Over five seasons, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s swashbuckling saga Poldark has flirted with ridiculousness to its benefit because, really, this is what audiences crave of the Sunday night drama. But in the build-up to the finale, it became clear that the plot was running away from its writer and creator Debbie Horsfield.
By episode seven, Aidan Turner’s Captain Ross Poldark, whose staunch moralism has been fixed to the point of making him, at times, unlikeable, has come-to after being bashed on the head and dropped down a mine. It appears that the only reason for this assassination attempt is for him to discover a cave full of smuggled guns being hoarded in preparation for a French invasion. In London, where he intends to confront corrupt magistrate and prison owner Joseph Merceron, he finds himself caught up with star-crossed lovers Geoffrey Charles (his nephew) and Cecily, the daughter of his latest nemesis Ralph Hanson (Merceron’s half-brother). An attempt to help them run away together leads to him being caught by the “Frenchies”, of course.
Between all of this (a reminder that this is a single episode), the awful Tess is seducing Demelza’s brother Sam; Morwenna is pregnant; and Dwight and Caroline Enys’s marriage is on the rocks as she discovers his treatment of George Warleggan’s lunacy and uses it to quash Merceron and Hanson’s intimidation attempts. Geoffrey Charles is ultimately beaten within an inch of his life, while Cecily – who denies being in love with him in order to protect him – sails to Honduras with Kitty. Ross, meanwhile, has just agreed to be an aide in the French plot to invade England.
While Poldark has used multiple character arcs to hold its audience’s attention span, episode seven’s erratic editing – done to give it the illusion of momentum towards the finale – was simply confusing. Favourite characters were left on the sidelines – after weeks of tear-jerking scenes between Morwenna and Drake as they dealt with her PTSD (caused by a forced marriage, rape and her child being taken away from her), the newly joyful couple announced they were expecting a child. Yet the scene seemed painfully abrupt and they were allowed mere seconds to bask in that joy before the episode turned its back on them.
How, then, would showrunners draw all of these plots together in the final-ever episode? By some miracle, they seem to have pulled it off. After the dizzying speed of the previous episode, here we are eased gently into Ross’s dealings with the French (of course, he’s not really betraying his country) and his efforts to keep them from Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson). From there, it remains the central narrative while those loose ends are drawn neatly into it, rather than being mentioned like afterthoughts at random intervals. Best of all, it comes back to the dynamic between Ross and Demelza, and how deep down they know and understand one another perhaps more than themselves.
Ross, typically, does not want Demelza drawn into the French plot. Instead, he allows her to believe he is having an affair with Tess – her conniving former maid – upon learning of which she takes their children to stay with Dwight and Caroline. Here, Tomlinson gives one of her most moving performances, as a woman at her wit’s end over a husband who, she believes, has betrayed her trust time and time again – and whose antics keep them both from a moment’s peace.
Elsewhere, Ross has enlisted Dwight to eavesdrop on his conversation with a French general and send the details of it to Willian Wickham, head of the English secret service. But the letter is intercepted by Merceron, who promptly rumbles Ross to the French in the hope that his nemesis will be dispatched without his own hands being dirtied. This is Poldark at its best – silly and over-the-top, with some dodgy French accents thrown in for good measure. Oh, and a sword fight, which offers some (albeit unintentional) comic relief when one character after another dives in front of Ross to save him from not watching the man holding the gun. This includes George (a rather underrated Jack Farthing, who has been one of the highlights for the past three seasons), who later shares a wonderful moment with Ross and a glass of brandy: “Think I might poison you?” Ross asks, when George declines. “I wouldn’t rule it out,“ George mutters.
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As for those loose ends: Morwenna has her child – and the moment she deserves, surrounded by friends and family. Merceron and Hanson finally get their comeuppance, and Tess is sent packing as Ross accepts a mission as a spy in France. All is well between him and Demelza, who is expecting their child. Geoffrey Charles is off to train with the army and look for a new girlfriend that won’t get him beaten to a pulp. There’s a beautiful shot of a ghostly Elizabeth reflected in George’s carriage as he leaves Trenwyth for London – he watches her go, finally at peace with her memory. It’s basically one happy ending deployed after another.
While many would argue it is about time the show concludes, Poldark’s soap opera nature is precisely why it wouldn’t be a poor decision to continue. Beneath the ruffles and wigs (Turner’s glue-stained curls in this season have been abominable) are stories with real heart, and characters we can fall in love with again and again. Which is why you can’t help but feel hope, as the show ends on Ross’s last words to Demelza: “I will return.”
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