Last week’s installment may have been dark, but Poldark’s penultimate episode only accelerates its characters’ downward trajectory—to the point where the hero not drunkenly gambling away his fortune served as the emotional high point. Death, marital discord, and risky business ventures abound this week, each one only exacerbating the other.
As Jim’s wife literally counts down the days until his return from the oversized rat cage that passed for humane incarceration in the 18th century, Ross faces his first metal auction as secret head of the miners’ collectively owned smelting company. Once again, the inner workings of metal prices and the collusion that sets them don’t sound especially thrilling on paper, but there is a rather satisfying scene in which a man in a wig gets very flustered. The other buyers, meaning the Warleggans, have all the metal bought out from under them—but as Ross points out, the hard part will be reacting to whatever they do now that something threatens their business.
This week’s gender-segregated plot line, on the other hand, revolves around a ball the Warleggans are hosting. Encouraged by Verity, Demelza sees the event as her opportunity to make a dramatic coming-out to society, a place to show off her piano acumen and other ladylike skills she’s been picking up while Ross is away. (Once again, their baby daughter seems mostly content to just lie there and not impact her parents’ lives in any serious way.) Even though Ross encourages Demelza by obtaining her first ball-level dress, the potential for conflict here is obvious.
Things really hit the fan, however, when Ross and Dr. Enys, now the object of one of the more blatant Feigned Illness Doctor Seduction attempts in fiction, resolve to break Jim out of prison. Poldark is pretty unsparing when it comes to depicting the filth, overcrowding, and general horror of Jim’s condition; by the time Ross and Dr. Enys get to him by claiming they’re going to treat a case of typhus, it’s too late—Jim is dying of gangrene, and a prison floor doesn’t make for a sanitary operating room. We see Ross burn his shirt on a beach (FEMALE GAZE) and a foreboding shot of Ginny’s countdown wall, and we know that for once things did not work out for Ross.
Our hero’s ensuing bender unfortunately coincides with the upcoming ball, the type of event frequented by such luminaries as the magistrate who threw Jim in jail for poaching. Elizabeth insists Ross has to attend for reasons that don’t make much sense—basically, he’s less likely to be punished for breaking into a prison if the higher-ups remember that he’s a fancy person like them, or something—and so Demelza is put in the uncomfortable position of babysitting her drunk husband while she’s just trying to have a good time.
Pretty much all the Poldark ladies are in awkward social situations, actually. Poor Verity hasn’t worked up the nerve to tell Francis she’s seeing the Captain again, and his presence at the ball proves to be the straw that breaks the fragile masculine ego’s back. Francis is furious that Verity defied his authority, attempts to assault the Captain, and is immediately beaten down—an indignity that’s only compounded by George’s blatant flirtation with his wife while he’s not looking. Elizabeth appears to be simultaneously flattered and at least dimly aware that George is probably responsible for her husband’s ruin.
Ross proves just how probable that responsibility is at the card table, where his near-blackout stake doesn’t prevent him from running an extremely convincing long con. After losing his grandfather’s watch, Demelza’s fancy new necklace, and nearly his stake in the mine, Ross tackles his opponent—a frequent guest at the Warleggans’ card table, apparently—and finds that he’s got an extra card in his hand. George attempts to defend the man, but is rapidly outvoted by the “let Ross publicly beat him up” contingent.
The Poldarks leave the ball at dawn; it’s unclear what Ross’s victory means for either Francis or his relationship with Demelza, who has every reason to be angry at her husband for both telling her off mid-party and letting her believe he was gambling their livelihood. Elizabeth tells him, however, that there’s some public sympathy for his conduct at the prison, despite his unwisely telling off the magistrate at cards, so Ross probably won’t go to prison for freeing, then accidentally killing an inmate. Things are looking up!
Before Jim’s seaside funeral, however, there’s a few last bits of foreshadowing. The point of Keren’s attempted seduction still isn’t clear, but it does lead Mark to seek out Ross for advice…just as Demelza’s reading a letter from the captain. She’s been feigning ignorance of Verity’s affair instead of telling Ross she set it up, and now she’s forced to listen in as her husband extols the virtues of trust and faith in a marriage. Oops!
Finally, the Warleggans have managed to find “the first chink in the Poldark armor”: the owner of the mill where the smelting company is processing their copper, who’s knee-deep in debt. Now that they have a shareholder in their sights who’s easy to leverage, the Warleggans pose an actual threat to Ross’s copper syndicate…and now we’ve come full circle back to the metal business. Next week: the two-hour finale, when all this mining talk finally pays off!