Well, over in the U.K. Poldark finally reached that episode that had folks worried and let’s just say they didn’t exactly sail over the hurdle. Please proceed with caution, however: this is about Sunday night’s episode on the BBC—if you’re watching in the U.S. on PBS, this episode is still about a month out—so, spoilers.
Poldark has had a problem lurking in the source material from day one—a scene in book three where by any modern understanding of the concept, the protagonist appears to rape Elizabeth, the woman who married his cousin instead of waiting for him to return. Radio Times explains that in the original, Ross breaks into her home via the basement and confronts her over her remarriage plans. They argue, and then:
He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion.
She smacked his face so he pinioned her arm.
‘You treat me – like a slut.’
‘It’s time you were so treated.’
It concludes with the exchange: “‘Ross, you can’t intend. Stop! Stop, I tell you.’ But he took no further notice. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.” It cuts off here, but apparently she later remembers the experience as involving “caresses”—so, basically, like that infamous late-night staircase scene from Gone With the Wind.
In advance of Season 2, people associated with the modern production talked about the changes that they’d made to the scene, leaving many of us to expect they’d updated it to reflect our current culture. Adrian Turner, for instance, said that: “He goes to talk. He doesn’t go to commit a crime. They talk and it seems like there is still this spark between them, this unfinished business emotionally,” and, “Certainly, that’s how Ross feels. He doesn’t force himself upon her.” Which made it sound like they’d consensually fall into bed together—making Ross a cheater, but not a rapist.
The episode finally arrived last night. BBC News explains:
In the scene, Poldark - played by Aidan Turner - burst into the bedroom of his former fiancee Elizabeth, played by Heida Reed, and demanded she cancel her wedding to his enemy, George Warleggan.
She ordered him to leave but he forcefully kissed her twice despite her trying to push him away.
He then looked pointedly at the bed before Elizabeth said: “You will not dare. You will not dare.”
He replied: “I would Elizabeth. I would and so will you,” before pushing her onto the bed where she appears to finally consent.
The reception hasn’t been approving. The Guardian: “Prettifying the Poldark rape doesn’t make it OK. Elizabeth said no.” The Telegraph: “Poldark: in whose world is the Elizabeth-Ross rape scene consensual?” “It is a really appalling message,” Sarah Green of the organization End Violence Against Women told BBC News. “They have made the representation of non-consensual sex ambiguous by making her appear to change her mind.”
It sounds less like an update for a modern audience and more a stereotypical midcentury no-no-no-yes scenario—a relic of a time when people thought very differently about consent (when they gave it much thought at all). It’s a bewildering move! Poldark became a hit because of its large audience of modern women; it would’ve been hard enough to navigate a plot twist altered from the book where Ross simply had unambiguously consensual sex with Elizabeth but was still committing adultery. Nor should it surprise the show’s makers that this would be controversial. Game of Thrones, for instance, was consistently criticized for its sexual violence—and generally Game of Thrones is depicting rape as unambiguously horrible, rather than playing with ancient tropes about how no can become yes that are the pop cultural equivalent of spent nuclear fuel.
Screenwriter Debbie Horsfield told Radio Times that they consulted with Poldark author Winston Graham’s son, Andrew, about his father’s intent:
We were fortunate to have Winston Graham’s son Andrew as our consultant on the series so we were able to clarify with him what his father’s intentions for this scene were. What you saw onscreen is consistent with what we believe those intentions to have been.
“The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole,” said Andrew Graham. “Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth’s immediate reactions and later mixed emotions that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing.”
If that’s what they wanted to show they should’ve departed more firmly from the original dialogue, because it’s not at all clear to a modern reader and what they landed on appears to be a midcentury mess that does not fly in 2016.
It really takes the fun out of ogling Poldark’s glistening abs, which was an essential ingredient in the show’s appeal.