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‘Poldark’ Review: Despite an Updated Adaptation, a Woman’s Lot Still Sucks in 18th Century Cornwall

Women are assaulted, insulted, wronged, and ignored in an aggravating episode.

Jack Farthing and Heida Reed, "Poldark"

Jack Farthing and Heida Reed, “Poldark”

PBS

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from Season 3, Episode 3 of “Poldark.”]

After such an eventful premiere — which, to be fair, was actually Episodes 1 and 2 together — Sunday’s latest “Poldark” was an exercise in frustration. The majority of the action was literally about people waiting: Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) in France waiting on word from an informant about his friend Dwight Enys (Luke Norris), who’s gone missing while out at sea, and their wives waiting to hear back about their respective fates abroad. “How frustrating is a woman’s lot,” Dwight’s wife Caroline (Gabriella Wilde) laments to Ross’ better half Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson). Ah, if only being left i were the worst of it in an episode that highlighted the gender inequities of the time.

The other source of frustration was with how poorly the female characters are being used, with only a few exceptions. As with “Downton Abbey,” one of the worst positions to be in for a woman is servitude, which makes her vulnerable to any man of higher station to do with as he pleases. One of George Warleggan’s (Jack Farthing) first duties as magistrate is to decide on a case in which a female servant has accused a young lord of raping her. While it’s unsurprising that the court rules in favor of the nobleman, it’s galling that Warleggan’s attitude about the whole affair is that he’s now positioned himself to possibly become a burgess, a representative of a borough in the British Parliament.

The woman wasn’t just forgotten; she never factored into his decision in the first place. It’s the ultimate insult to not even be afforded the status of a person just because a more powerful man’s reputation is on the line. Given today’s modern-day scandal involving Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment over the span of decades, it doesn’t feel that we’ve come all that far.

It’s too early to tell if this storyline will be completely abandoned going forward, but so far it appears to have been merely a plot device to demonstrate to Elizabeth (Heida Reed) the truly horrid nature of the man she had married. It’s only shortly after this that she begins to self-medicate herself with what appears to be opium.

Elizabeth is one of the most tragic figures in “Poldark,” after her first husband Francis (Kyle Soller) drowned in a copper mine. She too was put in the position of waiting: first when Ross went off to war, and later, when he kept her hanging about whether or not he’d leave Demelza for her. He didn’t, and unfortunately acting as a woman scorned led her to marrying George, a decision she is already regretting. But she’s a woman who is used to a certain amount of creature comforts and status, and has never learned autonomy. All that’s left for her is a retreat into numbness.

Eleanor Tomlinson, "Poldark"

Eleanor Tomlinson, “Poldark”

PBS

Given that “Poldark” is based on historical novels set in 18th century Cornwall that are written by a man born in the early 1900s, the plight of women and how that subject is treated shouldn’t be too surprising. “Masterpiece” has made an effort, however, to make Demelza’s role far more modern. In the novels, once she’s done her job of marrying Ross and giving him babies, she’s mainly off to the side baking. Here, she gets more to do while Ross is away. Unfortunately, very few of the interactions on her own pass the Bechdel test, but this series is named “Poldark” after all.

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She has one shining moment, however, when she stands up for a decision she made in his absence. When he takes her to task after she had given one of his old storehouses to her brothers for use as a church, she points out that when he’s gone, especially to a war-torn country, she is forced to be in charge. He backs down almost immediately, which is gratifying, but the entire situation feels manufactured.

Only two other women appear to have Demelza’s outspoken and autonomous spirit. Sadly, Caroline is currently sidelined without much to do while she worries over Dwight’s imprisonment overseas, and the delightful Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) is too frail to do much except say what’s on her mind.

Overall, this week’s “Poldark” felt to be mainly table setting: Dwight with an impressive beard in prison, the still burgeoning but star-crossed romance for Demelza’s brother, Demelza’s ongoing struggles with Ross, and Elizabeth’s descent into depression and addiction. This does not bode well for where this season is heading.

Grade: B-

“Poldark” airs Sundays on “Masterpiece” at 9 p.m. ET on PBS.

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