The relentless, high speed plot train that is Season 2 of Sanditon pulls in at platform four.
It’s been a breathless journey so far, as a world which many of us thought we knew has been refreshed and reshaped – for better or worse.
We’re now two thirds of the way through a season which once seemed little more than a pipe dream. That in itself is remarkable.
The experience so far has undoubtedly been an adjustment, but it has also produced some genuinely entertaining moments, and has yielded a number of valuable new opportunities for the show and its characters.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 EPISODE 4 FROM HERE IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT!
There’s no question they have gone for a narrative packed with event. As other writers have observed, this is almost certainly in an effort to ensure that the audience is distracted by what’s appearing on screen, and not preoccupied by what isn’t.
As we accelerate towards the “business end” of the season, it’s unlikely that this pace will slow. However, it is regrettable that this relentless focus on incident and plot has to some extent come at the cost of character development.
Some of the roles seem little more than cameos. Too many of the characters feel siloed. They exist in small, discrete character groups and seldom interact beyond their claustrophobically tight circle.
That affords very limited opportunity to find fresh combinations which work well, or which could prove intriguing. In fairness, that may well have been less a creative decision, and more the necessary consequence of the tight Covid bubble protocols under which the production was operating.
This episode however, clearly illustrates the value to be found in larger scale set pieces, which bring the characters together en masse. We get a very enjoyable sequence at Lady Denham’s (Anne Reid) annual Garden Party, which allows for the various tensions, conflicts and burgeoning romances, to come to the fore. It breathes life and energy into the proceedings.
There are also some terrific scenes between the ever superb Esther (Charlotte Spencer) and Clara (Lily Sacofsky), as the deliciously venal Sir Edward (Jack Fox) begins to sink his teeth into them both. Consequently, this is arguably the best and most consistent episode of the season, so far.
We open up with a somewhat questionable CGI vista of the rooftops of Sanditon, as Colonel “Creepy” Lennox (Tom Weston-Jones) is once again traversing the beach on horseback. To provide some variety, this time it’s not to stalk, sorry, “flirt” with Charlotte (Rose Williams). He’s in the company of his men.
If this was Netflix, there’d be 100 of them, but it’s not, so there’s four. Captain Carter (Maxim Ays), who looks less like a grown man and more like a fifteen year old boy, wants to propose to ditsy Alison Heywood (Rosie Graham) and needs his sinister Colonel’s consent.
Lennox doesn’t exactly strike me as a man for whom the concept of consent is particularly well defined. More on that later.
Poor Cyrano, aka Captain Fraser (Frank Blake) must look on in perpetual sadness, as he sees his chances of a lifetime spent with the human equivalent of a marshmallow, apparently slipping slowly away from him. You’re not entirely sure whether to mourn his loss, or congratulate him on his escape.
Frank Blake has been a delightful addition to Sanditon. He’s made the most of a relatively small role and is by some distance, the most quietly compelling of the array of new men, flung at us this time around.
Given that wherever Charlotte is, her stalker is seldom far away, it comes as no surprise that we find her wandering across the beach with the aforementioned Alison. The younger Miss Heywood is, as usual, enraptured and exhausting.
She is her Captain’s and her Captain is hers, blah, blah, blah. Charlotte is less than impressed with her sister’s romantic flights of fancy, and so handily preps some plot points for us instead.
She ponders the wisdom of falling, like a drunk on a frozen pavement, for someone you’ve known for all of five minutes. Alison’s having none of it, but as Charlotte points out, few people are always as they initially appear.
She’s torn about the true nature of her reclusive employer Alexander Colbourne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). Aren’t we all? He seems to be the show’s Captain Von Trapp, to Charlotte’s Maria. If Charlotte ends this season without a rendition of, “The Cliffs Are Alive, With The Sound of Gunfire”, I’m going to be seriously disappointed.
It’s striking that, post Sidney (Theo James), Charlotte seems to have lost her innate powers of presumption and character profiling. You sense that he’d be disappointed by this development.
That she’s actually giving some credence to the Colonel’s anti-Colbourne narrative is bizarre. It’s a yarn which is more transparently self-serving than a hot and cold buffet, and only marginally less likely to make you violently ill.
It continues to frustrate me that at this point we still know next to nothing about Colbourne. Essentially, what we do know, is that he likes animals and waistcoats, and isn’t too keen on people. Including his own family.
Oh, and don’t mention the wife who died in mysterious circumstances. Admittedly, not exactly the most compelling dating profile.
Frankly, the Colonel’s horse has had more sustained screen time. This is a problem for me. You won’t get my investment with a narrative approach akin to, now you see him, now you don’t. They’re going to have to let this guy out of the box. Let us sit with him for a while and get to know him. Let him breathe.
Just like last week’s missing elephant, I pretty much knew going in to this thing that one of the star attractions would be a no show at the Fair. I’m here anyway, and I’m not looking for my money back. I’m happy to explore the other amusements.
I’m also interested in Charlotte’s choices and next steps. I know that you can love after tremendous loss. In many ways, that requires even greater courage. That love has many ages, and many shades. That not every flame burns with a white hot intensity. That those which are a slower burn, can frequently be the most enduring.
I get all that. I’m willing to explore that concept. Even though white hot passion is usually a major selling point in this genre. So, all that being said, maybe it’s time to stop worrying about who this guy isn’t, and start telling us about who he is.
Taking that approach is likely to yield considerably better results. So far what we’ve been given amounts to little more than performative chemistry. A never ending parade of artfully filmed looks and glances, coupled with occasional brief, if promising interactions. It’s not yet delivering the kind of foundations to build a meaningful narrative on.
This is the exquisitely beautiful Rose Williams after all. The camera simply can’t shoot a bad image of her. It’s impossible. She has extraordinarily expressive eyes, and can emote to Olympic standards. Point a lens at her, while she gazes poignantly into the middle distance, and she could generate the appearance of viable “chemistry” with a potted plant.
That’s not the point. To care about this guy, to be genuinely invested and engaged, we need to be allowed to get to know him. Thankfully in this episode, we make something of a start.
One character we know all too well is Tom Parker (Kris Marshall). He’s brooding in his study. He has cause. He’s lost yet more of the family’s cash – one hundred pounds to be precise – this time to the throw of a dice.
Really he should just make a giant bonfire on the beach and torch what’s left of their money. Cut out the middle man.
We don’t yet know how the late Sidney distributed the remaining proceeds of selling himself to the widow Campion, but if Tom gets a sniff of it, it’ll be gone before you can say, “Giant beach front sand sculpture!” As Lady Denham would put it, “Find a remedy!”
When Mary (Kate Ashfield) questions him as to whether he managed to persuade Colonel Creepy McStalker to encourage his men to pay their debts to the shopkeepers of the town, the answer is no.
The ever savvy Arthur (Turlough Convery) detects his brother’s general shiftiness and suggests that perhaps he should have accompanied Tom “…for moral support”. Dear Arthur, there isn’t enough scaffolding on Earth to support that feckless fool.
Tom is given some relief from his guilt trip, by the arrival at Trafalgar House, of Georgiana (Crystal Clarke), accompanied by Miss Hankins (Sandy McDade). We learn that Georgiana’s solicitor has now discovered what Sidney was doing in Antigua. It seems that he was endeavouring to protect her fortune from a man seeking to extract it from her.
Essentially, he planned to do this through a series of disgusting, racist, and misogynistic assertions, that she’s “unfit” to inherit. His plan is sickening and his identity is not revealed. That Mary’s solution to this situation seems to lie in Georgiana curtailing her behaviour, to avoid “fuelling the fire,” is as perverse as it is a disturbing indictment.
At Heyrick Park, the latest instalment of the Sound of Music meets Jane Eyre continues. We’re treated to more artfully filmed “meaningful” looks between Charlotte and her employer. It’s evident that burgeoning love is in the air. You can tell because Colbourne’s had the spinet tuned, and no, that’s not a metaphor.
There are actually some very sweet scenes to be had here. Charlotte is teaching Augusta (Eloise Webb) and Leo (Flora Mitchell), to dance. The bond between the women of the house is clearly growing.
Here I have another plea: more Mrs Wheatley, please. Flo Wilson is a quiet delight and like her boss, I’d like to know more about her. We also see Colbourne delighting in these happy domestic scenes, as he watches Charlotte, Augusta and Leo, from behind the door.
Ben Lloyd Hughes does have a sympathetic, warm, and gentle quality as an actor, and it shines through in these moments. His character is clearly a damaged soul, but through his growing attraction to Charlotte he’s discovering a tentative willingness to break out of his self imposed exile.
He’s decided to take Augusta to Lady Denham’s Garden Party, and the young woman’s excitement at the prospect is genuinely touching. As is a subsequent scene in which the normally frosty and abrasive Augusta, tries on one of her late Aunt Lucy’s dresses, and frets that she won’t make a good impression, due to her lack of social exposure.
Charlotte is a supportive presence for her. Eloise Webb is growing into this role nicely, and you find yourself hoping that Augusta blossoms and succeeds. Leo then hugs her, as she feels that by hugging her cousin in her late mother’s dress, she’s as close as she can get to actually embracing her mother. The result of this interaction is rewarding and you find yourself feeling a real connection to these characters, for perhaps the first time.
We also learn that Charlotte will be attending Lady D’s soirée, which is a prospect that equally delights and reassures a nervous Colbourne. As he puts it, “My dread of the occasion has somewhat lessened.”
These all too fleeting exchanges hugely enrich this tentative romance and we need to see many more of them. They need to start exchanging more than a handful of sentences.
However, you’re also asked to do some serious suspension of disbelief here, to the point of abandonment. Best not to ponder how Charlotte, as a Governess receives an invitation to a less than egalitarian aristocrat’s Garden Party. This apparently impoverished young women, then rocks up in a brand new dress and bonnet.
Sanditon is having to do some significant stretching of credulity to get them where they need to be this time. It’s to be hoped that the show has accumulated enough goodwill to get away with it.
The Sir Edward/Esther/Clara saga gets increasingly melodramatic, but also deviously delicious, like a good soap opera plot. Sir Edward is an arch manipulator, a master of coercive control.
Perhaps his only life “skill” is a frightening ability to identify character traits, fears and anxieties and exploit them ruthlessly. He knows that his step-sister Esther has fundamental issues with her self-esteem and an underlying fear of being somehow unloveable. He plays on this ruthlessly and relentlessly.
Here he’s keeping her husband’s letters from her and systematically isolating Esther. All while she’s at her most vulnerable, recovering from a recent miscarriage. He hopes to be aided in his scheming by Clara, whom he assumes will succumb to greed slavishly, and with no conscience.
In this episode, he asks her to marry him in the hope that he can now position himself to restore his inheritance. However, Clara is not who she once was. She’s now a mother, and one who is struggling to connect with her baby – while in contrast, Esther is a woman desperately craving motherhood.
Clara tells her, “All the things a mother is, I am not.” This all affords the chance to create a bond between the two women, and leads to some truly tender and fascinating scenes between these former foes.
This includes one in which Esther begs Clara not to marry her step brother, telling her, “I grew up with Edward and I would not wish him on my worst enemy.”
Charlotte Spencer continues to be given some of the very best lines, which she hits out of the park every time. This includes describing her familial relationship with Edward as being less that of devoted siblings and more, “Like Cain and Abel.”
It’s terrific to watch these two women find common ground, through their struggles. Charlotte Spencer and Lily Sacofsky are universally splendid and you can’t wait to see where all this goes. By the time Sir Ed is telling Clara that he intends to “take care of Esther”, you just know that whatever happens, it’s about to get very much darker.
The engine of the episode is Lady Denham’s extravagant Garden Party. She’s thrilled with a giant cake she’s had created for the event. Anne Reid plays this beautifully. She looks at the candy coloured monstrosity, with a child-like delight. She later manages to weaponise it, in an ill fated effort to humiliate and denigrate Georgiana’s efforts to lead a sugar boycott.
The Darcy/Wickham vibes are also strong across these scenes, as Lennox and Colbourne have a series of intense interactions. It’s fuelled by their dark history and their mutual attraction to Charlotte. Here it becomes clear that amid yet more looks and glances, Charlotte is definitely keen to be seen as “pretty” by one of these men. Thankfully it isn’t Colonel Creepy.
In this week’s instalment, Lennox goes from exuding an aura of being deeply sinister, to being outright disturbing. We get our first hint that those numerous red flags were well founded. It comes from his response to Tom’s request that he address his regiment’s debts to the town’s shopkeepers.
He dismisses it swiftly by suggesting that every gentleman has debts. He also manages to chastise Tom, for being so ungallant as to bring up such an unsavoury topic. He’s relentlessly obsessed with Charlotte, and is severely displeased that she continues to work for Colbourne. She is apparently failing to “see sense”. Hopefully, she’ll soon see through this cad.
It all gets very ugly when Augusta collapses at the party, having excessively tightened her bodice and restricted her breathing. All in an adolescent effort to conform to perceived standards of beauty. Lennox races to assist her and Colbourne reacts with fury to his gesture.
The motivation for this, is something which Charlotte has yet to understand. She also doesn’t hear Lennox’s sinister remark, when he whispers in Colbourne’s ear, “She is the very image of her Aunt. When she was in my arms, it was as if Lucy had come back to me.”
It’s a moment which sends chills down your spine. It’s so well played by Tom Weston Jones. Thankfully, he now gets to shift gears out of a frankly never credible, or fully realised love interest, and into an infinitely more interesting role.
The provocations continue for Colbourne, and culminate in an archery competition between the two. It’s ostensibly for the “Silver Arrow” trophy, but is clearly for so much more.
Lennox coerces Charlotte into taking his final shot. While also managing to invade her personal space, and mansplain obnoxiously. She hits the bullseye. Sadly, when Charlotte then takes a shot for Colbourne, she misses entirely – perhaps as she felt more of a weight of expectation and a desire to succeed.
Even in victory, Lennox takes a final aim at Colbourne, “All’s fair in love and war. But then I’ve known both and you’ve know neither.” It’s too much to tolerate for Colbourne and he leaves, taking his niece with him. It leads to a tense exchange with a deeply confused and distressed Charlotte.
Colbourne angrily demands that, as his Governess, Charlotte spend no more time in the company of Lennox. Why she would want to do so, is now a total mystery. He’s flesh-crawlingly awful. Her response is that Colbourne might pay her wages, but he doesn’t own her. The sentiment is quite right of course, but alas she doesn’t have the full picture.
Colbourne’s instinctive discretion, is getting ever more potentially damaging, and could be about to get dangerous. Lennox clearly enjoys his smug victory, and as he once again looms over Charlotte like a predator, you can’t help getting an ominous feeling.
This jam-packed episode also sees Georgiana growing closer to Lockhart; another man with motivations which are still not entirely convincing. Is he really this charming, gregarious, free spirited man, or the worst kind of fraud?
When she shares with him that she still dreams of her former love Otis as she “has no one else to dream of,” your heart breaks for her. The veil also finally falls from Alison’s eyes, when Carter is revealed for the pathetic, cowardly man-child, that he truly is. Initially it’s her sister Charlotte who rumbles the Captain’s stolen valour.
However, Alison refuses to accept it. Instead she cruelly attacks both her sister and Georgiana as “two bitter, loveless cynics.” Alas, youth and inexperience often learns the hard way.
After proposing while in a rowing boat (best not for fans to dwell on the memories that particular scene evokes), Alison’s perpetual exuberance finally places her in mortal danger. She falls in and almost drowns.
When she comes to on the river bank, gasping for air like a fish, it’s to find that her saviour was the adorable and honourable Fraser, and not the spineless, empty vessel whose proposal she had just accepted.
The Cyrano plot is thus rumbled and both men are condemned for their part in the deception. Will Alison eventually realise that her judgement of Fraser has been too harsh? Could the best man finally win?
There are very clearly a number of themes running through all of this. In particular, the numerous, often complex and deeply painful struggles of women, and the multifarious, and sometimes nefarious motivations of men. Who do we believe, who can we trust and with whom should we be on our guard?
It’s also very much about the pursuit of love in all its forms, whether romantic, motherly, sisterly, platonic, or love of self.
Also, that the nature of love, is that it is founded on taking the most enormous risk. It involves making yourself vulnerable, and opening your heart and soul to another person. That can bring both the greatest joy and the deepest depths of sorrow. It requires a massive leap of faith.
Who will take it, who will be rewarded, and who will lose? If they can find a way to draw all of these strands together meaningfully, this season could really take flight.
Reviewed by guest writer Gillian Clifford.
Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon.