Neither of the breathtaking moments in Masterpiece’s Poldark: Season 4 involve a beautiful sunset on the Cornwall coast.
The first takes place in a crowded stone-lined courtyard, the air dense with sweat, fear and despair. Three men stand trembling on the gallows, thick nooses weighing heavy on their necks, hoping for a reprieve in the silence after Ross Poldark’s spontaneous and impassioned plea for justice. All of the condemned are Poldark series regulars. Two will receive a pardon, and one is doomed to hang, to serve as example to the impoverished and malnourished mining community.
This injustice and continuing clash between the haves and have-nots in Cornwall will motivate Ross – in a future episode – to throw his tricorn hat into the ring of politics.
The second moment unfolds in the dark sitting room of the Poldarks’ home, which in Season 3 proved to be one at great risk of breaking up. A carefully worded exchange between Ross and Demelza carries the theme coursing through the entire series: the complexity of love and what characters do with circumstances they can’t control.
Over and over again – and not just in the relationship of Ross and Demelza – this period drama defies the genre’s usual kid-glove treatment of sex and marriage and exposes the layers of infidelity, emotion, lies and even abuse under all those manners we imagine red-blooded mortals adhered to in a sepia-toned past.
Ross and Demelza have not just slept with others outside their marriage, they have emotional ties outside their union as well. Elizabeth, Ross’ first love, is unfaithful to George, the very flawed husband who loves her, and to save their marriage, deceives him about what is thought to be their first child, Valentine. The deviant Reverend Osborne Whitworth sexually abuses his young wife Morwenna and commits adultery with her own sister. And all the while Morwenna chastely loves and is loved by Drake. The series wears no rose-colored glasses as it looks back to the late 18th-century.
But back to those hard-backed benches that are the couches of the Poldarks’ modest home. Sitting across from each other in the dim candlelight, Demelza and Ross begin a halting conversation in which each has the guts to utter the name of the person with whom their spouse committed infidelities. Ross inquires after Hugh Armitage, the ailing young man who loves Demelza and continues to send her messages. Demelza asks if Ross pitied her when he left her for Elizabeth. It is a beautiful moment of vulnerability that acknowledges what has come between them. Yet the very cadence of their patter, as well as what they say, builds to finishing each others’ sentences and slipping the two into a conciliatory, if not passionate embrace, on the same hard bench.
After all the rockiness of Season 3, there is hope yet for the Poldarks.
Poldark: Season 4 premieres Sunday, September 30 at 9 p.m. and airs weekly on Sundays at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Binge-watch the new season with the member benefit THIRTEEN Passport starting September 30 at 9 p.m. Become a member and use THIRTEEN Passport for early access to Season 4.