Sarah returns from Manchester disappointed and anxious, as her efforts to find Robert are dashed, and Lydia greets her with nothing but bitterness. A bottle of Scotch and the companionship of Joe Astell ease her loneliness, but the new year brings her back to business. Sarah firmly pleads with the complacent Mr. Holly to try to find a solution for Lydia, but he continues to think only of himself. Meanwhile, in the face of relentless worries, Robert turns to Mrs. Beddows for reassurance about Midge, who finally begins to show acceptance of her situation. But when Huggins asks Robert to drop his opposition to the land deal, suggesting it could be to his own financial benefit, the enraged Robert loses control and makes an accusation with devastating consequences. What follows are hard choices for the residents of South Riding, who face a future of uncertainty and heartbreak, but also of hope.
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Warning: Contains significant plot spoilers
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Sarah learns that Robert has left the hotel and dashes back to South Riding, awkwardly visiting Mrs. Beddows's house, where she makes flimsy excuses for reappearing. Hearing that Robert will shortly be returning with Midge, Sarah scurries out to avoid him and visit Lydia Holly. But she is met with disappointment there as well, for Lydia, consumed by the drudgery of raising her young siblings, no longer has time or need for the school satchel and poetry Sarah had brought. Rather than being inspired, Lydia is bitter and sullen. Only a visit that night from Joe when he sees her light and knocks on her door manages to cheer Sarah, and the two companions share whiskey and a kiss, Sarah vowing she is done with love. When the school term begins, she busies herself in work and tries to forget Robert, appealing to Mr. Holly to find someone to help out at home so that Lydia can return to school.
Robert gives a precious brooch of Muriel's to Mrs. Beddows, explaining that his wife will never recover, never return home. He asks his old friend if she would care for Midge should anything, God forbid, ever happen to him, and is reassured when she answers yes. But he is heartened when his daughter, so nervous and unstable, finally understands and accepts their predicament, consoling her father that together, they will be all right.
With the help of Gaius Drew, the desperate Huggins cashes in his life insurance to buy property in the Wastes, hoping to raise money to repay his debt to Snaith. But the Town Council still hasn't decided on a location for the new estates, and Huggins, foreseeing an obstacle in the principled Robert Carne, ventures to Maythorpe to ask Robert to drop his opposition to the housing scheme. Insinuating that the estate's development could benefit Robert were he to invest in the site and flip it, he arouses Robert's ire. Enraged, Robert storms off to the county hall where he interrupts a committee meeting to accuse Snaith of corruption. But Snaith, who has kept his hands clean, sees an opportunity in the allegations and warns Robert that he intends to sue for slander, vowing to ruin the already-troubled man.
True to his word, Snaith begins the process of bankrupting Carne, who stops by the school to tell Sarah that he will be stepping down from the council. There, the two finally have it out, both admitting humiliation, both admitting that they mattered to one another, but both unable to get past the incident in Manchester. Frustrated and hurt, Sarah asks him to leave and he rides off into the stormy afternoon. He rides to the cliff, the surf pounding below, tilts his head up to the sky and lets the rain fall on his face.
Midge awaits her father at Maythorpe. Even the next morning, he has not returned, and Mrs. Beddows retrieves Midge from school to tell her the tragic news that her father's horse was found dead on the beach below the cliff. Sarah privately collapses in grief.
Robert had recently changed his will making Mrs. Beddows Midge's guardian. Eyebrows are raised around South Riding, as gossipers and even friends speculate on the nature of Robert's death. But Sarah remains his firm defender, explaining to Joe that she simply must believe that he had suffered an accident and still had hope in the future. But Joe is focused on the future himself and wants Sarah to be a part of it. He wants to make a difference, working to prevent the coming war, and only Sarah returning his love would enable him to stay. But she lets him go.
When Robert's body washes up on shore, a funeral brings out those who loved him and as well as the town's hypocrites, who insinuate in whispers that Robert took his own life. Sarah, defending him, defiantly reveals their intimacy as Robert is pictured in the rain, on the cliff, the ground crumbling away beneath the hoofs of his horse who scrambles to regain footing but ultimately falls. At the funeral, Midge's grandfather Lord Sedgmire appears to collect his granddaughter in spite of Robert's wishes, coldly claiming her and asking her to choose: a finishing school on the Continent, or remaining with Mrs. Beddows. To Mrs. Beddows's heartbreak, Midge chooses the grandfather and as she disappears with the man, her fate, devoid of love, is sealed.
Looking for Sarah, the shattered Mrs. Beddows discovers that the headmistress has resigned and is on her way to London. Desperate, she gathers Lydia and rushes to the train station as Sarah's train is waiting to depart. She comforts Sarah, revealing that she too had loved Robert, more than was good for her, and that Sarah is not the first to be humiliated or disappointed in love. Appealing to Sarah's passion for her girls, she shows her Lydia, waiting hopefully for her teacher to return. The girl smiles brightly as Sarah disembarks the train; she will stay after all.
Months later, Huggins has lost his savings when the estates are built on a different location than the Wastes; Maythorpe has been acquired by the Council and transformed into The Robert Carne Memorial Hospital — there, Muriel finally returns home. Lydia is off to Oxford, and Sarah's new school has been completed. At the ceremony, she urges her girls to question everything, to open their eyes and ears, and their hearts.