We begin in America, with a group of soldiers taking a break from the Revolutionary War. But there’s a twist! Even though Part One of Poldark is being broadcast on PBS, our boys aren’t Americans, and fictional versions of the Founding Fathers are nowhere to be found. Instead, the fighters are none other than Redcoats, and our dashing hero Ross Poldark is one of them — until he gets knocked out by an ambush.
Two years and one flashback of his beloved later, Ross is back in his native Cornwall, and the BBC’s second adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels is off to its stateside start. Ross has gone from brooding around the fireplace to brooding in a carriage as strangers trash-talk him. It’s through said trash talk that Ross learns some bad news. Not only was he forced to enlist or go to the gallows for brawling; now that he’s finally made his way home, two years later, his father’s dead.
And that’s not all! Once he stops by the family manor, presided over by his uncle, he learns that dad has left him destitute, with no way to make a living off the land he just inherited. Like the rest of southeast England, the lesser branch of the Poldark family (Uncle Charles is the older and considerably wealthier brother) has fallen on hard times. The mines have run dry, the house has fallen into disrepair…and Ross’ ex-girlfriend is now engaged to his cousin Francis because she thought he was dead. Guy can’t catch a break!
Ross isn’t a man easily dissuaded, though, so in between many, many horseback rides along the scenic English coastline, he starts working with what little he has. Yelling his two servants into shape and promising his tenants he’ll look after their needs with—gasp!—manual labor if need be, Ross is even man enough to save his cousin from drowning in a mine! A lesser person would have murdered a family member to put a move on his grieving almost-widow, but not Ross.
After proving once again that he’s a stand-up impoverished aristocrat by attending said cousin’s wedding to his ex, Ross gets an intriguing offer from his uncle: leave Cornwall behind for a new life in London, funded by Charles himself. As both he and, later, Elizabeth point out, there’s not exactly a whole lot for Ross to do in late 18th-century Cornwall with no income, no girlfriend, and a general shift in power away from landowning families like his to bourgeois bankers like George Warleggan and his uncle, who hang around the premiere like an unpleasant odor. There’s an (industrial) revolution coming, and the Poldarks aren’t going to come out on top.
In the meantime, however, there are tomboys with abusive fathers to save. So Ross intervenes on behalf of Demelza, a Merida-esque redhead, and gives her a job as a kitchen maid even though he can’t afford to feed her, let alone pay her. (He can, however, make sure she’s lice-free!) The dog comes along free.
Demelza’s father, obviously, isn’t happy that his runaway has been taken in by a dashing young war veteran. He happens to catch Ross in a bad mood, since he’s just had The Talk with Elizabeth—the talk all relationships, even British period ones, eventually end with, i.e. the “We can never be friends!” Talk. That exact line of dialogue is yelled, angrily, by Ross. So Abusive Dad and Ross brawl while two competing mobs of tenants (Team Abusing Our Daughters Is Our God-Given Right versus Team We Like the New Landlord So Let’s Not Push Our Luck with Another One, Okay?) brawl outside. Ross wins, but also calls Demelza “more trouble than she’s worth” while she’s hiding in a cabinet.
All of which sets up the triumphant final scene: Ross sees the light; Ross picks Demelza up via horse-ridden-across-mindbendingly-gorgeous-landscape; Ross tells Elizabeth he’s resolved to stick around Cornwall after all, though not before he lets her beg him to stay. “I lost sight of something,” he tells her. “I came in search of it. Having found it, I’m going home.” Cue sunset shot of run down (but still pretty!) ancestral home.