In this post I want to look at the main characters and determine who has grown, or changed (which has been the operative word in this series), and who has shown almost no development throughout the show. I am not necessarily arguing that each character should change, or that a dramedy is built on characters changing and developing, but since we’ve had the matter of whether people can change surface numerous times throughout the years, I think it’s worth looking at the key figures for signs of change. (Here we go again…the topic of change and a long post. I am guilty of being longwinded!)
Our core ensemble consists of Martin, Louisa, Ruth, Mrs. Tishell, Bert, Al, Morwenna, and Joe Penhale. I think we’ve spent enough time discussing whether Martin can change, has changed, should change, doesn’t need to change, etc., etc. We’ve spent some time on Louisa too, although we might want to linger a bit longer on her. However, we have hardly touched on the other characters, and it seems fitting that we look at them.
Ruth is someone who has been a curiosity for some time. We’ve mentioned that she equivocates about whether people can change. At one point she tells Louisa people don’t change; at another point she tells Al that he writes his own story and he’s in charge of his life, and then she tells Martin that if he wants Louisa to stay with him, he’ll have to change. She acts convinced that he can make the necessary changes. Furthermore, as I’ve written in the past, as a psychiatrist, she must be convinced that people can change. It might take some medication combined with therapy to institute change, but there would be no value in working with the criminally insane if one had no hope they could change.
How does Ruth behave in terms of change in her own life?
- The most significant change for Ruth has been moving to Portwenn from London, but London isn’t totally out of her system yet. She returns to London regularly and in S7 she considers taking a job in London. We never hear of any friends or colleagues in London, and she has family and friends in Portwenn, but Ruth is very much a loner. Her supposed propensity to share too much is rarely in evidence. (Perhaps the one time she could be said to have done this is when she mentions the christening date to Louisa. But she would have expected Martin to have made those arrangements with Louisa. She also offers some advice about boarding schools despite the apparent difference of opinion about them between Martin and Louisa.)
- She learns to do things around the farm, but hires Al for most of the work. At one point she serves a chicken for dinner and divulges that she killed it when she ran over it (something that would be unlikely to happen in London). In S7 she grabs a mouse without hesitation. She has fended off two intruders on her property: former patient Robert Campbell, and next door neighbor Michael. Both are armed, yet Ruth is calm under pressure. Presumably working with the criminally insane has given her good preparation for these events. Although we haven’t heard of anything like this happening in London, we have to expect Ruth is pretty self-sufficient, both in London and in Portwenn. Nevertheless, the second intrusion shakes her up a bit and she moves into town.
- She is often in denial about her own medical conditions, or hates to admit she has any problems. This trait continues through S7 when she neglects to mention the symptoms of Polymyalgia and Giant Cell Arteritis just as she had before when she was diagnosed with Sjogren’s.
- Work is important to Ruth. When she moves to Portwenn, she writes a book. As time passes, she continues to work and often protests that she wants to keep working despite aging. She is often called on to consult and in S7 delivers a paper at a forensics meeting. However, her recommendation of Dr. Timoney ends up being a dubious choice.
- Ruth accepts being in a small town means being questioned on the radio and dealing with goofy constable and cantankerous neighbor in town. Her willingness to agree to being put on the spot by Caroline shows some modification of her behavior to suit her location. She is usually quick with advice to her in town neighbor Mr. Moysey, to Penhale, and to Martin and Louisa. Unlike her sister Joan, though, Ruth usually waits to be asked before dispensing her opinion. (One of the few times when she decides to take action without being asked is with Margaret. The scene with Ruth and Margaret is phenomenal and we’d like to see more of that.)
During S7 Ruth had much less than expected interaction with either Martin or Louisa and much more with Bert. I, for one, thought she would once again be the voice of reason who sets one or both of them straight. When S7 begins, we see Martin desperately appeal to her for help with getting Louisa back and she helps by referring him to Dr. Timoney. Later she convinces Louisa to attend the therapy sessions. Otherwise there is only one other point at which Ruth participates in their efforts to reunite: when she asks Martin how things are going as they walk to the birthday party. Here she is doing something slightly out of character by bringing an elaborate birthday cake to the party, and Martin expresses serious doubts as to how much progress they’ve been making. Nevertheless, her advice is fairly minimal. As she did with Margaret, I would have loved to have seen Ruth confront Louisa to ask what she wants from Martin. If Dr. T wasn’t going to handle that in therapy, then by all means give that job to Ruth.
Instead, what we see in S7 is a Ruth who is trying to manage her own life more than be a source of comfort and guidance to Martin and Louisa. Her interactions with Bert show her equivocating again, but this time it’s about Bert staying on her property and distilling whiskey. Ultimately, Ruth appears to decide that the only way the B&B with Al is going to be profitable is if they can offer a specialty whiskey along with fishing trips. Whatever research she did to confirm Al’s numbers that fishing will bring in lodgers has been supplanted by Ruth’s new affirmation of liquor, an activity I would have never guessed she would support.
So has Ruth changed? Well, she has adapted to living in a small town with all the lack of dirt and noise, but with the unavoidable interactions with the townspeople. Her life is now filled with country living intrusions like unsophisticated radio talk show hosts, preparing freshly killed chickens, and helping with family affairs (babysitting, dealing with Margaret, birthday cakes). Otherwise she continues to be an independent woman trying hard to fend off the aging process and any tolerance for slowing down. Martin still seeks her out as a person he can talk to, but rather infrequently, and I had the sense that Ruth’s concerns about being marginalized in her old age were justified based on her role in S7. (I felt Eileen Atkins’ vast acting ability was underused in S7 and she was given very few opportunities to showcase her skills.)
The next most important members of the ensemble are Bert and Al. Sadly, neither of them have been able to shake their typical behavior patterns. Bert can’t make a success out of the restaurant no matter what promotional events he tries, his love life falls apart, and his newest idea of making whiskey seems doomed too. Al can’t catch a break. He always needs to fall back on the help of his friends in the community and his father. The fishing/B&B venture seemed headed for some vindication of his abilities, which are primarily centered on working with his hands, assisting others, and being a nice guy. But he’s not afforded much of a triumph in this series, and he finds himself back in the same rut he’s been in all of his adult life.
The one poignant scene they give Bert and Al is after Al finds Bert in his camper van out on a hillside. Al rightly expresses surprise that Bert continues to have an optimistic outlook on life after all his recent losses. He sees the Large men as failures, but Bert looks at the world through the lens of “things could be worse.” We have to admit that one advantage of living in the country is being able to view the expanse of earth, sky and sea from where they sit. From that position there are infinite possibilities, and with a few nips from his flask, Bert is ready for new challenges — or so he says at the time. Of course, once reality sets in and he finds his best source of income would be to be a plumber/handyman again, his outlook isn’t so rosy anymore.
By the end of the series, Bert’s optimism has been rewarded and he’s ready to establish a new franchise with his name on it. “Seldom right, but never in doubt.” He hasn’t changed, doesn’t want to change, and probably never will. Al hasn’t changed despite trying, and his prospects of change are dim. He better get used to working with his Dad if he’s going to stay in Portwenn.
Joe Penhale is also quite stagnant as a character. He’s overcome his initial psychological disorders of narcolepsy and agoraphobia (and possibly acrophobia) fairly easily (which probably means they reconsidered those as worth continuing and decided against them). He’s mostly dense, or unable to clearly decipher what others are saying to him, with some exceptions. He wants to be seen as a figure of authority without really earning it, but he’s a nice guy and does his best to help when people find themselves in a pinch. His personal life is relatively lacking even though he has been married. Since appearing on the show in S3, Joe has consistently retained his mixture of inept policing coupled with a desire to befriend everyone. He is basically a static and stock character, and, as such, can be counted on to stay the same.
The final 3 characters we should look at are the women, Mrs. Tishell, Morwenna, and Louisa. At first blush Mrs. T seems to be rather static too. Throughout the length of the show her most prominent attributes have been her neck collar and her obsession with Martin. No matter how hard she tries, she cannot rid herself of either of these. When ME first arrived in Portwenn, it was amusing to think any woman would be consumed by an attraction to him. His behavior was anything but appealing. In time her obsession became a personality tick, and then it became utterly grating. But still it persisted. In S7 Mrs. T is back to her usual excessive self, overly obsequious and accosting Martin at every opportunity. However, when Clive returns and is so apologetic and contrite, Sally reconsiders. We finally see her modify her behavior a bit, although even in the final episode she is still hovering around Martin’s front door, neck collar in place, ready to pounce. She’s done a little evolving, but we can’t yet call it a major shift.
Morwenna may be one of the most changed characters. Our introduction to her made her seem like a fairly unreliable worker, lacking in skills or sense of responsibility. Once she lands the job as Martin’s receptionist, however, she develops into a hard worker who is dependable and eventually very capable. Elaine had been quite a disaster, Pauline was feisty and ambitious while exhibiting some notable foibles, but Morwenna has learned to handle patients well, manage the office and Martin proficiently and discreetly, and become someone quite trustworthy. She’s a stable force in a village filled with unpredictability. While Pauline was generally honorable, she betrayed Martin’s trust for her own amusement several times. We can’t imagine Morwenna sending out pictures of Martin in a compromising position, spreading rumors, or broadcasting Martin and Louisa’s conversation over loudspeakers in the town square. She can still be amusing, but her ethics are unimpeachable. He wide-eyed look masks a pretty shrewd young woman.
Louisa is the character that most confounds us. What they have done with her in S7 is to convert her from a strong, independent woman who generally sees herself as the glue that keeps the village together to a woman whose interaction with the village is curtailed and whose involvement with the school takes a backseat to her personal concerns. Throughout the show Louisa has defended the children, the parents, the various members of the town, extended herself to help many townspeople manage problems they encounter, and stood up to authority when necessary. She, and the school, are the opposite tentpoles to Martin and the surgery building. The town is suspended between these poles and the harbor is where the twain meets. When Louisa walks across to the surgery, or when Martin goes to the school, we often see sparks fly. But then Louisa moves into the surgery with Martin and the two poles find a meeting place for a while. We can’t have too much tranquility, and their home becomes a battlefield eventually. School papers are misplaced, baby clothes and toys take up space, and the baby conflicts with seeing patients. Two working parents vie for the upper hand and child minders and grandmothers intrude on any privacy. For most of the show, Louisa would be described as tough but gentle; perhaps strong yet needy. Now in S7 she’s become harsh, unyielding, and distracted from much to do with the school. There are no scenes inside the school, and the one school event included takes place outside and primarily on a hill not far from the surgery building. Her life is now mostly at the surgery.
Louisa’s hair and clothes are also indicative of how she changes over time. In the early series, Louisa is young, energetic, highly motivated to be the headmistress and do her job well, and ready to find the right man. We are often treated to watching her walk away, ponytail and pocketbook swinging as she goes. She wears jeans or other relatively informal clothes indicative of a carefree young woman enjoying life. She is also playful with Martin, kissing his cheek in passing and encouraging his interest in her. What happened between S5 and 6 is hard to deduce, but their hand-in-hand departure during the last scene of S5 followed by their decision to marry, can’t help but make us think their time together went well. However, in S6 and 7, as the reality of how the marriage is going, and the demands of dealing with a compromised husband and a child, combine with the responsibilities of managing the school clouds descend on her. Her lightheartedness and good naturedness take a beating. Where once she stroked Martin’s cheek and expressed concern for his feelings, now she tends to become both resentful and filled with self-recrimination. Her clothes are now more adult and somber and reflect the change in her social status to wife of the GP as well as headmistress of the school. In S7, Louisa’s hair and clothing indicate a change to a more severe and repressed woman. CC has gorgeous hair, and in other series she has worn it down a few times, but only once in S7 – when she brings Martin his clock when he’s sleeping in the nursery. That occasion also leads us to think there’s a chance she might stay and talk. But that is a false premise and her casual appearance leads to nothing. The ponytail is now longer and swings less, and her clothes are much more severe. Things have lightened somewhat since S6, and Louisa wears brighter colors, but now she is serious and protected.
(After watching the series, I had the distinct impression that among the ways in which we are given hints about the forthcoming reconciliation is that Louisa’s clothes often complement Martin’s in color. Nevertheless, Louisa is no longer a young ingenue; she is now a grownup in every way.)
Another change we can’t ignore is how Louisa now handles Martin’s missteps. During the first 5 series, Louisa is not dissuaded from wanting to be with Martin despite many insults: her breath smells bad, she’s stalking him, her perfume smells like urine, she must be emotional because she’s menstruating, she snores at night and keeps him awake, she needs to lose weight following the delivery of JH, and the many times when he disparages her job or her school, as well as the frequent occasions when he neglects to consult her about decisions to do with the home or the baby. But now, in S7, no amount of compliments can persuade her to allow him back in the house. This is both a reversal of how Louisa has reacted previously and, therefore, quite a change; but also, it is another example of how Martin being “normal” has never been an obsession of hers. We can only accept that declaration under the narrowest of conditions, i.e. that she has only been obsessed with normality in Martin and others since she returned from Spain. If we believe this, we must also believe that her time spent in Spain led to her return with the unspoken, and possible subconscious, proviso that she could only accept a reconciliation if he adopts “normal” behavior, and the people of Portwenn do too. That would be a provision that would be impossible to satisfy, and it is, until she comes to the realization that it is once Martin gives her an ultimatum. (Again, I feel like I have to contort myself into this explanation because it is not verifiable at all. At most it is only after Louisa makes the uncanny comment that she has been obsessed with people being “normal,” that we are in search of when this obsession began and how it first manifested itself. Otherwise, we are truly blindsided by this proclamation and can only find evidence to the contrary.)
Louisa has forgiven many gaffes by Martin, but she’s no longer in a forgiving mood in S7. Perhaps the only person she forgives in S7 is herself when she notes that she’s made a terrible mistake during their conversation in the final scene. Is she back to being the caring and kind person she once was? Did she come to the realization that she needed to change and not Martin? All rather hard to know except that if we take her at her word, even if we can’t really find a way to validate it, she has.
In the end the show appears to be as equivocal about change as Ruth. People don’t change, but sometimes they need to change, and it’s up to each of us to write our own story. Louisa changed, found out the change didn’t work out well for her, and now wants to rewrite her story. Luckily she has that prerogative within the scope of a story written for TV. (I’m done writing about change now. You can all breathe a sigh of relief!)
Originally posted 2016-01-30 18:56:43.