Poldark S2 Epi 7: A Study of Dubious Consent
by Amanda-Rae Prescott
*MAJOR SPOILER WARNING AND TRIGGER WARNING*
Discussions of sexual assault, dubious consent and rape.
Readers, forgive me for skipping an analysis of last week’s episode. I believe that an in-depth analysis of the most talked about scene of the episode is more important. I’ve had numerous drafts of this review in my head and on this laptop for several months now. I knew that no matter how that night in Trenwith was portrayed in the television series, it would upset people. As someone who has read the books and has seen the 1975 series, it is one of the most important scenes in the entire series. The fallout from that night lasts for years. It is also the most problematic in the entire series. The production would end up in a Catch-22 situation no matter what decisions were made.
One thing that no one can argue is how well Aidan Turner and Heida Reed handled the most difficult scene for Ross and Elizabeth in the entire series. Their facial expressions and body language matched up with my mental images from the book.
There are four versions of this scene: 1) Warleggan, pgs. 305-314, US paperback release, 2016; 2) the 1975 series; 3) the UK Epi 8 and 4) the now confirmed by my personal observations edited Epi 7 US PBS version. Overall, I believe Epi 7’s version of events appeared like a milder example of dubious consent compared to the novel. This tone of dubious consent to me is consistent with the novel. At the same time, I also see the validity of that argument even though I partially disagree. I believe the argument that the scene was completely consensual is slightly undermined by both the word choice in Elizabeth’s own point of view later on in the series. She hints towards the moral resistance of sleeping with Ross, which can be interpreted as an expression of regret. To me, the only wrong opinion is that Ross and Elizabeth’s brief affair is motivated by positive romance.
These lines in the original novel would lead many of today’s readers to believe Ross either emotionally coerced Elizabeth or raped her outright. She suddenly found herself, for a brief second nearly free.
You treat me like a slut.
It’s time you were so treated.
Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful, horrible!
The scene fades to black and the chapter ends as Elizabeth asks Ross not to dare what he intends. The very first time I read Warleggan, I believed that the scene was not consensual. It was not until I read the entire series that I realized that interpreting the event as having at least some change of mind or complete consent contextualizes the years’ worth of fallout.
Warleggan was written in 1953 by Winston Graham, well before modern discussions of sexual assault existed. Only recently has there been criticism about the use of rape as a love trope and to advance the plot in novels, especially in the romance genre. I believe the failure to characterize Ross as a rapist was a purposeful decision. In the next book, The Black Moon, which Poldark S3 is based on, there will be instances of repeated marital abuse and assault. For example, a teenage girl is forced to marry a widower because her guardians forced her to break up with her lower-class boyfriend. The widower knows she doesn’t like him yet he insists on intimacy with his very unwilling wife. At the end of the narration are the words ‘and then he raped her.’
As a legal concept, marital rape did not exist in 1790’s England. Although society frowned upon husbands taking their ‘rights’ too far, the law was designed to stop divorce, not assist victims. These later developments show Graham somewhat knew what the modern view was, but chose historical gender politics for the sake of sparing characterization. I believe a modern writers’ room does need to take into account a certain amount of modern projection onto the past. Balancing the need for respect towards survivors, while also being true to the source material and historical realities. Those who are calling for even more aggressive edits and even deletion can’t see what lies ahead for the characters.
In the 1975 series, S1 Epi 15 has a much shorter discussion. Ross (Robin Ellis) tells Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) that his guilt over the mining accident that kills Captain Henshawe in this version (2016 has Ted Carkeek die) led him to oppose the marriage. She insists that Ross should go. Ross tells her that he will stop her, which leads to him moving her towards the bed. At this point, you hear moans followed by an “oh Ross” which straddles the line between enjoyment and fear. There is a quick fade to black followed by a jump cut to Nampara. Demelza cries to Mrs. Gimlett (another servant deleted from the 2016 series) that Ross’ betrayed her. Then segues to an insanely awkward Ross and Elizabeth in their chemises. The 1975 version deleted the word ‘no’ as well as ‘the so treated line’. However, these changes still leave the situation open for interpretation. I believe the tropes associated with soap operas at the time influenced the edits made to this scene in 1975. The Radio Times and other UK media were unable to find any evidence of bad audience reaction. When I first saw the 1975 scene, I was still left with the impression that this was not a completely consensual scene. In a way, this gray area was true to the way the scene was presented in the book.
The original 2016 UK episode has an expanded version of Ross arguing that Elizabeth is lying about loving George. She replies with, “You wouldn’t dare”. She is seen resisting a kiss but then returns the emotion in kind. The argument about if Elizabeth really loves George is the same. Once Ross has Elizabeth in bed, the scene jumps to a very blissful Elizabeth wondering if Ross will come back to marry her or make her a mistress. Warleggan states that Ross left Trenwith before the servants woke up to discover him. The “morning after” conversation doesn’t exist in the 1975 series or the novel. I got the impression from the UK episode that Elizabeth was initially in a defensive position, but her desires also overcame rational thinking on her part. Ross definitely through forceful psychology convinced her to do so based on the many years of fond feelings and flirtation. Overall, this scene reads like dubious consent, which is consistent in tone with the novel.
According to Andrew Graham, Winston Graham’s son and consultant for the new series, this scene was intended as a consensual caving into long-held hidden desires. As early as the first British Film Institute screening of Poldark S2, reporters were asking the production if any edits would be made. The production company was well aware that a complete copy of the book would turn fans off of the show and would indicate Ross to be a complete villain.
PBS edited the sequence to remove the ‘dare’ line and Elizabeth resisting a kiss. These edits were believed to make the scene more palatable for a modern audience, but for many live tweeters it had the opposite effect. Many believed the scene was still too ambiguous for their liking. I usually do not criticize PBS edits, but the edits made to this episode were censoring both the creative vision of the show and the voice of Winston Graham. These edits also failed to resolve the debate about rape versus dubious consent versus full consent because there are still fans and critics who believe Ross is a rapist. I also believe it is a mark of hypocrisy. Only a few years ago, PBS Masterpiece ran the same content warning during Downton Abbey S4 when Anna Bates was raped with an entire sequence of event unedited. Critics on both sides of the pond, as well as survivors, praised Downton Abbey for treating a difficult subject matter in a tasteful fashion.
Since I can’t be spoiled by UK press reports, I’ve tracked fan and media reaction to this scene, which aired three weeks ago. The bulk of the complaints came from mainstream UK press reviewers. Many of these articles got facts about Warleggan, this production, and the 1970’s series flat out wrong. A few articles even contained completely made up details about the production. One writer dared to accuse the cast of supporting rape, which based on past interviews clearly the opposite of what was said. I was surprised to see thoughtful articles from progressive media critics, feminists, and survivors of sexual assault did not gain as much ground as these clearly tabloid media articles. I found that highly insulting not only to the fans but also to the people who are rightfully most concerned with how these issues are portrayed in the media today. I hope American media does not make the same mistake and weigh carefully what viewers saw and make a decision based on personal ethics and not what would get the most clicks.
Some have asked why the UK media didn’t criticize this scene in the same way they did the rape scenes from Outlander and Game of Thrones. To judge these scenes as equals ignores two key differences. First of all, in the book series, both shows are based on having many instances of dubious consent and rape. Secondly, UK and US premium cable has no content restrictions. PBS does. Government regulation limits the amount that can be seen on public broadcasting on either side of the pond.
In the midst of all of the arguments about the points of consent and nonconsensual behavior, the tone of the argument leading up to the embrace is spot on in both the US edits and the UK original. It would have been far too easy for the production team to write either Ross or Elizabeth’s lines too far out of character. The years of hidden desires, anger, indecisiveness and emotional manipulation from the novel was clearly portrayed. Elizabeth is a woman who was taught from birth that certain feelings were not okay for a lady to have. Her only method of survival is dependence on a man’s attentions. Cruelty is not the main motive of her manipulations, but a degree of emotional indecision and selfishness is. She appears to value Geoffrey Charles having money and status in the future opposed to his own grief about missing his father. A better comparison would be Daisy of The Great Gatsby. Her inability to decide between her lover Jay Gatsby and her husband becomes the source of the climatic tragedy in the novel.
The tragedy in Elizabeth’s inability to break off her engagement to Francis was a product of her time. In the late 18th century, an engagement break was almost as serious as a divorce. Transfers of inherited property and money from a bride to a groom upon engagement were very commonplace among the upper class. A woman who broke an engagement would have been seen as someone unfit to marry later in life. Although it is not mentioned in the book, it is entirely possible Verity became a spinster because a suitor broke off an engagement.
No matter how you interpret the scenario or which version you view, the result is the same. The reader or viewer is appalled that Ross cheats on poor long-suffering wife, Demelza. Unfortunate, her spousal instincts were correct. The only man she ever loved or trusted completely betrays her. Ross’ moral compass is yet again broken by the hatred he has for Warleggan and his failure to completely let go of the past. The slap heard ‘round the world shows how much pain she is in.
Upcoming . . .
Will she attempt to leave Ross or will she forgive him?
The answer to that question and the process Demelza undergoes is a fundamental part of the end of Warleggan that I am looking forward to seeing some of next week.
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