Whenever Black characters are cast in programmes of any genre or in any setting real or imagined, there is an automatically added prism through which such setting is observed or programme viewed. It is an additional layer of scrutiny of the narrative, storylines, arcs, dialogue, each and every character development, especially Black characters, every single aspect will be dissected in its entirety. We look out for those well worn Hollywood tropes the industry loves to throw together when it comes to Black characters. Bridgerton, with its lush scenes, intriguing characters, rich storylines and especially diverse cast, is no exception here but it is another nod in the right direction of representation on screen. Not only are the main characters inclusive, down to an afro rocking Queen Charlotte, played by the always excellent Golda Rosheuvel, but the extras are people of colour, in all shades. Especially dark skin Black characters; I cannot stress how important this is.
I tend not to favour period genres because the women characters are often times too agreeable, even the most obstinate ones eventually toe the line of expectation i.e. marry and sire a line of heirs failing which, she might as well have failed at everything in life, regardless of her achievements. But there is something, everything, about Bridgerton to love and Pride and Prejudice, regardless of my feelings on period dramas, is still one of my favourite books and its many television and movie adaptations. It’s complicated. The story revolves around the season, “the Ton” a coming out season in high society London, when pushy mothers present their daughters for marriage to eligible bachelors in society. It is a season of pomp and pageantry that puts poor daughters through standards tighter than their laced up corsets, like cattle to the slaughter. Their every move will be scrutinised, every interest judged, and every gentleman caller will be dissected solely on his eligibility. All of this put on display by the ton’s most feared gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown a woman whose quill quakes the nerves of this society making it sway to the pendulum of the stroke of her witty words, even the Queen relies on the Lady for her reign to be impactful because in the words of Biggie Smalls, you’re nobody until somebody kills you. In this set, you’re nobody if Lady Whistledown is not talking about you.
Daphne Bridgerton played excellently by Phoebe Dynevor, is making her debut at the Ton, and along with that comes the usual expectations of the season. Simon, Duke of Hastings, played by the dashing Regé-Jean Page, is the most eligible bachelor at the Ton this season, his presence only more burnished by his long absence. Daphne has been declared the belle of the ton by the Queen so all eyes on her and the intendeds that ought to come calling following that spectacular debut and public lauding by Her majesty. Slight problem however, the arrival of Miss Marina Thompson, sees Daph’s debut on the quick fizzle. Therefore, to avoid Lady Whistleblow’s wicked wit and quick quill, Daphne and Simon form an unlikely alliance to appear in society as a couple and hopefully inspire a worthy match for her, avoid prying the eyes of, and mercy from, the Lady. We all know that after the debut season, one becomes less of a debutant and more of a survivor- in the words of Lady Pembroke. It should be noted that the Duke has no desire to marry- thanks in no small part to his problematic upbringing and vow to his dying father- a point he makes known to Daphne. This is a tale as old as time so, pact entered, shenanigans ensue and before you know it, that under current chemistry rears its ugly head and we know how liaisons like these fashion out in the end…
Marina Thompson, played by Ruby Parker, is my second favourite character, but the love I have for her is quite complicated to justify at times. On the one hand I was rooting for her because I wanted to see her win, but on the other I couldn’t understand why she was such a bitch to Pen, but then again, Pen is another kettle of annoying fish in that way white women always want to stake a claim on something simply because they feel entitled to it. Her (Marina’s) storyline gives much life and grit to what could have otherwise been another round of predictable, watchable tv series without much thought from the viewer and yet her storyline is one of the annoying clichés attributed to Black characters, in a very Tyler Perry-esque way; the ever enduring Black woman in the face of adversity. Under the tutelage of the Featheringtons, a bad mind bunch and the worst kind of social climbers, Marina is to do what young women come to do in the Ton, find a husband, get married and start the line of succession. She is one for three when we meet her and is to become a single mother to a bastard child of a lover we never meet. Hers is a scandalous fall at the pen of Lady Whistledown who, when we find out her identity, is all the more a bitch for it. I hate the messiness of this because these two characters I wanted to win without them getting in each other’s way, and the cliché it throws Marina into but I suppose that’s the story of love and conflict and misguided actions with dire consequences. I told you it was complicated. When pitted against Daphne’s storyline you can see why it would be an issue. As a character, I didn’t like Daphne, but what a superb actress Dynevor is for her to project and inspire such ire from most everyone who watched Bridgerton. Put it together with that awful fringe, its a win-win. I found Daphne problematic for me to root for. One minute she is kissing the duke in the garden the next she knows nothing about sex. One minute she calls him a rake yet pretends to be naive about the behaviours that constitutes rakishness. Then she insists on marrying him to avoid a scandal on her family yet knowing his sentiment on the institution and his stance on children. She is miserable when the marriage turns out to be not what she expected and then after that night, makes him out to be the bad guy. Talk about an abuse of privilege. Oh and there is part where she could have simply said everything to her brother to prevent the duel in the first place but in comes the entitled exasperated routine… I particularly hate how she is touted as the innocent little miss who could knock a man out to prevent an impending assault but knew nothing of the duties expected of a wife in this era.
As a narrative, this is no different to most regency drama except for the obvious choice in cast and particular storylines, I knew who Lady Whistleblow was even before she was revealed because akin to Gossip Girl when we all thought Dorota to be GG, here it more than makes up for it. Pepper in gossip and scandal, rascals and debutantes, high society high jinks and you have yourself a ball. Character-wise, I had three favourites, The Duke because HOT, but apart from that his backstory and childhood tugs at you, despite his wealth and trappings in society he is best friends with another man who is not at all high in rank. His complicated relationship with his father weaves an added layer to the story that is both intriguing and heartbreaking, Marina Thompson for reasons stated above, and Lady Dandbury, played so exquisitely by Adjoa Andoh, a most formidable woman who raised the duke following the death of his mother and rejection of his father.
On the subject of race in ye old England, back in the days when the relationship between Black and white, especially in high echelons, was not as portrayed; you only have to look at the way Meghan Markle was, and is still treated by the British press, to understand how deeply ingrained racism is in the fabric of British society. Shonda Rhimes and Chris Van Dusen, the show runner, aptly inform the audience of the reason why Black people are on par with their white high born counterparts; the King, married a Black woman, Queen Charlotte. Yet the very fabric of that fractured relationship is in danger of the King’s whim. Matter of fact we know how fragile this is because the King and the Queen do not have a relationship as such, he has gone quite mad and does not remember the woman he married. Hence we have a narrative steeped in class not race, as the backdrop of this English society and the shenanigans is not limited to the working class; Lord Berbrooke is in want of a wife to elevate him, despite his title, he is also a rake who fathers a child with the help and sends her away before it becomes a scandal that destroys his reputation. It does in the end. Yet, it does not mean Black people do not know of their history and reason for their ascent. Or that the unravelling of the King could be their own undoing.
There’s scandal and intrigue and high society drama beneath all that propriety especially from offspring of the high born. There’s sex in gentlemen parlours, discreet walks in gardens that often lead to more tomfoolery, and the debauchery in artists’ homes- why is it always artists that are involved in such shenanigans? In an age where the crown is ruffling feathers in gubernatorial quarters, Bridgerton will be sure to cause havoc in their stifled minds, especially those who are spitting with rage at the idea of the Black elite portrayed here. It is a truth to be acknowledged that any idea of Black people outside of the slavery context is one that is hard to grasp for some. But no matter, we enjoy scandal and intrigue and we enjoy seeing Black characters, and other characters of colour mind, in spaces other than servitude and involved in fully fleshed out stories that have nothing to do with suffering. Exquisite this is, in every single scandalous manner.