Recapping ‘Poldark’: Season 1, Episode 1

Look how pretty Ross and Elizabeth are. (Photo: Robert Viglasky/Mammoth Screen for MASTERPIECE.)

Poldark Sundays, June 21 - August 2, 2015 on MASTERPIECE on PBS Part One Sunday, June 21, 9:00 - 10:00pm ET After fighting for England in the American Revolution, Poldark returns home to Cornwall and finds wrenching change. He loses one close friend and gains another. Shown from left to right: Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark and Heida Reed as Elizabeth (C) Robert Viglasky/Mammoth Screen for MASTERPIECE This image may be used only in the direct promotion of MASTERPIECE. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

It’s finally happened – the highly touted, highly anticipated remake of classic romantic period drama Poldark, starring The Hobbit’s Aidan Turner and a host of other very pretty people, has arrived.

So let’s talk about it. 

Meet Ross Poldark. Our adventure opens with Ross Poldark, titular hero, wearing an infamous British red coat and gambling in America. It’s the Revolutionary War, and there’s some brief plot exposition so it’s established early on that Ross is 1.) British  2.) A man who has been conscripted to fight against the insurrectionist Americans to avoid getting hanged for brawling 3.) A good dude who thinks that the British are wrong about this war in the first place. See, you can like him! He loves liberty! And is brave and attractive! Don’t worry about him trying to squash the founding of our country or anything, he’s cool with it! Really!

Mercifully, Ross gets knocked out after about five minutes of this and shipped back to England, because he’s either injured or captured or the war’s over, who knows. It doesn’t really matter anyway, the important bit is that he’s back in Cornwall and things are way, way different than when he left. Happily, Ross gets a ride home in a Plot Exposition Carriage, where some random people gossip about him and his family while they think he is asleep, so as to better inform the audience of his current situation. We learn that everyone thought he was dead in America (whoops), that he was of little credit to his family during the fighting (ouch) and that everyone thinks his dad was a scoundrel and a libertine and generally a terrible person (yikes). We also learn that Poldark the Elder has passed away, and it’s at this news that Ross reveals that of course, he was not asleep at all and was listening to everything.

He wants to know when it happened, and the rude lady informs him it’s been at least six months since his father died and at least tries to fake being sorry for dropping the news on him out of nowhere like that. Ross decides to abandon the Plot Exposition Carriage in favor of walking to his uncle’s house, so that he make a lame joke about how he knows his father evidently won’t be at home tonight and also so he can stare into the sunset dramatically. (This scenery is so pretty though, I almost don’t mind.)

You know that bit from The LEGO Movie when Batman’s playing his rock song and he’s all DARKNESS. NO PARENTS?! That’s basically what’s going on for poor Ross Poldark at the moment, and he responds to it in much the same way as tiny LEGO Batman, really: Be confronted with a problem. Internalize bad news. Stare off moodily into space about it for a while. Ross Poldark is Batman, possibly. Maybe? 

The ‘Surprise, I’m Alive’ Tour is Maybe Not Going So Well. Meanwhile, at Ross’ uncle’s house, a dinner party is going on, featuring several older people we’re going to assume are the relatives, along with a random guy and a pretty girl whom Ross was having rather dramatic romantic flashbacks about earlier. They all look pretty happy in total, and of course, that’s exactly when Ross shows up to ruin everything with his continued existence. Sorry, folks! Not really, though.

Everybody seems pretty psyched to see him – not to mention really surprised he’s alive, like, do they think he got murdered Red Viper from Game of Thrones-style or what? – and Ross is pretty jazzed that so much of his family is all in one room, including his cousin (Francis) and his (I guess?) sort of girlfriend Elizabeth. Except that Elizabeth is clearly being super awkward around him, and insisting that she needs to talk to him, which as we all know, are basically red flags for “I have a massive secret you won’t like.” That secret turns out to be that she’s set to marry Cousin Francis, because everyone thought Ross was really most sincerely dead and has moved on pretty quickly. Elizabeth’s mom breaks this news to Ross with a sort of weird glee, and things kind of go downhill from there.

Other bad news: It turns out that in addition to being a horrible human being, Poldark the Elder was apparently a terrible businessman and has basically left all his affairs in tatters, so there’s almost nothing left for Ross to inherit. Mines have also been closing all over Cornwall and there are no jobs to be had. Everything is awful, basically. (Sing THAT to the tune of the LEGO Movie song!) Things continue to suck when Ross goes home to Nampara, where he finds the family servants sleeping in his father’s old room and animals living in the house and hay everywhere. Ross, love, maybe you should have just stayed in America.

Time to Get on With Things Then. The next day, Ross mopes some more over the state of things generally before setting the (completely cliché) servants – whose names are Prudie and Jud, just in case you want to write the Punch and Judy jokes I’m trying to ignore - to cleaning up the mess that is the house. Ross then visits his father’s grave before continuing along on his “Surprise, Still Alive” Informational Tour, visiting with several of the estate’s tenants, who basically all hug it out with him immediately and offer to help him rebuild his father’s farm for free. Why? Ross is just awesome I guess, or maybe Poldark the Elder was bad at business but great with people, IDK.

Anyway, Ross refuses because he can’t let them do that for him, not when they’re already working all day for his uncle for a pittance already. People seem sort of shocked that he’s come back from the war as such a serious and responsible man. (He must have been real terrible before he went to America?) Ross then goes to see his banker to figure out exactly what’s up with his father’s estate. Turns out he’s been left the house, a couple of derelict mines, a few cottages and that’s about it. All the land has been left fallow and everything is basically a wreck. His banker also points out that Poldark the Elder had debts, and the land is mortgaged like crazy, not to mention not actually making any money at the moment. He says he’d love to help if he could, but Ross is just a bad risk. Womp womp. He says maybe Ross should think about heading somewhere else to make his fortune, because everything sucks for him in this town. (Get ready: This is about to be a recurring theme.)

Elizabeth’s Mom Drops Some Real Talk. Elizabeth’s mom catches her trying to go see Ross and, though her daughter explains that she just wants to tell him the truth about what happened and discuss what they should do now. Total Cliché Mom is completely horrified, insisting that there’s nothing to be done because she’s engaged to Francis, who is rich and has an estate and loves her. She says all Poldark has to offer her is poverty and scandal and an uncertain future. Elizabeth tries to protest that she isn’t bothered about such material things, but her mom argues that if Ross really cared about her, wouldn’t he have shown up to fight for her by now? Elizabeth looks conflicted, which confirms for me she’s probably going to be the worst sort of annoying female character with no backbone and I’m already not looking forward to this emotional upheaval or love triangle or whatever is coming. (And, not for nothing, my initial presumption that Elizabeth’s mother is overbearing and creepy seems to be holding out.)

As everyone else on this show does, Elizabeth heads to the scenery to stare into space about it. Eventually, Francis shows up to see her and tells her that he knows he may not be as interesting or brave as some people maybe, but he promises he’ll love her forever and basically be grateful she picked him for the rest of her life. Elizabeth looks kind of sad, but says she can’t wait to marry him, and Francis kind of starts crying, and you sort of end up feeling bad for him because this sort of feels very unfair. 

Ross Tries to Pull His Life Together. Ross runs into Verity Poldark – she’s Ross’ cousin and Francis’ sister and she is awesome – and she tells him that Elizabeth and Francis are due to be married in a fortnight, and that their relationship happened very fast. Ross, who is clearly hurt, makes a snarky comment about how Elizabeth probably just noticed how much money he had. The two of them stare out into the gorgeous scenery for a while, until Verity apologizes for how bad things are for Ross, but he just says he’s going to have to find his own way out of his problems.

This seems to involve a lot of attempts at fence repair, lugging a lot of hay around, drinking in the woods around a fire with some of the tenants from the cottages on his estate and staring off into space regularly. Then Francis comes to pay him a visit – to see how he’s doing and find out why he’s not responded to his wedding invite yet. For whatever reason, they decided to have this conversation in a mine that is largely flooded with water, which means that literally everyone should suspect that something dramatic is going to happen.

Anyway, Francis also mentions that his father, Ross’ uncle is concerned about him and wants to encourage him to make good choices in his life, perhaps by doing something simple like, for example, moving away to somewhere else entirely. He insists that he never had any designs on coming between Ross and Elizabeth, but he couldn’t help it that they had feelings for each other and plus they all thought he was dead anyway. This is finally what sets Ross off, asking why Francis has to rub his nose in the situation and shouting so loudly he actually startles Francis into falling off a cliff. Well, not really a cliff so much as just off a ledge and into a gross looking pool of mine water, and then we have to go through the dark moment where Ross internally debates whether he’s going to let his friend die over a woman blah blah, hello he’s the hero they’re not going to make him a murderer in the first episode. Anyway, Ross saves non-swimming Francis, and all is right with the world again, I guess. 

Francis and Elizabeth Get Married. Next stop: Francis and Elizabeth’s wedding. Ross, of course, attends it because he is a masochist. He stands in the back with Verity to watch all his dreams get crushed and have flashbacks about running around the gorgeous scenery (in the sunset no less!) with Elizabeth before he went off to war. Verity, whose job apparently seems to be to serve as human plot exposition device, explains that George  Warleggan, a young man who went to school with Ross way back when, is now an ambitious young banker looking to rise in the world. You can also sort of see that no one seems to like these people much, so, potential villain alert, ahoy.

The wedding reception is held back at Francis’ parents house and there’s food and dancing and general merriment. In case you didn’t pick up the memo that the Warleggans are kind of gross climbers, George and his uncle have a frank discussion about whether the uncle should have “purchased” Elizabeth for George, but ultimately the uncle decides the Poldarks are basically worthless beyond their name and can get foreclosed on at any moment.  Lovely people!

And, because this is a wedding reception and obviously a perfect time for this conversation, Elizabeth tries to talk to Ross about the fact that she just married someone who is not him. She’s surprised that he didn’t come to see her so they could talk about her engagement or whatever, but Ross puts on his best snotty voice and says there was no formal recognition of any kind of status between them, so everybody’s happy and they can all move on. Elizabeth tries to convince him they can stay friends but Ross looks like he’d rather eat dirt. 

The Uncle Makes an Offer. BUT THEN. Because this show is already ridiculous, Ross’ weird old aunt decides to tell the future of the family via tarot cards after Elizabeth’s wedding, for fun, I guess. Her reading of the cards is kind of a dire one, and she predicts that the dark Poldark will be set against the fair, and as one rises the other falls because all is fair in love and war ohh nooooo. I feel like Weird Aunt Whoever had better keep her day job because she is crazy nonspecific with her future predictions.

Her ridiculousness IS enough to spur Uncle Charles into action, probably because as nice as he realizes Francis is, he definitely seems more pretty than smart. So he goes to see Ross to tell him that he feels badly about being the older son and always getting the better deal in life than his brother – Ross’ father – had. He wants to do the right thing and help Ross start his life over –preferably somewhere far away from Cornwall, like say London. He says he could be a lawyer or join the church or anything really, and he’ll help him pay for it all, because there’s nothing left for Ross in their town. Plus, it’s what his father would have wanted for him. Ross, of course, is stubborn about it – says he appreciates the offer, and he’ll consider it but he’s got to exhaust the possibility of making a living on his own land first. Uncle Charles says he’s being way too stubborn for no reason and that he’s got nothing to stay for now, anyway. By way of reply, Ross rides across the moors in a sulk.

Poldark Goes to Market.  Ross decides to go to town for market day, for the ostensible mission of selling his father’s pocketwatch and getting some money together. Everyone in town is remarkabley clean and well dressed – even the poor people and tradesmen and guys that work with livestock, which is just a weird quirk this show has, I guess. (Except for Ross’ servants, who look gross. Just in case you didn’t know they were actually poor too.) Anyway, Ross sells the watch and then takes a stroll where he happens upon a random crowd of strangers watching a dog fight. In the middle of all this a – yes, surprisingly clean – street urchin runs into the fray, basically screaming that these dudes have like kidnapped his dog and are forcing it to fight. A crowd gathers to watch all of this and then the animal fighting ring guys start beating up on the street urchin and that’s when Ross has to step in and save the day (and also back hand a random dude with his walking stick. Awesome.)

He also decides to offer the street urchin – who of course turns out to be a girl named Demelza who has an abusive family – a job as his kitchen maid, I guess because the plot dictates he has to, since he doesn’t even have enough money to feed the servants he has, but whatever. Not the point! He’s saving her from her abusive dad! She agrees, as long as she’s allowed to bring her dog. They ride back to Nampara through the gorgeous countryside. (I hope that the Cornwall Tourism Bureau is ALL OVER this show.)

Then He Finally Talks to Elizabeth. The next day, Ross heads off to talk to his uncle. Instead he finds Elizabeth and the two of them finally have it out over that whole thing where they loved each other and she married somebody else instead. She says it really hurts her to think about how he must hate her now – can’t imagine why, I guess? – but Ross just says that she’s been the only person for him for years, and was all he could think about coming back to while he was gone.

He wants to know whether they really meant nothing to each other then or now. Elizabeth is sort of riled up because, well, she did think Ross was dead for a long time and she’s wondering why he’s waited until right now to start saying all these things and asking her all these questions he knows that she can’t answer now because she’s married to Francis. She says that Ross needs to forget her now, because she’s married and everything, and make a life for himself elsewhere. Ross stomps off, all mad, and Elizabeth shouts that she’d like to at least part as friends. He glares dramatically, declaring that they can never be friends and telling her to inform he’s uncle that he’s going to get his wish about him leaving. She has no idea what he’s talking about, obviously, but we do.

Then Some Dudes Show Up to Fight at His House. Ross gets back to Nampara, all hot to trot to leave for London. He tells Prudie to send Demelza back to her father, because he, Ross Poldark is O-U-T. Prudie looks confused and says that the girl’s father is already here. So I guess Demelza’s dad doesn’t care about her enough to stop beating the crap out of her, but does care enough to get mad if she tries to run a way to a world without beatings? The point is, Demelz’s totally deadbeat father – who is one of the three people on this show to display poor hygiene so you know he is suspect – shows up to reclaim his daughter and tell Ross off for trying to save her. He also accuses him of like seducing her or something, I’m not quite sure what’s up with that.

Anyway, Demelza’s Gross Dad has brought his half dozen sons  - I'm told they were his brothers, actually, whoops, I totally missed that - and also apparently a large portion of his random village along with him for this whole business and there’s a big fight. He and Ross fight in the house, while Jud runs away from a crowd of villagers outside. This is so ridiculous, I can’t even.  Luckily, Jud happens to run right into the gang of tenants who are Ross’ BFFs and he joins with them to fight the other villagers. And somenhow Ross manages to go from getting completely beat up to ultimate victory in the space of like three punches. Allrighty then. Team Nampara, I guess?

All’s Well That Ends Well, I Guess? Happily, I suppose, a big brawl is what Ross needed to realize his place is in Cornwall, since his servants and his tenants all banded together to fight these random guys for him. (Yay?) He certainly doesn’t look like he’s planning on leaving for London now – or anytime soon – despite what his uncle may think.

Francis is sort of uncomfortable when he learns that his father was planning to coerce/drive/bribe Ross into leaving town, but Charles said he’ll feel a sight more uncomfortable if he loses his wife to her ex, so he should just deal with it.  Too bad Charles doesn’t know that his wife has overheard a bunch of this, and has run off to tell Ross that he belongs in Cornwall, with his land and his mines and should stay. And, of course he decides to stay, because otherwise we would have no show.

Oh, and Prudie tricks Demelza into overhearing Ross say that she’s more trouble than she’s worth, to try and force the girl to go back to her own terrible village. Demelza leaves, along with her scruffy dog, but Ross finds her on the Cornish coastline (of course) at sunset (when else) and they ride home together.

So, there was a lot of plot exposition and way too many character introductions in this episode – not to mention the dozen pointlessly extended tracking shots of horses and the Cornish countryside. But, I don’t actively hate anybody yet, so that’s usually about the best you can expect what a pilot episode. We shall have to see where we go from here, I suppose. Really curious to hear what you guy think, so hit the comments, please. 

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Twitter at @LacyMB