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How ‘Bridgerton’ used the visuals of ‘Pride & Prejudice’ to sell its central romance

The Darcyfication of Anthony Bridgerton.

 

Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 30, 2022   Updated on Apr 13, 2022, 9:46 am CDT

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Bridgerton season 2 and The Viscount Who Loved Me.

Romances are often full of jerks with a heart of gold who we learn to love once their vulnerabilities come to the surface, and many of our favorite rom-coms are full of them. In Bridgerton season 2, an enemies-to-lovers saga between Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), had the potential of fitting right in with that set. But when it came to Anthony Bridgerton, the biggest question surrounding season 2 was even more vital: Could its central romance make viewers swoon again?

Yes, Anthony Bridgerton was a jerk with a heart of gold like many romantic heroes before him, but his calling card was also a hindrance: In season 1, Anthony was an asshole, but not in a not-fun or endearing way, and much of his plot revolved around his well-intentioned but ill-planned attempts to interfere with his sister Daphne’s (Phoebe Dynevor) happiness as both the Bridgerton family patriarch and her overprotective older brother. During season 1, Anthony tried to dissuade Daphne from forming an attachment to Simon Basset (Regé-Jean Page) and later challenged him to a duel, pressured her to marry a man who tried to sexually assault her (until Simon told him about that incident), was dismissive of his own brother’s heartbreak after an abruptly ended engagement, and he was generally a terrible partner to his mistress, the opera singer Siena Rosso (Sabrina Bartlett).

And while Anthony’s final scene in season 1 sets him up to be the lead in season 2 as he mentions his intentions to find a viscountess to Daphne, his dismissiveness of love, which we’re meant to attribute to Siena breaking his heart, certainly doesn’t help his case.

Just by the nature of romance novels, Anthony would eventually be proved wrong, but coming into season 2, Bridgerton still had a romantic hero problem. And while The Viscount Who Loved Me, the best book in Julia Quinn’s series, gave the show a strong foundation with both its heroine and its enemies-to-lovers premise, the show had to go even further to transform Anthony Bridgerton into every bit the Regency-era hero we not only could root for but would actively want to root for.

Bridgerton’s answer? Make him Mr. Darcy. 

Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, the two characters at the center of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, may not be the original enemies-to-lovers (the Shakespeare comedy Much Ado About Nothing deftly covers that territory several centuries prior, to name one example), nor is Darcy the original modern romantic hero. For casual viewers, giving Anthony Bridgerton a Darcy makeover is shorthand. Pride and Prejudice is a book that’s been adapted and remixed dozens of times and inspired the novels of at least 150 authors—and although TVWLM isn’t considered to be one of those remixes, there are enough similarities between the two stories where the analog works; even if you aren’t up to speed on the particulars of the romantic tropes that Netflix and Shondaland employ in Bridgerton season 2, chances you know the basics of Pride and Prejudice. In a show set during a period that’s already overly romanticized, why not lean into it with the ultimate Regency romantic hero? The ITV/PBS series Sanditon already showed viewers the Darcyfication of its romantic lead works in Theo James’ Sidney Parker, so it could also work for Anthony Bridgerton.

But it’s more than just a transference of personality from one Regency-era hero to another to turn Bridgerton season 2 into a masterclass of intense and overwhelming displays of Austen-worthy yearning with electrifying chemistry between its leads. Bridgerton season 2 is full of visual cues to Pride and Prejudice adaptations that drive that point home such as the 1995 BBC miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, but particularly the 2005 Joe Wright feature film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. In Bridgerton’s season 2 production notes, director of photography Jeffrey Jur cited the 2005 film as one of his inspirations alongside Atonement and Barry Lyndon.

It might seem like a simple solution on Bridgerton’s part, but it works like a charm: Along with the writing, Bailey and Ashley’s performances sell us on the romance. And not only that, Bridgerton even has audiences actively rooting for Anthony and Kate well before that final love confession arrives.

Make him into even more of a jerk at first

It might initially seem counterintuitive: Anthony already has an asshole problem, why would Bridgerton want to make him even more unlikable? And there are a few reasons for that. Since this is a story where we already know one character and are being introduced to the other half of the eventual couple, it makes it much easier to be enamored by Kate when she and Anthony banter and trade barbs. 

A little more than midway through the season 2 premiere, “Capital R Rake,” Kate overhears Anthony in conversation with three other men of the ton who are relieved that Anthony’s desire to fulfill his duty takes the pressure off of them finding a wife. Anthony pushes back at the idea that he should “simply pick the least objectionable and get her wed, bed, and bred,” but he says he is uninterested in finding love along with how lackluster he’s found the selection of eligible women in the ton. Anthony might not have known Kate’s name yet and the backhanded remark wasn’t directly about her the way that Darcy’s description of Elizabeth as “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me,” but Anthony got a verbal lashing anyway. Because what’s just as important as having a noble but uptight Darcy is an Elizabeth who won’t put up with his snobby bullshit.

“When you manage to find this paragon of virtue, whatever makes you think she will accept your suit?” Kate said. “Are the young ladies of London truly so easily won by a pleasing smile and absolutely nothing more?”

He blames her for listening in on a conversation she shouldn’t have been privy to while she’s mad that he voiced those horrible opinions in the first place. Sure, eavesdropping is usually frowned upon in polite society, but even if Bridgerton’s Regency London deems it acceptable for men to discuss the women of the ton as if they’re breeding stock, we’re firmly in Kate’s point of view and see it as an offensive affront. Kate’s mission to prevent Anthony from marrying her sister Edwina (Charithra Chandran) is all the more personal because Kate, above all else, wants Edwina to have a love match. But it also cements Anthony’s attitude as arrogant in Kate’s mind, something that it takes Kate several episodes to unlearn as she sees how much Anthony cares for his family and is even willing to put out his neck for her own.

The other argument for making Anthony an ass is just as satisfying: It allows the rest of the Bridgerton family to dunk on him and tell him just how ridiculous he’s being at every turn. (And oh do they.) His younger brothers Benedict (Luke Thompson) and Gregory (Will Tilston) laugh when they hear about his marriage requirements, Eloise (Claudia Jessie) chides him for his lack of success at a ball as he does the same to her. 

His mother Violet (Ruth Gemmell) has several conversations with Anthony about his approach to marriage. In one episode, she decrees that he’ll “end up alone” due to his strive for perfection, and in another, he calls him out for putting a wall around his heart. “Just because you are dedicated to this family does not mean there should be no room for love, Anthony,” she tells him in “A Bee in Your Bonnet.” Daphne, perhaps the sibling most adept at spotting her brother’s flawed approach to marriage having had her journey last season, questions whether Anthony is pursuing the right Sharma sister on multiple occasions. It’s not that she objects to Edwina in any way, she merely sees what he will not about which sister would better compliment him. And once Daphne walks in on Anthony and Kate as they’re about to kiss in “Victory,” it cements things in her mind. Not even an engagement and a near-marriage to Edwina at the end of the episode can shake Daphne’s resolve that Anthony is making a huge mistake.

Intense vulnerability

It takes us until episode 3, “A Bee in Your Bonnet,” for us to get a sense of why Anthony is the way he is. Siena’s rejection last season probably had something to do with his disillusion with love, but the source of his trauma goes far deeper than a passionate, season-long affair with a mistress. In “A Bee in Your Bonnet,” we flashback to the death of Edmund Bridgerton (Rupert Evans), who had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Anthony, barely an adult himself, witnessed it with a mix of confusion and horror, having no idea that a person could die from an allergic reaction to something like a bee sting. (That distinction went to Eloise in the books, but Edmund’s death is just as traumatic for Anthony, who wholeheartedly believes he won’t live past the age his father did.)

But as Anthony tried to make sense of his father being felled by a bee sting, he had a front-row seat to his mother’s grief while he was put in a position to make all kinds of decisions ranging from business affairs to whether the family doctor should try to save Violet or the baby when Violet was in labor with Hyacinth. Seeing Violet broken by Edmund dying broke him, and he refuses to be the cause of the kind of pain his mother went through after losing the love of her life to the woman he marries. By Anthony’s well-intended yet twisted logic, that means marrying someone he could never fall in love with.

“I know how sweet and earnest you were as a boy,” Violet tells Anthony in episode 3. “Always with a kind word and a joke. But then, after your father died, a wall went up inside you, as if love had become some…some weakness instead of your greatest strength. And that is not you.”

Anthony doesn’t quite declare his backstory to Kate in a letter the way that Darcy does to Elizabeth. But the scenes, both the ones we see and the quieter conversations between Anthony and Kate, are something of an echo. It’s the missing puzzle piece to unlocking the viscount, and like Darcy’s letter, it’s a game-changer for us. It doesn’t quite dissolve us of the notion that Anthony is an ass, but we understand him much better.

Our window into Kate’s line of thinking is much more subtle. Her motivations for bringing Edwina to London are slowly revealed, but it’s not until the consequential dinner between the Bridgertons, the Sharmas, and Mary’s (Shelley Conn) estranged parents that the facts are laid before everyone’s feet, leaving Anthony to rigorously defend the Sharmas. He might not have been pleased by how events unfolded, but with just how much Bridgerton demonstrated that Kate and Anthony are mirrors of each other, he at least understood where she came from.

Get him in the water long enough to make his soaking wet white shirt transparent

This one doesn’t exactly need much explanation, does it? But there are remnants of this scene in TVWLM. Early in the book, a character ends up in the Serpentine in part because of Newton the corgi’s antics, but it’s not Anthony: Edwina is the one who makes the accidental plunge, although Newton (who also went in the water after spotting Edwina and getting excited) does spray Anthony with lake water after shaking himself to get dry. So he kind of also gets wet here.

Hand grazes, caresses, yearning looks, and near-kisses

If you ever doubted just how much of an impact that the briefest instance of handholding between two gloveless individuals whose levels of sexual tension are off the charts can make, just mention the words “hand flex” to anyone who’s ever watched the 2005 film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice.

The hand flex, as it’s become known, is far from the most striking image in Pride & Prejudice; you might pick Elizabeth and Darcy’s dance at the Netherfield Ball (more on that later), the disastrous first marriage proposal in the rain, or the second marriage proposal at dawn, and the happy ending that follows, for that. The scene takes place somewhat early in the film after Jane Bennet’s (Rosamund Pike) extended stay at Netherfield, and as Elizabeth gets into the carriage, Darcy holds her hand. She looks perplexed by the gesture, but then the camera cuts to Darcy’s hand stretching out, almost subconsciously, in response.

It’s an early marker of both Elizabeth and Darcy’s conflicted feelings for one another and the sexual tension mounting between them. But the hand flex has such a hold on the internet that Macfadyen and Wright are still asked about it to this day while they promote other projects; there’s even a scene in Wright’s Atonement that carries similar weight.

Bridgerton season 2’s displays of sexual tension are, more or less, Pride & Prejudice’s hand flex on steroids.

Throughout the show, Bridgerton’s female characters (including Kate Sharma) usually wear gloves when they’re out and about in society; some are lace and barely come up to the wrist while others are made of more solid material and go up past the elbow. So it can be significant to see characters without them; they might be at home with family, like Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) whenever she’s penning a Lady Whistledown column, but it also offers a window of emotional vulnerability.

Kate and Anthony share several of those moments. She puts his hand on her chest to show him that she’s still breathing and quell his panic attack after she’s stung by a bee in episode 3. Anthony assists Kate with how she should be holding her gun when she joins the men of the ton on a hunt as time seems to slow to a standstill. But the presence of gloves doesn’t stop some of those other moments, such as Anthony attempting to help Kate out of the mud after a game of Pall Mall gone wrong or their dance set to an orchestral cover of “Dancing On My Own.” Whenever they’re close, the audience is left to wonder if they will fight or kiss each other, and several near-moments leading up to their first kiss at the end of “The Choice” drive up their palpable tension. When Kate and Anthony finally give in to their feelings toward the end of season 2, the camera is as focused on their hands as much as every other part of the sex scene that follows.

By the time we get to episode 5, “An Unthinkable Fate,” there’s an entire supercut of hand grazes to kick off the episode before it delivers several more hand grazes or near-grazes in about 10 minutes: There’s the near pinkie-swipe as Anthony walks to plan his wedding to Edwina with Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) and a hand grazing when Kate wears Edwina’s betrothal ring for the jeweler (and the pointed attempt to remove the ring once Kate’s family returns home). The most blatant hand flex homage comes soon after as Anthony helps Kate out of a boat on the lake. Their hands subconsciously trace the others, but when Kate realizes what happened, she flinches and removes her hands, which leads to Anthony tripping over Newton and falling into the water.

The hands-as-love-language plays out even more in the back half of the season, regardless of whether they’re alone such as the first true acknowledgment that they both desire the other after a disastrous dinner, or in front of the entire ton when Anthony rushes to pick up Kate’s dropped bangle at his and Edwina’s wedding. And that doesn’t account for all the lingering, yearning looks across the room so obvious it’s a wonder it took Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), the Bridgerton family, and the Sharmas so long to notice it. And when they do, Kate and Anthony’s bubbling sexual tension is so apparent that they essentially bar them from standing within sight of each other because it could ruin the families’ attempts to ride out a wave of scandal; Edwina even wonders how she could’ve been so blind after she finally notices it.

“If there is so much as a passing look between the two of you, then this plan of ours will be for nothing,” Lady Danbury says in “Harmony.” And considering how their final dance of the season plays out in the season finale, Lady Danbury is not wrong.

The family you sacrificed for insist you allow yourself a bit of happiness

Darcy and Elizabeth, above all else, care about their family. Darcy’s hand in breaking up Jane and Bingley is what led to Elizabeth’s rejection of Darcy’s first proposal—well, apart from the negging, that is. But it also explains why Darcy broke up Jane and Bingley and cut off Wickham financially; Bingley was as good as family and Georgiana was his sister he was tasked with protecting. Similarly, Kate and Anthony are two sides of the same coin: They will do whatever it takes to ensure their family’s happiness at the expense of their own, even if allowing themselves a sliver of it won’t harm that. It’s also their similarities, Elizabeth later notes to her father, that makes them so suited for each other; it’s enough to drive her to happy tears.

For Kate, it’s her goal to see that Edwina marries well. According to an agreement Kate makes with the Sheffields without the rest of her family’s knowledge, Edwina has to marry an English nobleman for her to receive a dowry, and in return, they’ll also provide for their daughter Mary. As a reminder of the “mistake” Mary made in marrying Kate’s father and not a blood relative of the Sheffields, Kate will not benefit from this agreement, and she’s content to return to India once Edwina is married. Kate might want many of the things she sets Edwina up to desire, but she refuses to accept a proposal she believes was made out of pity or obligation, and she’d sacrifice everything she has so that her sister and Mary are happy.

Anthony’s duty to his family and his pursuit of Edwina as the ideal viscountess, while noble in theory (but incredibly unfair to Edwina), becomes something of a joke. On the eve of his wedding, Benedict asks him whether “once you marry, will your duty finally be fulfilled so you can stop reminding everyone of it?” Daphne pities him, as does Violet; during one confessional scene, Anthony tells Kate that “I am nearly certain every last one of my brothers and sisters secretly despise me. My own mother, at that. Despite the fact I have lived the better part of my life for them.”

The rest of the Bridgertons assure him that he can choose love, and himself, every step of the way. In the finale, “The Viscount Who Loved Me,” Violet tells him that even if she knew the pain that her husband’s death would cause her, she’d still choose a life with him every time, as yet another way to get him to see that he can choose love—and Kate.

Kate’s conversations with Edwina and Mary in the finale follow a similar theme. While they may have been mad at her for many things—corresponding with the Sheffields, being part of why Edwina’s engagement to Anthony fell apart, withholding information for dumb but noble reasons—they each forgave her. But after becoming aware of what Kate was willing to sacrifice, they want the world for her. Mary, riddled with guilt over Kate’s belief that she thought she had to earn a place in their family, tells her that “It grieves me to think you do not believe you deserve all of the love in the world.” Edwina, pushing Kate toward Anthony, puts it a little more plainly: “You have spent so much of your time shining your light on me. It is time for you to shine all on your own.”

Making it feel like you’re the only two people in the room

Falling in love on the dance floor is a story we’ve seen recounted many times. Look at fairy tales and even Bridgerton season 1. Pride & Prejudice, naturally, has one, and the 2005 iteration is quite famous. Amid all of the bickering, Darcy and Elizabeth are swept up as if they’re the only people in the room, even though we know and see both before and after their dance that they’re actually in a very crowded room. Bridgerton does something similar, but twofold, and with a twist.

The world vanishes in “The Choice” at perhaps the most inopportune moment. Mid-ceremony, Anthony, who can’t take his eyes off of Kate off to the side as Edwina’s maid of honor, envisions Kate as his bride as they face each other in an empty church. It’s a surreal kind of fantasy in a show that usually doesn’t go for them in the moments before the wedding comes to a grinding halt. But that mentality extended to the dance floor, even if the rest of the ton doesn’t literally disappear; while all of the dances carry tension to some degree, it’s the final one that nearly sets the ton ablaze.

Set to an orchestral arrangement of “Wrecking Ball,” Antony and Kate dance together closer than perhaps might’ve been appropriate, and they can’t take their eyes off each other. Soon, every other couple leaves the dance floor, leaving them to dance alone, as gossip about whether their relationship was what led to Anthony and Edwina’s wedding falling apart starts spreading. Kate asks if they should stop dancing, but Anthony declines, telling her, “Just keep looking at me. No one else matters.”

It takes some key observational comments from Queen Charlotte and Edwina, but the ton eventually gets on their side too and goes back onto the dance floor, even if it’s only to placate the queen. At that point, the love confession between Kate and Anthony that followed was more or less icing on the cake.

The foundation of season 2’s love story was in the pages of TVWLM, so you can argue that it was always going to win people over. But you also can’t blame Bridgerton for taking inspiration from Austen or her most famous romantic hero. After all, he’s a cultural touchstone for a reason.

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*First Published: Mar 30, 2022, 7:00 am CDT