Previously on Poldark: Ross’ former Army boss turned governor of Honduras, Ned Despard, is arrested for treason against the crown, because he was giving out land to freed slaves in the colonies and British businessman didn’t like that so much. Ross gets Ned out of jail with the help of both his wife Kitty, whose presence is causing something of a stir in London because she is black, and the British government itself, as a sort of payback for him saving the King’s life during an assassination attempt. (Yes. Really.) Also Ross may be a superspy now? I don’t know. Elsewhere, George is seeing visions of his dead wife, Morwena still fears all men, and the Cornwall locals are pushing for revolution against the rich.
The second episode of Poldark Season 5 reveals something that feels like it could be a major flaw in series’ final season. And that is that is appears to be ignoring the fact that it’s the show’s final season. Maybe creator Debbie Horsfield and I just have different opinions about what this show needs to do before it’s off our airwaves forever (or at least for a while, until they inevitably revisit it with the series’ second generation of characters). Because, this? Is not it.
I'm just going to put it out there - if there are only seven episodes of Poldark to go, I don’t care particularly much about the story of Ned Despard. Sure, his character is an intriguing historical footnote and also provides a brief window into Ross’ past during the war, but as a person, himself, he’s hardly relevant to the story we’ve been watching for the past four seasons. Which is why it’s so incredibly frustrating that the bulk of this episode is dedicated to him, his hatred for racist slave trader Hansen, and his search for the person who had him thrown in jail and nearly hanged.
A large part of this installment revolves around Ross and Ned’s attempt to root out conspiracy, including printing pamphlets and questioning anyone that worked with Ned during his time in Honduras. The episode also introduces a nebulous Bad Guy who seems to solely exist to menacingly stroke a falcon, Blofield-style, and sets Dwight to defending the man who tried to kill the king (and coming up with the modern day definition of an insanity defense at the same time by insisting that the would be murderer basically has PTSD). I have no idea why or how Dwight Enys is suddenly considered an expert on mental health, but sure, let’s just go with it, I guess. His wife was sad after her daughter died and he comforted her (mostly?), so that’s kind of the same thing.
Here’s the problem with all this though: It’s simply not a compelling story. Or maybe it is, on a different show, about different people. But I don’t tune in to Poldark to watch overly complicated political conspiracy theories unfold at the expense of stories for characters I care about. Horsfield and company have made a valiant effort to tie this saga in to the larger tapestry of the story by tying Ned’s good name and Ross’ political fortunes together, and throwing the new grown-up version Geoffrey Charles at Hansen’s surprisingly awesome Mary Wollstonecraft-reading daughter. And maybe that would be fine, if this weren’t the end of the show, and if that same show didn’t have plenty of outstanding plotlines left sitting around on the edges, including whatever Caroline is still part of this show to do now and Drake and Morwenna’s marriage.
We get a few brief moments with the Carneses, in which Morwenna manages to let Drake hold her hand for the first time in what appears to be quite a while. Months, maybe? A year? We all know time works strangely on this show. Poldark absolutely deserves credit for portraying the lasting impact of sexual assault and trauma honestly, and Morwenna should get as much time as she needs to heal. But we also deserve to see more of their story than a successful handholding and Drake suddenly deciding its time to ask his emotionally scarred wife if she’s ready for sex and a baby. It’s the middle ground – the how of how Morwenna comes through this that feels like is missing from this story. And I’m way more invested in that than I am any of the stuff with Ned.
Elsewhere, Demelza’s kindness to the awful Tess Trigidden looks like it’s going to backfire on her in spectacular fashion, as she gives the rude revolutionary a job at Nampara and the girl repays her by being rude to Prudie and telling everyone in earshot that she’s going to Single White Female her employer. Yeah, Tess is plotting to seduce Ross and up her station in life by supplanting Demelza and I’m already just exhausted by this plot too. At least during last week’s episode, it sounded like Demelza would somehow be working to help the poor and downtrodden of Cornwall improve their lives, not end up fending off a psychopath. (But, to be fair, this is the kind of soapy ridiculousness I want on this show. Not Ross Poldark, Super Spy!)
At least Poldark’s other foray into the complicated issue of mental illness seems to be going a bit better. And by “better,” I mean is at least a story that makes sense, as appalling as it might be in general. George Warleggan’s mental state appears to be deteriorating rapidly, as he not only still sees his dead wife Elizabeth everywhere, but now has entire conversations with her, in front of other people even. And while it’s oddly nice to see Heida Reed again, it’s equally upsetting to realize that George’s one moment of self-awareness – he admits to Ross that his suspicions of her were largely unfounded, a delusion we’re all too happy to let him keep – appears to be what’s fully driven him ‘round the proverbial bend.
George seems incapable of facing the fact he not only treated Elizabeth abominably but may or may not have played some hand in her death, since it was his terror of his wife’s infidelity that forced her to try and have her (legitimate, this time) child early.
To be fair, he has always been terrible, and generally deserves to suffer for the awful things he’s done. But I don’t think even the most ardent of Warleggan haters are feeling any glee over the sad mess he’s currently become. His unraveling is deeply uncomfortable to watch, as is his utter abandonment of his children, particularly poor Valentine. Maybe Drake and Morwenna can just kidnap him? Then everyone wins!
Am I being too hard on Poldark? Are you all feeling excited by all the conspiracy and mystery? Let’s discuss in the comments.