Photo: LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX/LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX
About 20 minutes into the first episode of its second season, I became obsessed with a single question: In the world of Bridgerton, is England a colonial empire? The season’s new family are the Sharmas, a mother and two daughters who lived in India for many years and return to England to find a husband for younger sister Edwina. In more traditional historical fiction this would make them outliers in upper-class English circles, not because they’ve been to India but because they are ethnically Indian in an overwhelmingly white social class. But that’s not the case for Bridgertonbecause the show’s “Regency” period is proudly, deliberately fantastical — a Regency theme park for modern visitors, complete with chamber arrangements of “Material Girl” and “You Oughta Know,” ahistorical costume design, and the English nobility reconstructed as racially diverse .
There is a knee-jerk impulse to brush off pedantic complaints about historical fiction. If the show is clearly a fantasy, why does it matter if its reality is blurry? In the case of Bridgerton, though, dodging around the background details eventually snags at the primary narrative. For all its dreamlike qualities, Bridgerton still has to function as a long-running story with basic internal logic; characters fall in love and get into arguments and snub one another based largely on Regency-style ideas about power and class. It matters who is a Duke and who isn’t. One of the subplots of season two is about a younger Bridgerton sister who is attracted to a man below her social status. It’s a scandal! Class differences are also power differences, and understanding the social order is vital to understanding Bridgerton‘s fictional stakes. But in the name of being a light, romantic romp, Bridgerton obscures and unravels the world that created all those rules and hierarchies.
If love and marriage are about power, as Bridgerton‘s second season argues, then a fantasy world cobbled together out of history and wish-fulfillment and a half-baked alternative timeline makes it impossible to understand who actually has it and why. When the Sharmas arrive from India, the question of whether England has ever violently overthrown the country where they’ve been living feels like immediate and important information, but it’s impossible to parse. No one ever mentions the political relationship between the two countries, though the fact that the Sharmas lived in England years earlier suggests some closeness. And they didn’t just come from India — they came from Bombay, an Anglicized name that exists only as a colonial artifact (and has since been changed to Mumbai). Goal Bridgerton never explains the relationship between its fictional Britain and the countries colonized by its real-world counterpart, so the audience is left adrift about what these details signify. How will the rest of society see the Sharmas, newly arrived from India? How will that affect their marriage prospects? What are the biggest cultural differences between them and the Bridgertons? Do they think of themselves as English or Indian or both? Will that matter? How badly do they need to marry “well”? What does “marrying well” even mean in this context? If power is crucial to the stakes of a romantic narrative, surely it’s important to understand how power works in this world?
The series implies that power comes from strict class hierarchies that have been divorced from race and racism, and that class as an idea has been cut off from the historical circumstances that created it. Nevertheless, small details occasionally suggest that on some level, racism and colonialism are still active elements in Bridgerton‘s world. In season one, for example, the queen brags about kangaroos, and in season two she proudly shows off her collection of African zebras. Nothing says “I’ve engaged in some imperialism” like asking what you should name your new pet zebras. Midway through season one, Lady Danbury explains to the Duke of Hastings that he should have more respect for love and marriage. It’s the basis for their social status: Queen Charlotte and King George fell in love, and their biracial marriage eradicated racial discrimination in the English court. It’s a half-explanation meant to construct a soothing fairytale, a story about how love can conquer anything, even prejudice and fear. The urge to justify Bridgerton‘s diverse world makes sense; it’s a hand-waving gesture toward world-building without getting bogged down in the details.
Once you start poking at those details, though — like many viewers, myself included, did last season — the happy romance of Bridgerton quickly collapses. In season two, the only way to understand how that royal love story impacts this fictional Britain is assuming that Queen Charlotte, who is Black, decided to elevate the cultural cache of South and East Asians. Does she have an ahistorical perspective not just on Blackness, but also on race and racism as theoretical concept? (Does Bridgerton‘s Regency England include popular broadsheets arguing about the phrase “people of color”?) The goal is to appeal to modern audiences, but there’s a push-pull tension in season two that never fully resolves.
Bridgerton wants to stay rooted in the norms of Regency-period historical fiction, particularly around class, morality, and sex and marriage, which is what audiences looking for a Regency romance expect. Why set a romance in the Regency period and then ignore the things that make it “Regency”? So Bridgerton attempts to go half-and-half — modern when the show feels like it, historical when it wants to be. The result is a historical fiction where none of its fundamental class-and-power-based rules connect back to a consistent, coherent historical world. This friction also manifests in Bridgerton‘s approach to sexuality; asking a modern audience to believe there are eight Bridgerton siblings and they’re all straight is laughable, yet season two dodges around the crumbs of queer romance established in season one. Bridgerton would like to have its rule-bound Regency cake and eat it too, but the result is a world full of perpetual, unaddressed dissonance.
The show does not care about any of this, to be clear, and it’s hard to know how much its audience does either. Fantasy can be excused as trivial ornamentation when it’s an errant zipper. But the impulse to memory-hole the touchier topics so that Bridgerton can be a fairy tale about love muddles the basic legibility of how the show’s protagonist engages with her world. When Kate describes missing her life in India and announces she wants to go back, the modern audience Bridgerton is apparently built for may well wonder what kind of world she’s hoping to return to. Are we supposed to read that as departing from civilized English society? Kate Sharma happily embracing a life in India? (Or abnegating her Britishness?) The Sharma’s snobby relatives require Edwina to marry an English nobleman. How do you interpret that kind of demand when the series evades its characters’ understanding of Englishness? Bridgerton has retained many of the signals of early nineteenth-century British life, but it’s cut all ties to the political realities that created them. No wonder its narrative world feels paper-thin.
It’s fun to imagine that love could conquer some of the darkest aspects of human prejudice and cruelty, but even that image relies on understanding how power works: what exactly is being conquered, and by who. Knowing those details might make any of Bridgerton‘s romances more meaningful, more poignant, or more human. It might make the characters people, in other words, with desires and frustrations beyond notching neatly into their proscribed narrative roles. Without dismantling the fairy-tale overlay, even small references to personal histories, cultural backgrounds, or a world with an established history could be transformative, turning Bridgerton‘s superficial gestures toward diversity into something more thoughtful than a pointedly diverse advertising campaign. Goal Bridgerton never offers more than a shrug.