Television

Why I Root for Romance Heroines to Pick Prince Boring

Bridgerton’s Daphne held out for true love, but I kept hoping she’d make the safe choice.

A woman in Regency dress as a man whose face is obscured by her head does the clasp on her diamond necklace.
Prince Friedrich is so not the right guy that this is Netflix’s best picture of him. Netflix

Like everyone else who watched Bridgerton, I thought the duke of Hastings was the best thing about the show—Regé-Jean Page’s absurd good looks, his tragic backstory, his rake-with-a-heart-of-gold charm. It’s obvious that he and Daphne Bridgerton, whose adventures in Regency England’s marriage market propel the story, are made for each other. But despite their chemistry, I found myself secretly, silently rooting for Daphne to say yes to her other suitor: unmysterious, dully predictable Prince Friedrich of Prussia. Go with the nice guy! I pleaded. Make it work! In the language of romance—settle. Settle! Settle for happiness, and not just the idea of it.

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The idea of a love match—a Darcy and Elizabeth ending rather than, say, a Charlotte and Mr. Collins compromise—is a central theme in the show, and one I very much agree with. But while most marriage plots end with a marriage, Bridgerton is interested in what happens after the knot has been tied. And that is where things can get complicated.

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Before Friedrich comes into the picture, Simon, the duke of Hastings, has been pretending to court Daphne so that London’s ambitious matrons will leave him alone. Daphne goes along with the ruse in the hopes that it will boost her marriage prospects. But as with all mercenary pacts between beautiful young people, their real feelings start to complicate things.

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The prince’s arrival jump-starts what is perhaps romantic fiction’s most lopsided love triangle. Despite his title and blinding blondness, Friedrich is never offered as a serious alternative to Simon. He’s the ultimate, edge-free nice guy, the Jake Lacy of the 19th century. He gives Daphne a necklace, he asks her to dance, he escorts her to a boxing match (which is weird, but then he asks her lots of sweet questions about how she feels about children). Still, we know how this will end.

But in burnishing Friedrich’s nice-guy bona fides, the writers overplay their hand. Friedrich is not just nice. He is kind. Truly kind. A lot of shows pull a bait and switch when it comes to the heroine having to choose between two rivals, revealing at the last minute what a heel the “nice” guy turned out to be. The most interesting, perhaps the only interesting, thing about Prince Friedrich is his unrelenting kindness, even in the face of rejection.

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When Friedrich is about to propose to Daphne at a ball, she sees it coming, tells him she needs a moment, and staggers out into the night for some air. She longs for Simon, and when he appears, it’s the moment when everyone is supposed to scream, Come on you crazy kids, you know you love each other, now figure it out! But in my head, I found myself screaming, “Get back in there, Daphne! Don’t go on some scandalous midnight stroll in the garden with Simon when solid, drama-free happiness awaits you in the Rhineland!”

This is embarrassing to admit, but I can’t help it. It will come as no surprise that I rooted for Noel over Ben in Felicity, or that I still haven’t gotten over Isabel Archer refusing Lord Warburton, even though her acceptance would’ve resulted in the world’s shortest Henry James novel. But part of the reason I can’t help it is because Bridgerton cares about the workings of long-term commitment. The show continually references Daphne’s parents’ happy marriage, often in contrast to the deeply unhappy union of Simon’s parents.

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Rooting for the stable guy doesn’t mean marrying some dud over your true love. It’s not like I think Buttercup should’ve taken a second look at Humperdinck and said, “Wow, this guy seems to have better prospects than a pirate—better stick with him.” But while Daphne and Simon proved me wrong, for a while there he was giving off some serious Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility vibes. And fans of the novel know, it’s Col. Brandon, Marianne Dashwood’s older, kinder, overlooked suitor, who turns out to be her real soul mate after the dashing Willoughby throws her over. It’s the difference between the intensity of romantic love and the sustaining love that carries you forward when you are in the foxhole together, facing loss and sorrow and hardship and boredom and birth.

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It’s not just a matter of compatibility, either. I’ve read enough Edith Wharton novels to know the very real risk of reputational ruin Daphne faces. Much is made in Bridgerton of the stakes for young women, the idea that one false step—say, being discovered alone with a man on a garden walk during a ball—can doom them. While this particular version feels a bit overblown —Jane Austen, who wrote during the Regency period, depicts men and women alone together all the time, though moonlit strolls may be a different matter—I’m not going to quibble with the notion that a woman could be judged forever for a single mistake. That’s one ancient idea that’s survived into the present day. So when Daphne storms off into the garden and Simon follows, I found it thrilling but also terrifying, as if she were balanced on the edge of ruin. It almost comes to that, when they are discovered and the duke drags his feet about marrying her, but in the end they wed and her reputation remains intact.

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On the eve of their wedding, Friedrich comes to say goodbye. “I wish you a lifetime of contentment with your new husband,” he says. “It was a pleasure to know you.” The scene flips the script on the normal nice-guy sendoff, because his kindness, his decency, his lack of bitterness, cannot be laughed at or dismissed. As Daphne listens in bewildered gratitude, it is the most romantic scene between them.

In the end, Daphne gets to have her Willoughby and her Col. Brandon both. My fears that she made the wrong choice didn’t pan out, and Simon emerges as a truly good man, not just a great love. With Daphne he is able to overcome the pain of his childhood and be happy. That is all wonderful.

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But here’s the thing. Perhaps it’s because we’re a year into COVID, and it’s clear how not-OK mothers are, or maybe just because I’ve gotten older, but I look at Friedrich and think, That’s a guy who would unload the dishwasher or do a 3 a.m. feeding. That’s a guy who would still be kind and respectful even when passions have cooled. With Simon, it wasn’t clear at first, and while Daphne eventually got it all—the romance and the real partner—her fairy tale is not always how the story ends.

Long-term love is a strange and complex thing, made of different ingredients than attraction. I feel like I’m the only person on the internet who has even given Friedrich a moment’s thought, let alone seen him as a rival to Simon’s atomic charisma. But I look at how he chooses, always, to be respectful and kind, and I think—that’s my guy.

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