Poldark – Season Three Back

‘Extraordinary appearance of the moon! Which was perceived to be in a violent rocking motion, for several minutes; after which was seen clearly passing round the orb, immense armies of horse and foot with bloody streamers flying, to the great terror and astonishment of thousands of spectators, who were witnesses of this wonderful alarming omen!’[1]

In 1794, a pamphlet connected February’s lunar eclipse, the sin and iniquity of the city of London, and the ongoing war with revolutionary France with the coming of the last judgement.

It is under this ‘Black Moon’ (title of Winston Graham’s fifth novel, 1973) that we re-join the web of Cornish intrigue in season 3 of Poldark. And indeed, this dark beginning reminds us of where we left Ross Poldark at the end of season 2: narrowly staving off an attack on Trenwith by angry villagers, and struggling to reconcile with Demelza after having raped Elizabeth (now Mrs Warleggan).

As with all good soaps, Season 3 is replete with births, deaths, marriages and the promise of infidelity. The uncertain parentage of Elizabeth’s baby gives us a reason to care about the continued feuding between Ross and George Warleggan, whose increasingly despicable behaviour runs parallel with his embarrassing attempts to ingratiate himself with the Cornish aristocracy. The introduction of some new characters brings light relief, particularly through Demelza’s brothers Drake and Sam Carne (modelled on the Wesley brothers), and their efforts to convert the locals to Methodism. The arrival of Elizabeth’s young cousin Morwenna gives us a new love interest, but the subplot is rather uninspiring and jars with the more political major storylines.

In the spirit of the 1790s, and following the apocalyptic omen of the black moon, Season 3 of Poldark focuses on revolution, and gives the sense of characters living through dramatic personal, political, and historical change. Inching towards the death of the much-loved Aunt Agatha, the last of the Trenwith Poldarks, the season is concerned with tradition, responsibility, and legacy in a period of political turbulence. As George Warleggan attempts to capitalise on his new wife’s status to secure local influence and aristocratic favour, Ross is torn between his wish for a quiet life and his concern for social justice. The increasingly pressing concerns of famine, unemployment, and social unrest are a backdrop for these two uniquely unlikeable characters to wrestle with their pride and their personal animosities. The contest between the self-made upstart and the self-absorbed son of the gentry takes on an overtly political dimension as both begin to unlock their ‘revolutionary’ potential.

Much of the action in Season 3 is provided by the war with revolutionary France and the threat of a French invasion, with a generous helping of local and national politics. If Ross Poldark is a political firebrand, he is a very English one: while he supports the principles of the French Revolution, his distaste for the violence in France quickly becomes clear. An audacious rescue attempt gives him one last chance to prove his recklessness, but the time for daring exploits is passing, and the moment for a more considered political intervention has clearly arrived.

Poldark explores a range of eighteenth-century masculinities with new storylines focusing on the physical and psychological toll of war, and introducing the urbane ‘man of feeling’ to shake up the rural domestic setting. Female characters are allowed more of a chance to shine in this season, but remain somewhat two-dimensional. New subplots employ an Austenian critique of the marriage market, and Demelza, Caroline and even Elizabeth are given some space to grow and participate in the community in meaningful ways, but not in ways which significantly advance the plot. Ultimately, we feel Demelza’s frustration when, faced with yet more examples of Ross’ headstrong and damaging behaviour, she exclaims, ‘you’ve never once asked for my opinion’. Poldark still revolves around a steady cycle of births and marriages, female characters and relationships are undeveloped, and even the introduction of some extramarital intrigue fails to build anticipation.

Season 3 ends with the promise of a move to London and the maturation of the petulant protagonists Ross and George into public figures. Sources suggest that season 4 will introduce such well-known figures as William Pitt and William Wilberforce. Removed from the rugged coastline and the promise of rolls in the heather, it remains to be seen how Poldark will retain its romantic charm and manage the transition to metropolitan drama. Season 4 is set to air in the UK in early summer.

[1] Susannah Goodall, Extraordinary appearance of the moon! […] to which is added, calculations, judicial and astrological observations, by which the true events signified thereby are foretold. Susannah Goodall, pupil to the celebrated Don Farnando Furioso. Doctor of divinity, physic, and astrology. Who foretold all the late wonderful events and bloody battles which came to pass at Toulton, Dunkirk, and various parts of France and Flanders (London, 1794).

Season 3 of Poldark first aired in the summer of 2017 and is now available on DVD.