This show has been slowly and steadily infiltrating the Just About Write staff, and we decided that we needed to host a roundtable discussion about what sets this show apart from so many others. Available to binge-watch on Amazon Prime, Poldark's first season is only eight episodes long, with a second season set to debut this fall.
So let's dive into what makes this series so important and why we are all really, really loving it. (We promise there is much more substance here than just "Aidan Turner's glorious hair").
What were your first impressions of Poldark? Have they changed since?
Mer: The show grabbed me immediately, with that fun opening scene and snarky Ross. I will admit that after that, laying all the groundwork to set up the story felt a bit tedious to me. But by halfway through the first episode (you KNOW when), I knew I was hooked. And I was right. Though at times episodes drag just a bit, overall it’s a highly engaging show.
Jenn: I think the first impression I got was that this was going to be a character-driven show, and that’s what always hooks me. Give me interesting and complex characters over fight scenes any day. I still feel the same way about the show, and I think it was also about halfway through the first episode that I really connected with what Poldark would be all about.
Marilyn: I originally heard about the show when it first aired. At the time, I couldn’t have been less interested. A broody period piece? No thanks. But then, about a month ago, I saw a bunch of other Arrow/Olicity fans I follow on Twitter talking about it. At first, my reaction was the same as when I’d first heard of the show. But I started seeing all these shirtless GIFs. And, well, I will admit it: I’m a simple woman. Abs will win me over, every time (it’s what pushed me over to start watching Arrow, in fact). Then I watched the first episode and went “Oh!” The landscape, the music, the costumes and sets and the acting... I was drawn in, just like that.
Hope: I saw the promos back before it first came out and thought, "A new Masterpiece period drama about British people? Where do I sign up?" Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, I was hooked. The cinematography is simply stunning, the soundtrack is gorgeous, and the characters were so complex and fleshed out within an episode. One of the things that struck me was how the series shows and doesn’t tell its stories. So much is shown about the characters to the audience through quiet moments, and that’s amazing storytelling.
Jen K.: I got into Poldark tentatively. And by tentatively, I mean that I started watching bits and pieces of episodes three and four. I skipped around scenes to decide if it would be a series I’d be interested in. I was immediately struck by Ross. He seemed to carry a deep pain inside him, but since I hadn’t watched episodes one and two, I had no idea what it was. Ross' chemistry with Demelza was electric however, and I was immediately drawn to their story. (Although, I also wanted to know what the deal was with Elizabeth, Francis, and Verity.) I love period pieces, so the timeframe simply aided in my interest.
Megan: I originally tuned in because I have loved Aidan Turner since the premiere of Being Human. I wasn’t even sure what the show was about, but from the first episode, I was hooked. It was such a fantastic set-up and it had such rich character and story. Everyone in the cast was giving it their all and was fully committed. Everything about the show was above and beyond — story, acting, casting, scenery. It was all just so breathtaking and beautiful and sweeping.
Jen W.: I fell in love with the feel of Poldark almost instantly. It was breathtakingly gorgeous and made me want to go to Cornwall immediately. The acting is superb and so real, I was instantly drawn into the performances. Everyone gives life to the characters, even the ones I don't like. There is no dead weight in this cast, for sure!
What makes Ross Poldark so compelling as a protagonist?
Mer: He stands out and apart from everyone else. He is undoubtedly the hero of the series, but even so, he is an unapologetically flawed and imperfect man. He has morals, and — at his core — is kind and just and strives to do right. Who wouldn’t love a man who is not only so nice to look at, but also goes out of his way to be generous to those less fortunate than him?
Jenn: I think the fact that he’s railing against the very thing he used to want to be a part of makes him super compelling as a protagonist. While a lot of this show is about Ross combating the greedy bourgeois, a lot more of it is him realizing that the system he thought was so great is so very broken. He’s got a genuinely good heart, too, even from the beginning. He’s not the typical “jerk who has to learn how to be good” character. Ross Poldark has honor and loyalty and that’s what makes him so great. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes, too.
Marilyn: He’s my favorite kind of hero: a little bit broken, trying to make up for his misspent youth, everyone against him, tragedy on all sides, and a work in progress. I love watching how that unfolds on my screen. A happier hero just isn’t so compelling.
Hope: The way he stands up for the people he cares about — especially the female characters, like Demelza and Verity — even if it challenges what’s socially acceptable for the period. He sees what is wrong with the world he left, now that he’s returned, and the way he faces off with that world is simply compelling. I also like that he’s not just broody and mysterious and a changed man, but that he also has a real sense of commitment to those he loves, and he’s incredibly complex.
Jen K.: I love broody, dark heroes with a heart of gold, so Ross is right up my alley. I love how he sort of thumbs his nose at society. What interests him is what is real and that’s how he gauges his success. It matters more to him that his tenants have work and food than if he’s held in high regard in society. Ross is remarkably intelligent and has a great deal of vision. However, he’s flawed too. He has a quick temper, can be bitter, and is sometimes ridiculously obtuse. But no one is more honest about his shortcomings than Ross, so he does possess a great deal of self-awareness. He’s also someone who loves deeply. Ross gives all of himself to those he loves once his walls are down. He’s an easy man to root for. You want to see him succeed, and can forgive him when he falls short.
Megan: Well, obviously he’s extremely easy on the eyes. But he’s also extremely well-rounded in the emotional sense. He’s strong and determined, but he’s sensitive and absolutely loving toward Demelza and their daughter. He won’t let anyone tell him no, and he’s always willing to prove people wrong. He doesn’t want to stand in his father’s shadow — he wants to fix the destitution his father found himself in at the end of his life. Ross wants to change his life; he wants to build a life for himself and Demelza. He’s just such a realized character and I love that. It makes you want to root for him no matter what.
Jen W.: He's complex. He doesn't kowtow to convention. He goes against the grain, even though it costs him dearly. He's impulsive and reckless and used to getting his way, but can be completely felled by Demelza. It's beautiful to watch. Also, hello, yes, Aidan Tuner is delicious.
What is one thing about Demelza as a character or about her journey that stands out to you?
Mer: It’s so drastic, but at the same time so subtle. When you look at Demelza’s first scene in episode one versus her last in episode eight — the transformation is so stark and apparent. But the writing and acting make it so that as it’s happening, it’s subtle and real and graceful and absolutely amazing to watch. Eleanor Tomlinson is brilliant in showcasing the journey and growth of Demelza.
Jenn: I love that in an era where women were expected to look pretty and be polite, Demelza never held back when she believed an injustice was happening. She’s always spoken her mind, but now I love that she’s immensely more layered than that. She’s kind and her optimism is her absolute best quality. Demelza is a woman who just cannot help but make everyone around her better, even people who are supposed to oppose her.
Marilyn: If anyone has as big a journey as Ross Poldark to make in this show, it’s Demelza Carne. She comes from the humblest of beginnings. She is a girl without any hope whatsoever for her own future. But yet, she shines. She sings. She brings smiles wherever she goes. Even the stodgiest of characters can’t help but be ultimately charmed by her.
Hope: I love that, even as she changes, Demelza’s always unapologetically herself. And I think that’s what draws the other characters to her. She’s going to say what she thinks is right, she’s going to act on what she thinks is right, and it doesn’t matter if others agree or not. The core of who she is never changes. She’s so kind and selfless, and her journey is just wonderful to watch.
Jen K.: Demelza’s arc is probably the most varied of all the characters. She goes through quite a transformation. What is wonderful about Demelza is that no matter where she’s at in the story, she is an intensely kind and likable character. There’s no version of her I do not love. I love wild, near-starving, ill-mannered, survivalist Demelza. I love shy, eager-to-please, occasionally sassy, kitchen maid Demelza. I love sweet, shy, uncertain, deeply in love, new wife Demelza. I love confident, lady Demelza. She’s a devoted friend, wife, and mother. At her core, Demelza is someone who loves unconditionally and is incredibly selfless. As she evolves, she never loses the center of who she is. She sees who people truly are and has an unceasing belief in love. It sometimes gets her into trouble, but her intentions are always decent and good.
Megan: When she was first introduced into the series in that village scene, I honestly didn’t think much of her. I still didn’t think much of her or her impact on the story when she came to live with Ross. But as I realized that she was going to be an integral part in not only Ross’s story, but also the series, I realized that she was so important because she had her own story. She wasn’t just Ross’s love interest; she was her own entity. She had her own growth and problems outside of the romance and she was strong, fierce and her own voice. Demelza wasn’t going to be put in her place by Ross. I loved that.
Jen W.: She changes so subtly, yet so completely. She's someone who will always do her best for others, even when they don't want to do the same for her. She's her own person with her own set of flaws and failures. She's smart in a way people like to discount because she wasn't born a lady. She feels and loves deeply.
There’s a lot to say about the female characters in Poldark, as well. What are your thoughts on the rest of the women?
Mer: How wonderful is Verity? She isn’t as commanding a presence as Demelza or Elizabeth, but she is such a lovely person with depth and kindness and a strength that is hidden underneath layers of propriety. Elizabeth isn’t always my favorite, but there are just certain scenes where she showcases how amazing and strong she is, as well. And Aunt Agatha is, of course, perfect. The women of the show are so different and really bring everything together.
Jenn: Verity is perfect and precious and must be protected at all costs. She’s good-hearted and gentle and loving and was so sweet to Demelza. Honestly though, all of the women in this show are pretty fantastic. I don’t know what it says about me that I absolutely love Margaret, too, but I really do. And even though I don’t always love and adore her, there are some moments where Elizabeth is like, the best person ever. The scene where she tells off her mother, saying when she looks at Demelza she doesn’t see a kitchen maid? SO PERFECT.
Marilyn: Verity is my favorite, next to Demelza. I just adore her and my heart hurts for her constantly. Her family has treated her awfully — not just in regards to her beau, but also by discounting her significance. It was made clear in the first episode that she was considered one step above the servants. Not cool, man. She a true friend to Ross and when he married Demelza, Verity welcomed her with open arms. Verity should be protected at all costs.
Hope: Verity is one of my favorite characters. She’s so kind to Demelza, teaching her and just being her friend. Her family is so terrible to her (Ross has been a better brother figure to her than Francis), and yet she’s still such a good-hearted person. She’s quietly powerful and sometimes that’s the best kind. I have mixed feelings about Elizabeth because I’ve learned to like her more as her character has grown and the series has progressed. She has grown up, and she has seen the mistakes she’s made, and that makes you feel for her. Plus, while Francis complained (and was at fault), she took their losses in stride.
Jen K.: Verity is my favorite. I adore Ruby Bentall’s voice and I could just listen to Verity talk for hours. There’s such a timidness to Verity, but in reality she’s probably one of the strongest characters on the show. She knows what’s truly important in life. Verity doesn’t judge others and has an open heart. She’s one of the few people who’s truly supportive of Ross’ new love with Demelza. Verity can see how happy Ross is and how harshly Demelza is judged for her station in life. I think Verity sees herself in Ross and her beloved Captain Andrew in Demelza. Verity is deprived of her happiness and instead of making her bitter, it only serves to make her even more compassionate.
I like Elizabeth. I think she’s a good person with a good heart, but she’s a victim of the time period she’s living in. Elizabeth follows all the rules of society that Ross so often thumbs his nose at, but she lacks the freedom to rebel because she is a woman. Her entire survival depends on embodying the society she lives in. The fact that Francis is the actual worst isn’t her fault. I think Elizabeth handles herself with dignity and grace in the face of her nincompoop husband. However, there’s a piece of Elizabeth I distrust — she enjoys being admired. She enjoys being loved by Ross even though he cannot have her. So when he moves on, it bothers Elizabeth. I think these two things — survival and needing male admiration — could lead Elizabeth to make selfish choices. And I suppose that’s why I’m wary of her, despite liking her.
Megan: What I love, and I won’t go into specifics as many of you have already said what I had in mind, is that the women of Poldark are not, by any means, minor characters. They are not there to further the men's stories. They are there to add to the story in a very real, very intentional way. Without Elizabeth, Ross may not have ever gone on the path he finds himself on, may never have found Demelza, and then we wouldn’t have that rich storyline of Demelza’s. And without Demelza’s rich story, we wouldn’t have that fantastic friendship that we see with Verity. I love that the women aren’t fluffy. They’re full of emotion and spark. They have sexuality, femininity, and such strength.
Jen W.: I am a proud member of the Verity Poldark fan club. She deserves so much better than Francis for a brother or Charles as a father. Elizabeth, I don't care for, but I don't hate her. She inspires nothing more than mild discontent from me. I do hope Verity and Demelza can renew their friendship. It's about the cutest thing ever.
Talk about your thoughts regarding the “love triangle” (or at the very least conflict) between Elizabeth, Ross, and Demelza.
Mer: I am usually someone who shies away from love triangles. I don’t enjoy them, they make me anxious, and I find them pointless. But Poldark uses this love triangle as a way to explore the characters — and that sets it apart. Though I am a bit worried about what’s to come in this regard (no spoilers, I know nothing!), I do think the show has done a great job of incorporating romance, love, and romantic drama in a way that informs characterizations and furthers the story by giving us a deeper understanding of who each of these characters are and what makes them tick.
Jenn: I always get worried about love triangles, and I have to say that the hallucination Demelza has reminded me so much of Ron and the Horcrux scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But apart from that little bit (which I did not care for), Poldark handles the “love triangle” staggeringly well. It’s because it is not used overtly, and when it is, it’s never drama for drama’s sake. If anything, it reinforces the relationships these characters have with one another. I love that the show isn’t afraid to shut down prospect of Ross/Elizabeth though, especially evident in the finale. The writers are smarter than to try and use a love triangle to prop a character or a plot that doesn’t need to be propped (Elizabeth is compelling enough as a character! WHO KNEW IT WAS POSSIBLE TO WRITE WOMEN THAT WAY?! #TVHasMadeMeBitter). Kudos, seriously, to the writers.
Marilyn: Ugh, I hate love triangles. The clear choice is Demelza. And when there’s a clear choice, I can’t ever see any reason to flirt around with another option. At this point, anything with Elizabeth would feel cheap and unfair.
Hope: I don’t particularly like love triangles, but I don’t feel like there’s really one here. I think Elizabeth will always be Ross’ first love, and he feels bad about how Francis has behaved, but Ross fell in love with Demelza and there’s no going back. Elizabeth regrets her choices, but I think that given what happened in the finale, she also knows there’s no going back. If Ross hadn’t gone to war, things might have been different. But he did. And while I haven’t read the books and don’t know what happens, if the show tries to back-pedal, I’ll be disappointed.
Jen K.: It depends on the love triangle, I suppose. I think Poldark does a good job handling theirs. They don’t shy away from the conflict that Elizabeth/Ross/Demelza brings; but on the other hand, the writers used it rather subtly in the first season. I think it’s obvious that Demelza is “The One” and Elizabeth is “The What If.” With those two classifications, there’s a clearly favored love story and Poldark devoted themselves to building one between Ross and Demelza. I love how they definitively answered who Ross loves most in the finale. I felt it was something Elizabeth needed to hear and helped ease my wariness of her. That said, I think “What If” can be a powerful question and if Poldark insists on keeping the love triangle alive, it could lead to a problematic narrative. I’d be much happier if they just let it die and focus on the characters outside of the triangle.
Megan: I think that Elizabeth always saw Ross as hers and that — or if — he ever came back, they would pick up where they left off and he would save her from a marriage that she didn’t want to find herself in. She saw him as a familiar savior and when Ross came back and saw that she was otherwise engaged, it threw both of them. But he saw her as off limits period. Elizabeth saw it as, “He’s back, this is finally over, and we can be happt.”
But Ross is a man of principle and he didn’t want to mess with that — no matter how much it hurt his heart. But when he found Demelza and fell in love with her, he found a new kind of love: a kind that wasn’t out of familiarity. It was a love that wasn’t going to be easy, but it was going to be great. I think Elizabeth seeing them so happy hurts her because she’s not happy in her marriage and she still wants to be with Ross, no matter what.
Jen W.: I have hope for how they're going to handle this. It didn't inspire any of my usual ire about love triangles. It, like so many other elements of this show, is handled really well. I don't feel unsettled or annoyed. It just feels like a bigger, well-done piece of the puzzle.
We’ve discussed the heroes of Poldark, so now let’s talk about the villains. What are your thoughts on our series’ “bad guys” (primarily Francis, George, and his uncle)?
Mer: What I love about the villains is that even they are such complex characters. We know Francis — despite being a whiney, terrible human most of the time — has a lot of insecurities that were perpetuated by his father, and he feels as though he pales in comparison to Ross. While we haven’t yet really seen what depth there is to George, there have been glimpses here and there of some sort of depth and feeling that I’m hoping gets explored further. There is no such thing as a one-note character on Poldark — even when it comes to the villains.
Jenn: Ugh, I loathe Francis because he’s a manchild and pretty much the epitome of white male privilege. He ruined his life and his estate and his marriage and yet has the audacity to whine, on multiple occasions, that he doesn’t have what he wants. (See: the GIF above where he literally throws a temper tantrum and storms out of a room.)
George and his uncle, meanwhile, are total manipulators. They work people and the system to get what they want. They’re greedy and infuriating in that greed. But Poldark does a good job of making their villains still humanized (Francis more so than George, even if George did have that moment of humanity when his uncle told him about Julia) and their motives understandable.
Marilyn: Ugh, Warleggans! They’re mustache twirlers, to be sure. But I think it’s George’s uncle who is holding the strings on this, less so George himself. I can see George growing more sympathetic to the audience in the next season. As for Francis, he’s just a weak man who folds under any sort of pressure, but I don’t see any real evil there.
Hope: Ugh, Francis. One of my favorite scenes is where Francis is complaining, “What is wrong with the women in this family?” and Aunt Agatha (bless her) replies, “The men!” I agree with what others have said — I don’t think Francis is evil. He’s made terrible choices and is constantly in a pity party for one, but his father ruined his self-confidence and the Warleggans have preyed on him. He does, however, need to take accountability for his actions and stop being so very, very whiny. The Warleggans are awesome villains and I love that they’re not one dimensional, either.
Jen K.: I know every great hero needs a great villain, but the Warleggans are the worst. It feels like they ALWAYS winning and it gets maddening after a while. I just want Ross to kick the financial stuffing out of them. That said, I see potential redemption in George if he stops being a sniveling snake with his uncle.
As for Francis? Oh, Francis. I just sigh whenever he comes on screen. Francis is someone who has everything, but is constantly comparing himself to others. His jealousy just eats away at him until the good man we meet in episode one is almost gone. He is also a spectacular baby who whines and pitches a hissy fit whenever he’s presented with a challenge. I agree with Hope — he needs to accept responsibility for his actions. It’s less that I don’t like Francis — although I don’t — but more that I don’t respect him.
Jen W.: George is the worst — slimy and awful. Francis is terrible because he's a petulant man-boy, so basically just a rich dude who never learned to do anything except spend money and be idle. Francis is the cause of his own destruction; George is the catalyst to so many other people’s destruction because he's so concerned about the status of his birth.
Thanks for tuning into part one of our Poldark roundtable! We will post part two next week, which will focus on setting, our favorite episodes, and more about why you should watch the show.