Give Poldark's George Warleggan the plot he deserves

A couple of weeks ago, I blew through all three seasons of Poldark in one weekend, or maybe close to it. I had it on in the background as "period piece background noise I didn't expect to really capture my attention," but it totally did. (Apparently I also weirdly forgot my fetish for 18th century men's fashion.)

Not only is the show filled with lush scenery (waves crashing on rocks beneath dramatic cliffs, people riding horses in haste, etc.), but the writing is really, really good. Particularly in Season Two, with the infidelity plotline, every single character involved responds in a way consistent with their character, and in ways that highlight both their positive and negative traits.) (Well, I'm not sure Elizabeth has any positive traits, but whatever). 

Season 3 had me pondering the fact that the writer's haven't entirely taken advantage of villain George Warleggan. The WETA blog says he is a flatly evil character, one step away from twirling a mustache; I don't entirely agree, but they do have something of a point.  Over the course of the series, George shown himself to be cold and conniving when it comes to both business and life--sometimes playing unfairly. He is weirdly obsessed with taking Ross Poldark down--and what is this based on other than the fact that he basically hates Ross for having what he doesn't: the support of the townspeople, actual love from his wife Elizabeth, a sense of honor. Ostensibly, he has beef with Ross because Ross is "responsible" for inciting the riot that led to the shipwreck being looted (the shipwreck containing some of George's property). But we all know that he 2% cared about the property and 98% just wanted Ross to be tried and hanged--which seems a bit extreme. 

But I just rewatched Seasons 1 and 2 and took a closer look at him. The development of his relationship with Elizabeth is a weird mixture of creepy and pitiable. It's clear he likes her when she's married to Francis Poldark and is already attempting to put the moves on her. When he first propositions Elizabeth, more or less, unless I'm wrong, she didn't seem repulsed but genuinely caught off guard. Surprised, but not "oh God how do I get out of this." I think for her it came out of left field. I do believe, in his own strange way, George loves Elizabeth. (I'm not sure why, because everyone seems to fall in love with her based purely on looks...?) 

Maybe there was a world where Elizabeth and George could have been happy--this makes me sad. Her decision to marry him was both practical and eyeroll worthy. She's a widow and her mom has just had a stroke. Standing beside the drooling mother's bed she asks the doctor, "But who will take care of her--?" then a look of distain comes over her face when she realizes that the caregiver could be her. God forbid we don't have servants to do something, or have to get a job, or figure shit out for a while before she might actually fall in love with a man who wants to marry her. Okay, I realize that's unfair--the aristocracy didn't work back then. Although I did wonder how hard it would have been to scrimp and pinch for a while--sell off some of her crap and let some servants go. Instead, she spots George through the window getting rid of some pesky serfs who want to work her land, which apparently by law is their right. He could take care of her, and she wants to be taken care of. And I never go the sense that he was disingenuous in his offer to take care of her; someone purely evil wouldn't do that. 

She marries him, quickly, and for his money basically, but I got the sense that she had some hope that maybe it would work out. George quickly ruins any chance of this, mainly through his desire to get rid of his Poldark stepchild. Really much of her hatred of him stems from actions he does solely out of his obsession with Ross. (It's more like he himself is a worser enemy than Ross is.) It didn't have to be this way, but he does several things that destroy any hope between them: getting the governess and wanting to send the stepson away, and the trial against Ross which was overkill. A really unexpected turn for me at least was that Elizabeth and George start to become an evil couple together--which was relieving because many many many shows/books/movies fall into the trap of "the first love is the only-est, best-est love." Her turn toward the evil was somewhat satisfying because her unhappiness brought out the nastier parts of her personality and I didn't find much about her redeeming anyhow. 

But George is more interesting to me. Sometimes there's this one grain of humanity in him that makes me feel sympathy or want him to have a turn of character. He suspects that "his" baby with Elizabeth--Valentine--is actually Ross Poldark's but you get the sense that he's almost tricked himself into thinking the baby is his. At least until stonecold Agatha tells him the truth. He seems really broken by this, and I don't think it's just because of Poldark. No matter how despicable George is, Elizabeth wronged him and continuously lied to him. Sure, there were various strictures on women that made life hard for them, but I can't see Demelza making that series of decisions. Sure-- George is pathetic--he gets all sniveling when Elizabeth (lying about the paternity issue) threatens to leave their home, and let's be clear George is dishonorable and nasty and single minded. I don't know why he seems to love Elizabeth, but he does. I truly wondered if he actually loves Valentine and this was a serious blow to him (he doesn't have an heir after all). I love the moment that followed: Ross going out to look for Demelza in the dunes--of course we think he's about to catch her in the act of cheating--but instead he comes upon George, who is dazed with the realization about Valentine. For a split second George is a human, but then he goes back to being George. This moment echoed back to the moment when George found out that Ross's baby had died and for a split second was at a loss. 

Don't blame George for the infamous toad incident in season 3. Oh damn, this show got dark. What started as a funny prank against George--Demelza's brother Drake putting toads in George's ponds--gets hella dark when Morwenna has to marry the gag-reflex-inducing Reverend Osborne Whitworth. At first the Reverend just seemed like a pervier version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice--funny, foppish, and gross. But then it gets much darker than the tone of Poldark generally with him being physically abusive and a rapist--I kept waiting for Morwenna to be rescued at the last minute. And it's George and Elizabeth--who has now drunk the evil George Kool-aid--who have pushed this marriage into existence. Because it's a "good match." (There's one weird misstep in the plotting here: when Morwenna's weird sister showed up, I thought for sure she would pretend to try to seduce the Reverend and then murder him . . . but instead seemed to like boffing him??) [Another tangent, how on earth is the guy on the left played by the guy on the right??] 

Here's the thing: George has no idea how bad the Reverend is. He knows Morwenna isn't crazy about him, but how many women got to marry someone they were crazy about? You know who does know just how bad the Reverend is? The good doctor Dwight. And while he does try to press the pause on the Reverend's appetites for Morwenna after giving birth--that's all he does-- presses the pause button. George's sin, really, was that he wanted to control Morwenna and family wealth by marrying her off--Dwight's sin strikes me as worse (albeit not outside of what would have been typical male behavior back then.) 

It's clear that Poldark is headed towards more political storylines, and that both Ross and George will be players. The only two things George cares about are himself and Elizabeth and I'm not even sure about the second part. His political identity could easily get tied into his sense of honor; if Poldark wants to keep treading the same waters, we could have Ross and George square off again and again. Or . . .

Make George the villain he deserves to be. George should be smarter than he is on the show. He's made his wealth rather than inherited it, so it's a little unrealistic that his deviousness is pretty consistently ham-handed. I wish they would let him be as full blown smart as maybe a man who's made his own wealth might be. And while Ross clearly has flaws, sometimes he falls too hard on the "good guy who's always right" side (at least when it comes to the shows political plotlines.) Moving the show towards increasingly political plotlines leaves a lot of room for complex machinations--I would love to see George pull off some Cersei-level political maneuvering rather than say, printing slanderous pamphlets. I would love there to be something Ross and George could agree on--a common foe where they would have to work together despite despising each other! Someone who offends George's honor and Ross' political sensibilities-- but I'm not sure the show has that sort of sensibility, particularly after what happened with Morwenna. If Morwenna isn't going to save herself, it would be nice if we just didn't default to Ross saving the day. Too often shows default to "good guys save people, bad guys hurt people, and if bad guys save people they are redeemed." There's a few other options-- like bad guys doing the "right" thing for an entirely different reason. Bad guys responding with a level of retaliation that the good guys wouldn't "stoop" to in a way that is more satisfying to viewers. Bad guys outmaneuvering other bad guys because they are more clever.

Update 6/10/2019: a surprising number of people have read this article. Life has occupied me; I will return with another longform article about Poldark in June after I’ve had a chance to watch the most recent season. I’m hoping it will be me coming back after seeing some interesting developments in this villain.

8/13/19: and here’s that other post as promised, about the rest of Season 4

Trust me, the morally reprehensible things I say and do aren't reflective of me as a person.

In the past two weeks, what looks like what is going to become an increasingly common “scandal” occurred surrounding the show The Bachelor. (Or The Bachelorette, to be more specific). During the season premiere a guy named Garret clearly became one of the frontrunners for Becca, this season’s Bachelorette. While the show skirts as far away from politics as possible, it’s known from her social media that Becca considers herself as part of “the resistance” and voted Democratic in the 2016 election. In this article by two women who also host a podcast about the show, one of the contestants, Garrett, was outed as having liked a bunch of morally reprehensible posts on Instagram including ones that made fun of: the Parkland kids who survived the school shooting (calling them crisis actors), undocumented immigrants, feminists, and trans children. (He immediately deleted the account once this was exposed.) 

There's a chance that the producers of the show did this on purpose--knowing that Becca is at least a somewhere left of center, and that this would lead to conflict and therefore good TV. I imagine this is what happened when they had their first black Bachelorette and included a contestant who compared the NAACP to the KKK on not-too-hard-to-find social media posts. We could work under that assumption of wanting drama, or assume their background checkers are just lazy. 

But would this even lead to conflict? Becca publicly responded, in as much as she can, (because I'm guessing he was one of her final few..) in an interview by saying she would address issues as they come up, but that "I can't fault anyone for what they believe, and who's to say that anyone is truly what they believe in if they just double tap . . . I am a strong woman and I do believe in certain things, but again, that's what's so great about our country — everyone is entitled to their own opinions." This is a really, really different response than the reaction of the black Bachelorette--Rachel--had when confronting the contestant who said racist stuff. Her response wasn't, "Oh, he's  a good person who just kept accidentally saying terrible things--lay off him would you!" Garrett responded with the typical "I didn't realize the things I did were hurtful / I need to learn/ this isn't reflective of who I am as a person" apology. ("I need to learn/ go to rehab" is definitely a great all purpose excuse for just about anything, isn't it?) But we're not here to talk about him. 

We're here to talk about the Beccas. The straight guy who cringes when his father says something anti-gay at the dinner table, but doesn't say anything. I want to talk about the white girl with the white boyfriend who grits her teeth when he says something racist against blacks. It doesn't really affect the straight person at the dinner table because he isn't gay, or the white girl because neither she nor her boyfriend are black. The ignorant views of their loved ones don't directly negatively affect them, but are seen as more embarrassing than fundamental conflicts because I guess, to them, their values don't constitute a dog in the fight. 

Why can't you fault someone for what they believe? We make decisions about who we want to surround ourselves with, and sometimes people come into conflict with those values. On the one hand you want a partner you have chemistry with who also wants the same things (a house, a picket fence, a family), but then there's this pesky thing where he says something profoundly ignorant about another group--but don't worry--you're not part of that group. You can just sweep it under the rug. 

You can just say, "Well you don't know him." You don't know him like I do! Indeed, I will never know your racist boyfriend the same way that you do if the two of you are white and I am brown. Your boyfriend can be caring and kind and considerate to you, while at the same time thinking that gays are disgusting or that migrants aren't human beings with inherent dignity. You just don't know him like I do! Indeed, I don't. 


Like many people caught in the apology chamber, Garrett responded in an Instagram post "I am a sincere, genuine, loving, light-hearted, open minded and non-judgmental individual." I'm willing to bet that Garrett has never met one of the Parkland kids, who not only survived the mass murder of their friends and classmates, but are pushing through with activism despite grown adults feeling the need to attack and threaten them despite their being children who were almost just murdered. I'm willing to bet that if quizzed on the situations in El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and other countries that led to migration, he would not be able to tell you much and in all likelihood couldn't find most of these countries on an unmarked map. You've never met these people, but have hateful things to say about them (at worst), or at best, you don't really hate them but think their situations are funny and should be made fun of on social media. Call me a square but I don't find devastating earthquakes or drug cartels funny. 

Is it really fair to judge people by their social media accounts? It's true, your finger can slip and you can accidentally like a post promoting a conspiracy that the victims of a mass shooting are in fact actors rallied by a vast left wing conspiracy to seize the guns you use for mass shootings. To be fair, I do think there are instances where people take things out of context, like the movie that puts on its poster that a reviewer said "This movie is fantastic!" when they actually said "This movie is fantastically stupid!" And I do think its unfair to dredge up Livejournal posts from decades ago and point out how un-woke someone was, when in reality only some of us have documentation of how un-woke we are, and, let's face it, collecting points for pointing out unwokeness is sort of tiresome. 

Here is an exhaustive list of the past handful of things I did on Facebook and Twitter: a request that they make a movie out of cockygate; an interest in attending a poetry performance; 3 likes to UPS Dogs, a Facebook group where UPS drivers post pictures of their favorite dogs on their routes; a comment that news media "controversial comments" instead of "racist comments" suggests that there is a legitimate debate underlying the idea that racism is bad; 3 comments about whether or not the robot from Netflix's Lost In Space is sexy or not (it isn't); a Twitter moment about peacocks stopping traffic on a highway wherein I commented "cockblocking;" and this, which can only be described by looking at its awesomeness. This is actually a pretty accurate representation of who I am. Not a complete representation. But no one who knows me would be shocked that I liked/said/tweeted any of these things--they are all pretty run-of-the-mill for me. So if you were known to be an open-minded, kind, considerate person who's on social media, likely connected with friends, wouldn't your friends be shocked if you posted something morally reprehensible? Does the fact that they're not shocked say something about you, and something about them?

Whenever this cycle happens--an insulter says something insulting, there's negative publicity, then an apology--we are told, "Wait, get to know the real person, you don't know them like I do." We are asked, again and again and again, to get to know this person, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions despite the data before us. And yet those who insult are never giving the benefit of the doubt to the Parkland kids, or getting to know the migrants or their situation, or assuming that the person they are deriding is an actual human who might be as sincere and open-minded and loving as the insulters claim to be but aren't. In other words, "Treat me fairer than I treat you, otherwise you're being unfair." Sadly, an argument that keeps being made over and over. 

"The Second Shelf," "domestic" writing, and who gets to be the literary darlings.

First, if you could stop what you're doing and read these articles by Lili Loofbourow and Meg Wolitzer (the former is new, the latter is an oldie but a goodie):

Both touch on how the artistic works of women are viewed differently (less seriously) than those of men. They present good examples I won't rehash here. I have seen this happen before: I have read a novel by a male author who is a darling of the literary community and thought, "Really?" Not that it was a bad book, but definitely a "meh" book. (This is not to say I haven't ever been underwhelmed by female literary darlings). But a book written by a female author that focuses on plumbing the depths of familial and romantic relationships is treated as "only" writing about relationships or is labeled as "domestic;" a male writer of the same book (say, Jonathan Franzen) is praised and danced around with critics bowing wildly for a masterful portrayal of suburban relationships in modern day America. I recall reading an interview with a (female) editor at a publishing house where she said she was less interested in women writer's novels because they seemed "small." I don't know what frustrated me more: that she said this, or that the interviewer (or any of the commenters on the article) didn't think to question it. 

I was in a peculiar situation a couple years ago. I had written a literary novel that very much focused on a romantic relationship. Politically, I find myself bristling at the idea of "Women's Fiction." I get that the industry uses the term because it serves a purpose in terms of understanding the market and the fact that women buy more books. But I agree with Meg Wolitzer's commentary about women's fiction being relegated to a second-class shelf, one where on the covers, women in wispy dresses walk in fields of flowers or sassy fonts tells us what sort of book we are in for. My peculiar situation was that my novel was through a male POV--which automatically disqualifies it from women's fiction and puts it into literary. I'm a literary writer--so this wasn't weird--but had I written about the same exact relationship from the POV of the female love interest I could have either pitched the book as literary or as women's fiction (and also run the risk of pitching as the first and being relegated to the second.) It's the same quality of writing, the same writer, the same relationship. Why is one more treated as qualitatively different than the other? 

Because I love gossip, trash, and comment's sections, I was following some of the drama about male writers behaving badly in this SCBWI scandal (the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Some of the comments were from people who had attended SCBWI conferences who were saying that while the industry is heavily female dominated--not just in terms of the authors, but the people who work in the publishing industry and the organizers of the conference--but the few males who were there would disproportionately receive attention/ awards/ fawning praise from the women in charge of the conference. 

I was reminded of this notion that men will apply for a job that they meet 60% of the qualifications for, but women won't apply unless they meet 100% of the qualifications (alternatively, I've heard this as 80/20). This goes hand in hand with when I hear editors of lit mags saying that their inboxes are flooded with submissions from men. People often view this as men being presumptuous; I'm not sure it is--it could be women not being presumptuous enough. But not only do we not think we're good enough to apply for that 60% job, and "well that magazine would never publish me anyway," but apparently we are also fawning over the dudes at SCBWI and hiring guys who are 60% qualified and shitting on women who are qualified for being bitchy, or unlikeable, or "ambitious" (said with a negative tone of voice.)  

I put this into my calculus whenever I feel like crawling under my duvet and not trying anymore. Everything I've ever gotten has been slushpile style, which requires the crazy assumption of "I'm just as good as anyone else in this pile." 

Further reading: 

Siri Hustvedt's take on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, and the wide-eyed fan who once asked her if her husband (Paul Auster) writes parts of her books for her. 

Editor and writer Kelli Russell Agodon's essay on why women should submit (to magazines) more like men.