Lovely Things to Watch: Poldark

I’ve been a fan of Outlander – the now-classic story Claire, a twentieth-century modern woman/healer/”white witch”/doctor who accidentally falls back in time and marries the love of her life, Jamie, and 18th century highland warrior – for years. I first read the book series before any talk of a television show was on the horizon, and now that the television series is going to be embarking upon its third season is less than a month, I couldn’t be more excited for the adaptation to be back on my screen. It’s still not quite as good as the book, but it’s definitely still a delightful romp.

Last July, however, around the time when Outlander season two drew to a close, I fell into a bit of a slump. Every summer for the past six or seven years has been Outlander time for me: when I either work my way through one of Diana Gabaldon’s tomes in the series, or enjoyed watching the television adaptation. Finding my Outlander options limited, I felt stuck. What next?

Well, ask and ye shall receive: Poldark is next, I was told.

Demelza and Ross

I knew nothing at all about the series, having never read the source inspiration, a series of novels by Winston Graham. I heard that Poldark was a slightly grittier version of Outlander (!). I am always a little hesitant to dive into a television series or movie without first reading the book (yes, I am that person,) but considering my days were filled with writing at work, I didn’t quite have the stamina to crack open a long series of novels. So, I gave the television series a try and was almost-instantly hooked.

I say almost-instantly, because the series does start off with a certain tone of broodiness and moodiness. The story is set in an isolated, small community in the remote region of Cornwall, England. The atmosphere can feel a little difficult to dive into, if you are looking for something that has more optimism and beauty; the grittiness of a Revolutionary War flashback in the opening scene and the shadows and the sense of lurking doom that the series began with, gave me pause. Still, there was something poetic about scenes imbued with majestic cliffs and crashing waves and swaying fields of wildflowers, a sumptuous sort of setting that the show highlights from the very start and is very easy to fall into. I think it was the scenery, and cinematography, with the added bonus of a beautiful soundtrack featuring a sweet, sad violin melody, that prompted me to keep watching.

After a while, I started to fall for the characters in the show. The titular character, Ross Poldark, is pivotal to really getting into this series. He is the main character, and it’s his struggles as a member of the gentry that we as viewers have to buy into. Ross is a social justice warrior, fighting to maintain the livelihood of his beloved people, the laborers of Cornwall, and to see his community prosper. It’s hard to hate a man like that.

He owns land, has tenants, but he also struggles to rub two coins together, a challenge that is all the more stark when we see him juxtaposed with a member of the local haute bourgeoisie, banker George Warleggan, whose hobbies include weighing his guineas, shopping for frilly jackets and plotting to destroy Poldark once and for all. Actually, all joking aside, I find George has this strange man-crush on Poldark that wavers between deep admiration and wanting to be him, wanting to inspire the pride and loyalty that he sees Poldark garner in the community with seeming effortlessness, to wanting to downright murder the man because, clearly, his jealousy is strong and he might prefer to never have to lay eyes on him again. He has no regard for the human lives and well-being of “commoners” and “peasants” and strives to climb all social ladders, including the ones that seem to be shut off to him, as his nouveau riche self struggles to be accepted in the gentle circles of Cornwall.

George aka. the Villain

When watching historical fiction I tend to more easily buy into the stories of the female characters. I think it all goes back to my childhood, when I obsessed over the lives of girls like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables: I need a unique, smart, driven female character to really get into a story. Obviously, and sorry to use so many Outlander comparisons, but Claire Fraser fits that bill. Poldark, on the other hand, did leave me grasping for a female character to really invest in. Poldark’s paramour, Elizabeth, is his first love whom he returns to Cornwall after years of fighting in war – pining for her the entire time – only to discover is no longer available to him. She obviously features prominently in each season of the show, and while I find she is an interesting sort of character – a woman who succumbs to what she believes she should do, not what she wants to do – it can grow tedious, at least to this 21st century woman, to watch her be so passive and accepting of the bleak lot she is handed. Her character is effective because it begs viewers to ask, how much of her sad life is a product of her own choices, and how much is a product of circumstance and the situations of the time?

Perhaps more optimistic is the character of Demelza. She’s a fiery redhead whom Poldark first meets in a brawl on market day in town. Echoing Pygmalion, he cleans her up, offers her a job as his servant, and… well, I won’t spoil it, but I think you can imagine what happens next. Long story short, and this isn’t much of a spoiler because it happens so early in the series, but they marry. At first ther marriage is more of Ross giving the finger to his social circles and Demelza being all… okay?! Why not?! This is better than going back to live with my religious nutcase of a father?! … Although I do find myself investing in Demelza’s story more than Elizabeth’s, I had a hard time getting too interested in her at first. She’s very emotional – the burst into tears for no reason kind of emotional – and there are times when I get tired of seeing her play the victim card. Not so comfortable to watch. Other times, however, she tosses the victim card aside and runs out to get sh*t done, so I have to say that just when I am giving up on her, she usually manages to redeem herself in this way. Do I like Demelza? Yes. Is she my favorite heroine of all time? Probably not.

Main characters aside, which I have mixed feelings about, one of this show’s strongest points is that it has some incredible secondary characters and storylines that I completely got invested in from the start. Seriously, this series should be a textbook example of how to write a story with a strong ensemble cast and unforgettable “minor” characters. I really enjoyed Verity’s story in season 1. She was by far my favorite lady in the show’s first season and it was easy to really enjoy her story. Her friendship with Ross, her cousin, and her insistence on having a life and family of her own despite society scoffing at the idea, was really heartwarming. In season two, I fell head over heels in love with the story of the wise and modern, yet shy, Dr. Enys and wealthy heiress Caroline Penvenen. I love that Caroline seemed to be haughty, spoiled and somewhat bratty at first but slowly we realize that she is lovely, kind, smart and truly openminded. She and Dr. Enys fall in love with eachother, but because of their different “stations” they have to keep it a secret. I genuinely didn’t know how their story was going to end and enjoyed watching it unfold every step of the way. Their lovely story was also a major reason why I felt season two of Poldark was stronger than the first season.

Caroline and Dr. Enys

Characters are a big reason why I love (or don’t love) a television series, which is why I am spending so long talking about them here… but there are many other redeeming features of this series. The storylines, the twists and turns. The fact that this is one of the few shows out there that I don’t feel like is just stringing me along from one cliffhanger to the next; there is true attention to detail and care and thought put into each story. Everything that happens feels very intentional and very much in support of the characters’ progress and journeys, and not just a manipulation of the audience to keep us coming back for more. Some storylines end happily, others not so much.

I also find that much of what happens in this series is not anachronistic to the time period, which is a rarity right now in television, including, yes, Outlander. What the characters do or don’t do, the choices they make, is very much mindful of their station and conditions in the time period. I mean, yes, liberties are made, but I really appreciate that the world-building here is mindful of the time period much more than many other series.

I also like that the time period is the 18th century: to me, this is one of the most interesting historical periods. The 1700s were a time of great change in our Western world. The American and French Revolutions play an underlying role in this series. I am always excited about seeing the change that was happening in the 18th century: these changes really drove the next 300 years, an era we are still living in, politically, socially, and economically. Indeed, many of the themes and situations in this show are familiar to us as viewers today. Globalization, the fall of the gentry and nobility and the rise of the bourgeoise classes, the early dawn of modern science and medicine, the birth of free thought, free speech, a revolution in justice and rights for all men, the rising discontent of women and outdated practices such as marrying within one’s class or marrying to secure one’s finances, etc. As a writer, I can appreciate the full exploration of the era and its implications on our lives today through this series. Okay, okay, and on a much shallower note, I do love escapades with pirates and men wearing flowy blouses and tights and the big, sumptuous, low-cut gowns on women; the use of tarot and characters who dabble in the Occult; and, yes, perhaps most famously about this series, the shameless romance of the show’s lead character employing a scythe in a wheat field, shirtless.

Demelza… and the pretty coastal scenery of Cornwall

With that said, I think that the best feature, to me, of this series is the characters. Their stories that carefully unfold. Their flaws, too. Again, without getting into any spoilers, I think something that really stuck with me was Ross and Demelza’s relationship. Their story basically starts with marriage, and goes from there, which is definitely a difficult formula to get right in fiction. Their marriage is incredibly real and relatable even to those of us in the 21st century. They struggle with feelings of infidelity, resentment, and basically everything in between. At the same time, there is something that still binds and connects their lives together and there is an underlying mutual love and respect for each other. The exploration of that, in all of its challenges and difficulties, is something that I ultimately really bought into, and I continue to be interested in how it unfolds. Both are tortured souls, selfish in many ways, but at the same time, their hearts are always in the right place, and I think that is the key to me buying into their story despite the incredibly rocky road. These are characters that transcend time and connect to us today. And that is exactly what I was looking for in a good series.

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