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'Bridgerton' Season 2's Best Love Story Isn't What You Expect

Commentary: Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes should eschew the books and give Penelope and Eloise the romance they deserve -- with each other.

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Penelope Featherington shares a deep connection with Eloise Bridgerton.
Netflix

Season 2 of Netflix mega-hit Bridgerton came out almost a month ago, but it's still one of the most watched shows on the streaming service. In the week ending April 3, Netflix subscribers watched  251.7 million hours of the juicy, Regency-era drama. Unfortunately, those hoping for a repeat of last season's smoldering love story might be disappointed. The scintillating couple at the center of the first season is entirely absent. Breakout star Regé-Jean Page, who played the Duke of Hastings, left the series altogether, while Phoebe Dynevor, who plays his wife, Daphne Bridgerton, has been relegated to just a few scenes.

Instead, the show takes its lead from the series of eight books by Julia Quinn published in the early 2000s. Season 2 shifts the focus to Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest Bridgerton sibling and heir to the family's fortune, as he searches for a suitable wife. Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) and his love interest, Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley) fail to shine quite as brightly as Page and Dynevor. Bailey and Ashley's lack of chemistry, along with the tone-downed sex scenes, leave a void in the show's lustful heart. As the season progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that the emotional center of the series lies not with the main lovers but with fifth eldest Bridgerton sibling, Eloise, and her friend Penelope Featherington. 

While the books and the script make it clear Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope (Nicola Coughlan) are just friends, the characters -- and the actors who portray them -- share a palpable connection that leaps from the screen. Eloise bristles at the expectations of her societal station and is more interested in a life of the mind than marriage. Penelope is equally interested in building a life for herself outside the confines of the expectations of society and uses her status as a wallflower to gain insight into society gossip, which she publishes under her secret nom de plume, Lady Whistledown. 

Both women value independence and feel trapped by the constraints placed upon them by their positions as members of wealthy, connected families. Their similarities help to fuel a friendship that began in childhood and seemingly intensified as they reached adulthood. By the time we see them in seasons 1 and 2, the women seek each other out almost exclusively, spend most of their time together and care deeply about each other's well-being. It's the kind of supportive, reciprocal relationship the show otherwise saves almost exclusively for the main lovers -- and only after they have experienced much strife. 

In a series that depends heavily on the power of the chemistry between actors, Coughlan and Jessie's connection stands out. Their scenes sparkle with a shared concern over the other's well being. In the opening episode of season 2, Eloise and Penelope escape from the first ball of the season and take a walk at night in the deserted gardens. Eventually, they sit next to each other on the grass, in the middle of a heart-to-heart. Eloise tells Penelope how much she hates the insipid conversation at balls and asks her how she can stand them. Penelope, in turn, shares that sometimes she doesn't think it's that bad because no one pays attention to her, leaving her free to hear other people's secrets. 

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Anthony Bridgerton and his love interest Kate Sharma (center) don't have enough chemistry to fuel the show's lustful heart. 

Netflix

Eloise marvels at her friend and claims she has been keeping secrets from her. She looks at her with adoration and admiration before leaning in slightly to say, "You do not have to pretend any longer, Pen." Penelope hasn't told Eloise that she is really Lady Whistledown and the audience, as well as Penelope, is afraid Eloise has figured it out. After a slight pause, Eloise continues by saying she thinks Penelope actually likes going to balls. The two women lie back in the grass and hold gloved hands as they continue their conversation. 

The scene has clear romantic undertones and one could almost think that when Eloise tells Penelope she doesn't have to pretend any longer, she's talking about the nature of their relationship and not about her interest in gossip. Jessie and Coughlan share a natural ease and connection that makes their camaraderie heartfelt and believable. This becomes even more apparent as the season progresses and Penelope is put in a position where she must choose between being Lady Whistledown and being Eloise's friend. The resulting aftermath gives the last episodes an emotional weight that much of the season lacks. The ultimate rift between the two friends is painful because we've spent the entire series watching a bond between them grow in a way that feels entirely real. 

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These two belong together. 

Netflix video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Bridgerton is focused on heterosexual couples. In the books, both Penelope and Eloise end up marrying men appropriate to their station in life, but it would be a shame if the show progresses the same way. Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes has already taken liberties with the source material by creating a Regency-Era England full of racial and ethnic diversity. Rhimes' England has many of the same social mores but brims with a freedom and sense of possibility that didn't  exist in the early 1800s. After all, this is a world where the Queen of England is Black, while a viscount is allowed to marry an Indian woman with only the slightest relation to English society. Surely, Shonda's Bridgerton can make room for the coupling of two women with an unexpectedly strong connection. 

Such fluidity would behoove the show going forward. As season 2 has shown with Anthony and Kate, explosive chemistry between actors isn't always a given. Building romantic chemistry with new couples every season is a tall order and might prove too difficult to sustain, especially when the previous couples are relegated to bit players in subsequent years. Any heat or enthusiasm built from one couple will only be carried over in small snippets, which could make it more difficult to hold audience interest as the series continues. A relationship between Penelope and Eloise could give the series a stable and passionate ongoing couple, while also providing an opportunity for the series to showcase empowered women who choose not to be defined by their relationships to men. 

No matter what happens going forward, though, Jessie and Coughlan have already gifted season 2 with an unexpected emotional center. I just hope the show gives both of their characters the love and care that they deserve -- even if that means departing from the source material. Bridgerton has already been renewed for seasons 3 and 4, so there will be plenty of opportunity for Rhimes to take advantage of Jessie and Coughlan's chemistry and give their viewers a queer romance for the ages. 

Correction, April 15: This story initially misstated the number of hours that Netflix customers globally streamed Bridgerton's second season for the week ending April 3. The correct figure is 251.7 million hours.