The dust begins to settle and the repercussions are felt, after the explosive developments at Lady Denham’s Garden Party.
In this penultimate episode of the second season, Sanditon is in no mood to dial back the drama: this week’s instalment is both genuinely emotive, and somewhat overblown.
Consequently, the shocks and surprises, both pleasant and considerably less so, just keep on coming.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 EPISODE 5 FROM HERE IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN IT!
We begin with the ever delightful Arthur (Turlough Convery) arriving to survey the final preparations for a ball being held by the Parkers. Much like last week’s Garden Party, it forms the centre piece of this episode.
The youngest Parker brother is in his usual merry form, greeting a waiting horse with, “Good morrow horsey!” He’s a character who always brings some much needed levity to proceedings.
In this episode he also imbues it with remarkable strength and a beating heart. One which offers some of the show’s very best moments. Arthur is optimistic that the evening will be a triumph, with much of London society in attendance.
Sadly, his brother Tom (Kris Marshall) is about to puncture his happy bubble. The town’s shopkeepers have well and truly had enough of the Regiment’s non-payment of their debts and are demanding their money. Hence they’re not delivering supplies, but rather, taking them away.
This is an episode in which some long overdue chickens come home to roost for Tom Parker. He finally admits to Mary (Kate Ashfield), that he has lost one hundred pounds to Colonel Lennox (Tom Weston-Jones) in a dice game.
Her response is to reveal the ticking time bomb, that we all knew would eventually detonate. Namely, that Sidney and Charlotte were in love and that his late brother only married Eliza Campion to save Tom. It’s a devastating and sobering moment for him.
As the episode progresses, we begin to see a changed man. One now beginning to understand the damage he has wrought and the magnitude of the pain he has caused. We later see him trying to atone by tentatively reaching out to Charlotte (Rose Williams), to encourage her to dance at the ball, as Sidney would have wanted.
Also, in one of the best and most touching scenes in the episode, he realises the enormous value of Arthur, who has salvaged the event, through his patronage of the town’s bakery, and his smart negotiation with Sanditon’s shopkeepers.
We also begin to understand Tom’s rationale for being drawn to Lennox, a man he saw as an alpha male, much like his late brother. These are valuable and rewarding insights.
It’s in stark contrast to the increasingly bizarre events at Sanditon House. Esther (Charlotte Spencer) is slowly but surely succumbing to the evil plans of her vicious stepbrother, Sir Edward Denham (Jack Fox). She’s writing a desperate letter to her husband, Lord Babington, begging him for some communication.
Unbeknownst to Esther, her husband has not abandoned her. Rather his letters are being intercepted by Sir Ed, who is also putting poison in the tincture given to her by Dr Fuchs (Adrian Scarborough).
Throughout this episode, the Laudanum continues to take effect, with Esther’s behaviour becoming an increasing cause for concern. Her former arch enemy Clara (Lily Sacofsky) begins to suspect the truth and later confronts Sir Edward about his wicked plans.
She is appalled by what he is willing to do, to a woman who is taking medication in the desperate hope of having a baby. She remarks, “This seems especially cruel Edward, even for you.”
However this is a man who has yet to plumb the full depths of his venality. We discover that this is not solely about his inheritance, or about using his baby son George, to get it. Rather, it’s about revenge against Esther, a woman he had long sought to control, and whom he hasn’t forgiven for “betraying” him.
In truth, the poisoning plot is something of an unfortunate development here. It sadly diminishes what was a genuinely interesting exploration of the bond between very different women, of different classes and life experiences, but with a shared understanding, born of mutual trauma and suffering.
It’s a shame, as the production was giving us something fresh and genuinely engaging up to this point. Charlotte Spencer and Lily Sacofsky have been utterly superb, and never anything less than wholly authentic. However, they’re worth much more than this. It’s not long before Esther is scratching at her skin and staggering across a ballroom.
The whole thing culminates in her cradling baby George, in a corridor scene akin to a hostage negotiation, while Sir Edward tries to persuade her Aunt, Lady Denham (Anne Reid), to put her in an asylum. You find yourself deeply saddened that the whole story has descended into this messy melodrama. Particularly after such a promising start.
However, one character whose storyline alters for the better is Alison Heywood (Rosie Graham). Having spent much of the season with little to recommend her, she finally ceases being ditsy and finds her spirit.
Rosie and Frank Blake, who plays the wonderful Captain Fraser, have a truly delightful, natural chemistry, which shines through in this episode, particularly during a later dance between the two.
As she prepares to return home to Willingden, feeling fragile and humiliated, she’s generous enough to wish happiness for her sister Charlotte. Sadly she, like Georgiana (Crystal Clarke), is of the view that Colonel “Creepy” Lennox is the ideal man to provide it. As events will prove, her assertion that “the Colonel is a good man” couldn’t be more wrong.
However, at long last Alison realises, who her hero truly is. That man was, and indeed is, Declan Fraser. He is desperate to do the right thing and to apologise to her for his part in the Cyrano style deception before it’s too late. He wants his pathetic and juvenile fellow officer, Captain Carter (Maxim Ays), to do the same, without success.
As he points out to him, “Your cowardice compounds the ill.” Characteristically, Fraser ultimately does the honourable thing himself, and in doing so, allows Alison to begin to realise all that she has missed in this fine man. She also gets to deliver the perfect smack down to Carter, when she later refuses to dance with him at the ball, telling him to, “Please consider your behaviour. Perhaps you may spare the next girl.”
At Heyrick Park, Charlotte remains as confused as ever about her employer Alexander Colbourne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), while simultaneously navigating what is transparently, an increasing attraction to him. Unlike the relationship between her sister Alison, and Captain Fraser, which fizzes with lively banter and teasing exchanges, the vibe here is the opposite.
It’s all oddly subdued, earnest, and at times quite leaden. Once again, Charlotte is considering her position in the household, and the minimally communicative Colbourne, doesn’t want her to leave.
Later he’s telling her that she has brought life back into their home, and that they would be bereft without her.
I’m not entirely sure that I’m really getting that energy. Or, in truth, that this revitalising sentiment has actually manifested, to the extent that the production may have hoped. Also, the cost, to Charlotte, seems to be that it’s draining the life blood out of her.
To his credit, Colbourne apologises to Charlotte for his outburst at the Garden Party. Not for the intention of his words, but for the manner of their expression. It’s a very grown up approach, and yet another glimpse of the possibilities here. You don’t doubt that given more time with him, this is a potentially very interesting and honourable guy.
However, as always, we’re out of his company almost as soon as we’re in it. It’s all truncated scenes, secrets, personality shifts, and ominous warnings. It’s a full tilt Jane Eyre gothic saga, complete with the housekeeper Mrs Wheatley (Flo Wilson) chastising Charlotte by telling her, “There’s more to Alexander Colbourne than you could possibly imagine”. Frankly, there’d need to be, we’ve seen precious little up to now.
Often this season, Charlotte has felt swallowed up by the enormous weight of sadness, depression and loss, both within her and surrounding her. If she’s not addressing, or arguably, sublimating her own grief, she’s absorbing the pain of others. This continues in episode five.
At this point I feel like we’re losing her in this fog, and I long for some degree of levity once again. On the one hand, she has the prospect of a reclusive, damaged, introvert, and on the other a predatory creep. She seems to be being depleted of whatever emotional reserves she has left. You just wish this didn’t all feel vaguely parasitic.
As she heads off to the ball, you’re hoping against hope that she’s finally getting her groove back, in her new ball gown with an eye popping décolletage. However, loss still looms large, as Georgiana tells her, “You can’t recapture what you had with Sidney.”
Her friend tells her that while she will never love anyone, as she did her former love Otis, it is possible to find a different kind of passion.
In Georgiana’s case, that prospect seems to be the artist Charles Lockhart (Alexander Vlahos). His seduction of the young heiress, is moving at a pace and tonight he informs her that he will soon leave Sanditon for the continent and wishes for her to come with him, as his wife. Mary interrupts them once again, and you find yourself unsure whether this intervention is actually a blessing.
Vlahos has cleverly portrayed a man whom you desperately want to believe is sincere. However, you can’t help but fear, that with an unimaginable wealth, and a vulnerability born of being subjected to overwhelming cruelty, loneliness, isolation, and the brutality of racism, that Georgiana could well be prey to a sophisticated con man. Only time will tell.
Lockhart’s isn’t the only proposal of the evening and the other one is about as far removed from “romantic” as it gets. Charlotte finds herself enjoying a dance with Colbourne, who arrives at the ball with his niece Augusta (Eloise Webb), after an initial reluctance. Augusta is thrilled and astonished, as she tells Charlotte, “I don’t know what kind of spell you’ve put on him.”
The dance itself is an odd confection, which owes much to Maria and Captain Von Trapp’s Ländler from The Sound of Music, mixed with a Marcel Marceau mime – oddly appropriate for a relationship thus far conducted with very few words.
It’s all very nice, and pleasant, and sweet. It’s futile to compare it with the stunning Golden Ball sequence from season one, which was truly breathtaking. It’s apples and oranges. The difference between a warm camp fire and a blazing inferno.
However, it clearly gives Charlotte, the Sidney vibes. She tells her sister Alison that she’s beginning to feel alive again for the first time since her great loss. Sadly, Alison thinks that it’s the Colonel who has produced these feelings.
The red flags around Colonel Lennox have been fluttering since episode one. In the scenes which follow, all doubt about how dangerous this man truly is, are finally and irrevocably removed. As is any doubt that Charlotte should avoid attending balls and standing on balconies at all costs. Literally, nothing good ever happen to her there.
Lennox’s determination to propose to Charlotte is much like watching a spider weave it’s web. It’s clear even as he dances with her beforehand, that Charlotte wants to escape from his ominous presence and his questions about her future. It’s not long before he has her trapped on the balcony, is ordering her to give him her hand, forcing a kiss on her, and physically assaulting her.
It’s a truly repulsive moment. The whirring noise you hear in the background throughout this scene is Sidney spinning in his Antiguan grave. Charlotte escapes from Lennox’s clutches and is visibly distressed when Colbourne meets her on the staircase. When he essentially says, I told you he was dangerous, Charlotte has finally had enough of his obfuscation.
She, like the rest of us, is sick of, “Trying to find meaning in your silences” and demands, “I must know who you are.” It seems he’s now ready for the big reveal and announces to Augusta that they’re leaving and Charlotte’s coming with them.
The pair then go back to his place to Netflix and chill. No, of course not. I kid. They go back for some alone time, some meaningful conversation, and to make out like teenagers on the sofa.
No, seriously. That part’s true. We’re invited to just go with the flow here.
Erase every perception you may have had about notions of “propriety” during the Regency. At this point don’t so much suspend your disbelief, as take a protection order out against it, which insists that it stay 500 yards away from you at all times. Best not to dwell on the potentially devastating consequences for a young woman at that time, who might go back to a single man’s house late at night, and hang out with him, unchaperoned. Never mind enjoy a passionate kiss.
Best not to ponder whether this is even something which a socially aware young woman of the time, particularly one who had literally just been assaulted, would possibly have considered doing. Or indeed, whether a “gentleman” would have suggested it.
This was an era when the perception of female “virtue” was guarded fiercely. When the mere act of sitting on the same sofa together, was considered a fan fluttering intimacy, of such magnitude that it could require an immediate betrothal.
Perhaps what we see here, is all in an effort to draw a contrast between a more “mature” relationship between Charlotte and Colbourne, and the sweeter, more ‘innocent”, first love of her younger sister Alison. Whatever the motivation, Charlotte is charting her own course. Much as she was with Sidney on that clifftop in episode eight of season one.
Whether this ultimately represents a tentative assertion of her free will and some degree of empowerment, or culminates in her once again, being subject to the whims, capriciousness, and flawed decision making of men, remains to be seen.
You suspect that there’ll be many in the audience who’ll simply go with this, and relish it. Indeed you sense that Austen might well have gotten a kick out of it. It is after all, not a documentary on social mores during the Regency. It’s a piece of fiction, intended to entertain.
However, there’ll undoubtedly be those for whom it’ll feel too jarring. Also, despite this very clearly being an entirely consensual encounter for both parties, it’s certainly a somewhat risky narrative to choose. Particularly given how the employer/employee power imbalance factor, could land with a modern audience.
It’s certainly a lot to unpack, negotiate, and frankly, overlook. I can see both audience perspectives on this. Personally, I just wonder if Mary, Georgiana, or her sister Alison ever noticed that Charlotte was gone from the ball? Did she tell them she was leaving, or just hop into a carriage with Colbourne and Augusta? I’d pay to be a fly on the wall when she slinks back to Trafalgar House.
This is a glimpse of the subserve Sanditon, which you either love or loathe. The one which gave us Sir Edward and Clara getting frisky in the woods, and subsequently on Lady D’s serpentine floor tiles. The one which saw Sidney rising from the sea in all his naked glory, displaying himself shamelessly to a stunned Charlotte.
It’s one which says, “We’ll see your Pearl clutching and raise you a respiratory arrest.” It always amuses me and makes me quietly admire their audacity, while often questioning their wisdom. It’s essentially a narrative approach, in which the ends justify whatever means take their fancy.
It’ll work for some, but will undoubtedly irritate others. So, whether this moment gives you the warm and fuzzies, or makes you squirm for the second time in this episode, will doubtless be entirely subjective.
However, at least and at last, we get to see Colbourne and Charlotte have a long overdue conversation. One in which they meaningfully interact, via actual words, rather than endless glances. As a result, we finally learn some vital information.
We get background on Colbourne’s failed first marriage and on his wife’s infidelity with none other than the Creepy Colonel himself, then holding the rank of Captain Lennox. Colbourne also expresses his continued guilt about his response.
He believes that his conduct towards his late wife Lucy, contributed directly to her tragic death – the nature of which is strongly hinted at, but not explicitly revealed.
We also discover that little Leo is not his biological child, but is Lennox’s daughter. The consequence of which, is his ongoing struggle to bond with, and effectively parent the little one. Sadly, Leo discovers this too, as she’s eavesdropping from behind the door.
It’s a significant and emotive scene and one which, for long term fans, will have an added richness. You can’t help sensing, that at least part of the depth of Charlotte’s compassion for the tortured Colbourne, and her desire to counsel and to warn, lies not merely in her evident attraction to him, but in her own understanding of the impact which dwelling on the sorrows of the past, can have.
When she tells Colbourne that he must forgive himself, “Else the past thwart the future. A future that I imagine could be very dear indeed”, it’s a statement which clearly has layers of emotional resonance for them both.
The whole scene is well played by Rose Williams and Ben Lloyd-Hughes, both of whom are actors who bring sensitivity and authenticity to their performances. It’s also certainly not devoid of the requisite passion.
However, for me, it sadly falls foul of one of my perpetual issues with this season. Yet again, it all feels unnecessarily rushed.
One of the signatures of this type of period drama, is delayed gratification. The ultimate reward, of our favourite couple finally embracing their mutual attraction and indeed each other, is almost always hard earned. A kiss between these two, at this point, seems oddly premature.
Their love story still feels hollow and loosely founded: the direct result of a ridiculous and sustained lack of screen time for Lloyd-Hughes, and an extraordinary decision to have the characters barely communicate with each other, beyond telepathy.
Part of the many great joys with Austen is the beautifully woven dialogue between the characters. They spar with, and spark off each other, and in doing so we come to understand who they are and why they’d make the perfect couple.
This hasn’t happened, to any meaningful extent, with these two. I’m just not sure that the production has put the work in yet, to make this feel like a genuinely satisfying moment. Or indeed, a fully realised love story.
To this point, one of the many real gifts about Rose William’s portrayal of Charlotte Heywood, has been that the character never felt anything less than entirely human and sympathetic to us.
You feel protective of her and you want her to succeed – to find her own version of a happy ever after. You sense her journey still has some way to go before it reaches that destination. We’re also still unsure at this stage, what that might even look like for her. She clearly has considerable obstacles to overcome, to know herself, her desires, and her self worth.
More importantly, to ensure that she never compromises on any of those things. It will be interesting to see whether this latest bold step, moves her forward on that journey, or takes her backwards. Also, whether she can continue to take the audience with her, as her instincts are tested, and her motivations become increasingly contradictory and confused.
Season finale, here we come!
Reviewed by guest writer Gillian Clifford.
Season 1 is available on DVD on Amazon.