Poldark Season 2, Episode 7 Recap: Original Sin


Stuff happened in Poldark this week, but frankly none of it matters, because Ross raped Elizabeth…and PBS didn’t have the balls to air it.

Writers will tell you that good storytelling requires conflict. In love stories, the couple had to undergo trials, either from outside forces, or between themselves. In “hero’s journey” stories it’s about the protagonist against the forces of evil. In our current “Golden Age of Television”, with the anti-heroes, it’s men like Walter White in conflict with their better nature and losing.

Great stories go one better. They have an “original sin” at their heart of them. From Mad Men’s story of Dink Whitman who stole to identity of Don Draper, to Game of Thrones R+L=J to the bible’s weird sexual parable about apples and snakes, the original sin, and trying to rectify it is the driving narrative, even when it’s not the “A plot,” as it were.

"George: “My house is four times the size of Trenwith! You will have some jewels and dresses!”"

In Poldark, the “original sin” does not come at the beginning of the tale, but rather a third of the way through the tale, in Book 4 of 12 Warleggan. In it, when Ross discovers that for all his attempts at owning Elizabeth by giving her money he could not afford, he does not in the end control her. She decides to go ahead and do what, for her, is the sensible thing: to keep up the lifestyle to which she would like to be accustomed. She agrees to marry his arch rival Warleggan.

Image via BBC

I mean, what did Ross expect?! The man has money and he’s not married. Warleggan has been chasing Elizabeth even when she was married to Francis, suggesting he’s wanted her for a long time, and he promises her all the riches her mother insisted she deserved all these years. What, is she supposed to be poor and chaste and longing for Ross the rest of her life with zero security for her son? That’s absurd. But of course, Ross, being the thickheaded self righteous freak does not see it that way. He goes to Trenwith, breaks in in the middle of the night, and in the course of the fight with her, forces himself on her. It is a classic “rape fantasy” trope. But, like all rapes, it is not about sex. Ross is doing this as his last act of trying to control her–a power move, not something borne of love at all.

"George: “When one has laid the foundations, one has every right to expect a result.”"

And over on the BBC, when this episode aired three weeks ago, that’s exactly what the audience got.

Funny, that’s not the scene we saw at all this evening on Masterpiece, is it?

It is well known to Poldark fans that every episode we get here in the states is cut down by about seven minutes or so. This is due to the BBC having zero commercials, like a real government funded TV station, and therefore having the full 60 minutes to air an episode. Though PBS doesn’t have commercial interruptions, it still has about five-seven minutes of “sponsored bys” and lots of “coming soons,” requiring the show not to run the full hour. Sometimes the cuts are actually not so obvious, a thirty second cut down of a panning shot of landscape here, a few minutes of Ross sitting in a jail cell there. It gets more obvious when the episode is so jammed packed that those subtle cuts become hard. Francis’ death the other week for instance, a good two minutes was cut from his funeral, which got a far fuller treatment in the BBC cut. (PBS made it all about the Ross, Elizabeth/Demelza love triangle, by reducing it to ~20 seconds.)

But the choice to take those minutes out of a scene that is not only crucial to this week’s plot, but to *the entire show’s existence*, to pull part of the “original sin” of the story away is a stunning and frankly, horrifying choice on the part of PBS.

Image via BBC

This is not just a scene where Ross and Elizabeth have sex. This is a scene that defines the anti-hero nature of Ross Poldark. Ross is not a hero. He is an idiot in many ways. His self righteous outbursts, his stiff necked behavior, his stupidity in the face of being a sensible adult are not to be admired. They are character flaws. And this is the ultimate expression of those flaws. Ross, is in the end, forcing himself on Elizabeth to punish her for leaving him, when she was never his to begin with.

Now, of course, in the 1940s, when this scene was written, “rape” was not a thing people spoke of. Winston Graham, as I said above, wrote this as the “rape fantasy” trope that is still popular today in romance novels, and probably did not consider it to be “rape” at the time. His son, Andrew Graham says as much in interviews after the episode ran in the UK a few weeks back. And when this scene aired in the 1970s, in the original Poldark TV series, no one batted an eye. After all, “rape culture” was not a phrase known to people then. Heck, women were not a generation out yet from being considered the rightful property of their husbands to do with as they liked. Ross, by supplying money to Elizabeth, was acting as a surrogate husband, QED.

"Poldark: “What can I say? It was something I cannot explain. You must see I had no choice.”"

But it’s 2016 now, and with rebooting this series for a modern day audience, modern day standards must apply. The BBC, it should be noted, came under fire for cutting the scene down to what you see in the clip above, with people calling *that* the softpeddled version. But at least here, for those who understand that “no means no” this is textbook definition rape. There’s no “grey” here to be had. As the Telegraph asked afterwards: “In whose world was that consensual?!”

Which bring us to the scene we watched tonight, in which the scene was so brutually cut down and re-edited, it was consensual. This changes the entire story. This changes Ross’ character. Most importantly, and, to me, most upsettingly, it 100% changes the show and the author’s intent. By author here, I mean Debbie Horsfield, the head writer of the Poldark reboot. She wrote the scene as she believes Graham intended. And that scene, as the article notes, is rape, clear and simple.

Image via BBC

So why? Why did PBS do this? It is so fitting that they would erase a rape scene, a female author’s intent, and glorify a man whose character is so deplorable as to rape his late cousin’s wife just because he doesn’t approve of her life choices on the first weekend we are living in Trump’s America. But the truth is, this choice was made long before last Wednesday at 3am. So why?

"Demelza:  “If it came to a choice between me and Elizabeth … and with Elizabeth now free …”"

As someone who has been covering Game of Thrones for six seasons, and now covers Westworld in their first, it is hard to not wonder if the uproar over “using rape as a plot driving device” that occured last year was instrumental in the decision to try and cut it out here. “Fine, you don’t want rape to be the driving plot device narrative, even though we’ve chosen to tell a story where the original sin of the novels is a rape driven plot device? We’ll change it! The sin can just be they cheated on their significant others, and the fallout that will ensue.”

Yeah, no. C’mon everyone, let’s all say it together. That’s not how that works. THAT’S NOT HOW ANY OF THIS WORKS. Instead what PBS has done is gutted the story completely. It is insulting. It is infantilizing. It begs the question: why did you bother with bringing the reboot of the show over here at all, if you aren’t willing to present it as told?

Next: Poldark Season 2: Episode 6 Recap “Erryday I’m Smugglin’ Smugglin'”

PBS may think it was avoiding one set of controversial pitfalls, but in doing so, all it has done is betrayed the trust of the audience. We expected better.