. Simon doesn't seem like the type to enter into an agreement requiring that much trust with a woman he finds stupid or shallow, and Daphne's spent too much of her life seeing in her parents, what it is when a marriage is truly founded in love and respect. After that, how could she not want such a thing for herself?
Either way though, it's early days, the game is afoot, and somewhere in the crowd there's a certain hidden Lady just waiting to pen an update about this delicious new duo.
One of the interesting things about this pilot was just how much ground it covered, especially in terms of character development. While this was the case across the board, there's a couple of characters in particular I want to focus on here, starting with one Miss Marina Thompson. Smart, engaging, exquisitely beautiful and bearing a secret that threatens to bring the very worst kind of scandal to her reluctant hosts' door.
If you've not read the books, it's worth noting first that Marina's character has been brought significantly forward in the overall narrative. Five books ahead, to be exact - and been given a much bigger story to tell. That's no small shift. The Marina we meet on paper is an impactful spectre but a brief one:, nevertheless. A short life, overwhelmed and defined by anguish of the worst kind. But the young woman we're introduced to as she walks into Portia Featherington's sitting room, is far more potent. She's bright, hopeful, lovely and strong, even if still very uncertain about her future. This Marina, despite the odds before her, is holding on to life with both hands.
In this, the writers have taken a character that used to be a means to an end, and made her meaningful. And given her interactions early on with Colin - plus the conflict of interest those flirtations open up with Penelope as her only friend in an otherwise less than welcoming home environment - it's great to see that Marina's going to be so much more than the simple plot device she used to be.
From a casting perspective, Ruby Barker was delight. What was even better was having her shoulder to shoulder with formidable black actors like Golda Rosheuvel (Queen Charlotte, may she reign forever) and the incomparably delightful Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury). This introduction to the reimagined ton of 1800's London was a feast of black excellence as much as regency swag. I can't imagine what the experience must be like to play such a part, knowing the representation it is and what it will mean to a contemporary audience, but my gosh it's beautiful to see. Further proof perhaps that some of the greatest expectations in a good story, are the defied ones.
But expectancy took a lot of forms in this episode.
For Marina, it's the possibility of marriage and the reality of an unborn child. For Violet Bridgerton and her eldest son across the street, however, it was less about the expectations themselves, and more about what it means to live up to them with integrity.
I got so much out of seeing these two interact as they did in this episode. The misbehaving son / long suffering mother story, isn't a new trope by any means. But what I loved about seeing them spar - particularly after the Duke visits their house for dinner, dessert, and a not so subtle push in Daphne's direction - is the way that, as much as Violet and Anthony are parent and child who love each other, they're also two close friends with a profound sense of mutual respect.
And like all healthy adult friendships, sometimes that means calling each other out on your respective shit, to your face. Violet, of course, has the ace up her sleeve here, calling out her son for his judgmental opinion of Simon as a potential suitor for Daphne, all while he's carrying on his equally scandalous and badly handled affair with Siena.
What's lovely though is you can tell Violet's not telling him to grow up and pick a lane, in order to be cruel to him. Rather she's doing it because she knows the facade he's built - pretending he's got it all figured out, and ignoring his overwhelming anxiety that he'll never live up to his father's example - is killing him inwardly. He's trying to live two lives and she loves him enough not to let him get away with it. Love your work, Mama Bridge.
KINGS OF WISHFUL THINKING
IMAGE CREDIT: © Liam Daniel / Netflix
That said, the Viscount has a solid whack of growing up to do before he genuinely has the ears to hear his mother's good advice about life, love and the dangers of thinking you're the smartest person in the room just because you're the man. It would appear he's not the only one who could do with a bit of personal growth in that department, either.
The whole scene with Simon and Anthony catching up at the club was a thorough lesson in misspent privilege, while nary even a certificate of participation for good sense.
Hmm, they ask as they bask in their oh-so-wise manly man-ness. How difficult it is for us to sit here in these comfy leather chairs, in our comfy leather boots, surrounded by all these comfy leather books, as we take a breather from doing literally whomever and whatever the fuck we want, to consider the terrible burden of choice before us. Namely, whether we should marry some woman if it fits our succession plan, or whether we should just be hoes forever. Truly, tis this what the Bard meant when he uttered those immortal words "To be, or not to be?"
Of course it's bloody not, you pretentious ninnies.
Daphne, bless her, best calls her brother out on this when they're riding in the park, telling him he has no idea what it is to be a woman bred for a single purpose: to be attractive to the right man, at the right time. Her purpose is to serve his. The path of a woman in a Regency world, is limited; their choices, few; and the social judgement great, if they don't - or can't - succeed in following the same pattern of the women before them. In this place, women exist to be decorative, desirable and fertile; whether they have hopes and dreams of their own, for the most part is entirely beside the point.
Like Marina, it's worth noting here that this Anthony does differ from the books. In The Duke and I, he works more alongside Daphne to manage the suitors she has to deal with, and eventually is actually in on Simon and Daphne's plan - after all, on paper at least he can see the potential such subterfuge has to help his sister snag a more advantageous match. In that version of the story, Anthony agrees to it on the proviso that no-one finds out what they're doing, and that they're never left alone together, lest they end up in a compromising situation. Which of course they do. So it is that suddenly the last kind of husband he wants for his sister, is exactly the kind she'll marry: one whose attitudes and behaviours he sees far too much of himself in.
But while Anthony might feel the weight of the world on his shoulders, his pervading sense of male entitlement makes him ridiculously under-appreciative of the fact that being a man gives him an upper hand, the likes of which the women in his life will never know. Namely, the ability to choose their fate with any meaningful kind of freedom. I think of all those pretty Bridgerton boys in their elegant but comfortably fitted coats - Simon too - with nary a care in the world if they show up to a ball with rampant sex hair and a hangover. While Daphne has to get up, day after day, and present herself smiling and serene, even as her cinched dresses cut into her back. While Siena empties herself into her music, but the heart of her song into a man who desires and disrespects her in almost equal measure.
By the time it reaches a crisis point - with Anthony figuring any noble with money, means and no known track record of animal cruelty will do (seriously dude, WTF), and arranging for Daphne to marry human barnacle, Nigel Berbrooke - it's difficult not to want to reach through the screen, grab the eldest Bridgerton by the cravat, and knock his thick head against the nearest brick surface.
Much like in his conversation with Violet, though, Anthony's choices regarding Daphne are a far clearer comment on where he's at mentally, than on anyone else. Far from genuinely confident, he's riddled with anxiety and trying desperately hard to look a part he doesn't think he's capable of playing. He's consumed by a fear of inadequacy, and doubts his worth to head up of a house full of the people he loves most in the world. And the decisions he's making out of that head space are as toxic for him as they are terrible for others.
Simon, meanwhile, is just as bad at this point. If not worse. Yes, he's got his own mess going on with the death of a father he hated, and inheritance of a name that carries no small amount of emotional baggage. But still. He is to Lady Danbury, what Anthony is to Violet: a treasured (if extraordinarily stubborn) son, that she just wants to see loved, loving and living up to his absolute best potential.
But Anthony at least has enough respect for his mother to do his best to show up - even if he doesn't always get it right. Simon, however, has no plans to play ball. He'll smile and offer his best platitudes, of course, but the reality is he's been quite happy thwarting Lady Danbury's expectations, along with everyone else's. In that sense, I'd argue that Simon's actually infinitely more disrespectful as a person than his best friend. But like Violet, Danbury still loves the boy she nurtured into adulthood. Enough to kick him squarely and cleverly in the pants, towards growth and with unapologetic gusto, at every opportunity.
In short, one episode in and all I can think is what would all these silly men do without these magnificent women. It's like that line from My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding: "The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she pleases." Fingers crossed for that to be the case here, because lord knows these blokes couldn't emotionally navigate their way out of a wet paper bag.
SUSPENSE AND DISBELIEF
One of the recent - and perhaps somewhat predictable - criticisms I've heard of Bridgerton is from those who've expressed annoyance at the historical/cultural inaccuracies.
Some have derisively dismissed the women in particular for their ignorance of the world, while others still have taken issue with the colour-blind casting, asking how such diversity could possibly fit into a tale based in a predominantly, rigidly and historically white society, let alone look at home there.
To all those people I say, for Pete's sake Dianne, go pour a Pinot Grigio and take the beagle for a walk before you hurt yourself or tell a small child Santa isn't real, on Christmas morning.
Because of course there's there's details in Bridgerton - indeed, a lot of them - that acutely remind you you're not watching the History Channel. But my gosh. Did you watch Back To The Future and pause to argue the science of how a banana peel and a beer can powered the flux capacitor in the Delorean? Do you get mad watching Newsies knowing the kids who went on strike, didn't actually sing and dance the whole time they were off work? Of course you didn't. You just went with it. Because the storytellers took a handful of known things, tipped them on their head, and tied them together in a way that was fun, interesting and different. It wasn't the tech specs you hung around for. It was the people, and the connection you made with the story they were being used to tell. This show is no different.
Indeed, much like a Whistledown edition, what matters above all is the message. Not the bloody font.
But more than that, every tenet that matters about this tale - imagination, beauty, honour, growth, passion, cleverness, courage, love: none of these things have a colour. A race. A class. Nor, for that matter, do sex, anger, justice or wisdom.
These are simply, beautifully - universally - human things.
So in something like Bridgerton - where it's made abundantly clear that what makes a story worth telling, is the human at the heart of it, not the labels put on them - I think its right to say the writers don't owe a shred of explanation to any critic for its inclusive and diverse mindset when making this show.
In the end, Bridgerton is a deluxe, fantasy edition of an old world: one designed to capture and saturate your senses, in order to make your experience of connecting with the people inside that world, a more radiant and mentally engaging one. But beautifully, they've also balanced it with a cast and characters that enable people from all over the world to see themselves meaningfully reflected back at them in some way. Such a thing is a joy, equally deserved. How could you not want everyone to experience that feeling?
Which is why personally, I don't give a single seedless-fucking-grape-appearing-before-its-time, if this particular version of Regency England doesn't look exactly the way our history books tell us it should. Every person who loves this story, should feel like they deserve to actively participate in the feast of it. And if you're someone for whom any of the above has been a sticking point, well...who knows. Step off your high horse for a hot minute and try to enjoy the view. You might even learn something.
Where to start exactly as to what makes Bridgerton so delicious, is rather like sitting down to a 10 course degustation - 6 of which are dessert - and being asked to pick your most favourite mouthful.
The costumes alone - crafted by the gifted Ellen Mirojnick, whose beautiful work you'll have seen before in things like The Greatest Showman and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, not to mention Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct (!!!) - are a riot of exquisitely crafted colour. The same goes for the production design of Will Hughes-Jones, whose gorgeous period-drama expertise can be seen in shows like The Musketeers, The White Princess, and films like Jane Eyre. Between them, most every shot in Bridgerton is subtle as a shock of gilded butterflies, with both elements telling vivid, intricate tales of their own - quite independent of the acting on screen. In short, this show is a feast of visual detail, where every morsel matters, right down to the last velvet cuff and pearl button.
And honestly, if that was all this show was - just straight-up eye candy - it would still make good escapist television. A pretty distraction to give your eyeballs a break from doom scrolling Twitter. Your brain some respite from the fact that it’s 2021 and a pandemic has the world in a vice.
But that’s the thing. Like its characters, Bridgerton is so much more than its dashing good looks. It might be heady and flouncy and a right proper romp in the fairy floss, but it’s a story with big characters and a big heart, that straight up nails its colours to the mast from day dot. Yes, there’s more hot people than you can poke a peacock feather at. But those people are also dynamic. And funny and flawed and complex and vulnerable and, most of all, deeply human too. It's so easy to want to invest in what happens to them, even when they're being exasperating.
Much like the VSQ score, Chris Van Dusen - who aside from show running, has also written the bookend episodes of Season 1 - and director Julie Anne Robinson, together plucked expertly at the mayhem and madness of what it is to be a human desiring what I think we all want in the end, really. Just to be loved and accepted for exactly who one is at heart, regardless of what the world has to say about our shortcomings. It's lush, audacious, funny viewing, and carries not even a whiff of apology for how ornate, joyful and over the top it all is. Indeed, the team behind this show are finding some different and really delightful ways to tell the oldest story in the book.
Van Dusen - and Shonda Rhimes - didn’t wait to stand out from everything else on the TV market, either. They played their big cards first and boldly. Whether it's the diverse and truly excellent casting; a viscount rutting a soprano against a tree in the first five minutes (as a soprano, can I just say on a personal note, this was the moment that required the biggest suspension of disbelief - I've not met a tenor, bass or baritone with that level of stamina in my life); or just the sheer overall spun-sugar delectability of it all, at its heart Bridgerton is a story that runs head first at the idea that just because the order of things is what it is, doesn’t mean that’s what it should be. Or that it should stay that way.
And in 2021, I think that's a pretty fantastic concept to put centre stage.
So. If it turns out this show is not your cup of tea, then my friend, never fear. There’s something out there for just about everyone, I think. But. If you are looking to sink your teeth into something outside the usual TV fare we’ve had for the last long while - or if you're just plain weary of the politics, death and drama of every day real life - then do yourself a favour.
Give this delightfully tall tale of true love and great expectations on the ton, a go.
Because it's a treat worth every bite.
THOUGHTS AND QUESTIONS
Dame Julie Andrews just spoke the words "Of all bitches" out of my screen, and honestly like just give her the EGOT now.
Quite excited Daphne's finally made her debut. Jamie Fraser's had the 'Most Glorious Ginger on Television' market cornered for far too long. CAN SCOTLAND RISE AGAIN? TUNE IN NEXT WEEK.
Eloise is already the MVP tho, and honestly good luck to all you other poor bastards playing catch up.
Except for Lady D, who is the Judi-Dench-Only-Needing-8-Minutes-Of-Screen-Time-To-Win-An-Oscar energy I want to take into every Zoom meeting, date and text message, for the rest of my natural life.
Simon: may i offer you my sincerest regrets for my inability to attend your swanky to-do thing Lady Danbury:
One day I'm going to do a post that's literally just all the people in this show, and their cake equivalent.
"The brighter a lady shines, the faster she may burn" - OOH FORESHADOWING and other things we know because we've already watched this whole series more times in three weeks than we'll probably admit to our therapist on Monday.
CAN WE TALK ABOUT THE OPENING CREDITS AND HOW NETFLIX DOES THEM BETTER THAN LITERALLY EVERYONE.
Benedict Bridgerton is a snack. And by snack, I mean THE WHOLE DAMN MEAL.
Meanwhile, Anthony makes me think I've really been wasting the potential of the elm trees in my backyard.
Speaking of which, the Viscount appears to have the emotional intelligence of a burrito, but also I know me, so I AM GOING TO LOVE THE SOCKS OFF THIS MESSY BITCH ANYWAYS AND YOU CAN'T STOP ME.
General PSA for all the men on this show in regards to their CLEAR INTENTIONS to make anything with a pulse, swoon to the point of exploding: REPLACEMENT OVARIES DON'T GROW ON TREES, MY DUDES.
Featherington Costume Notes: I don't care what colour it is, just make sure Helen Keller could see it from a mile away during a blackout.
It's been a hot minute but already Siena Rosso deserves so much better.
If could be absolutely certain that my next batch of scones would turn out as perfect as Jonathan Bailey's Maybelline 120 Classic Ivory butt cheeks, I'd enter every baking competition in the UNIVERSE and win the ever living feck out of ALL OF THEM.
Sure sex is great, but have you ever watched Colin Bridgerton publicly snub Cressida Cowper by asking Penelope Featherington to dance?
"We must appear madly in love. Whatever should you have to lose?" I DUNNO MATE, MAYBE HER HEART AND LIKE 99 OF HER 100 INHIBITIONS?