At the end of season one of Poldark — the tale of an 18th-century Cornish gentleman who returns from the American War of Independence with a fake-looking facial scar and a serious chip on his shoulder — pretty much everything had gone thoroughly to shit. Those viewers who had been lured in by Aidan Turner’s shirtless scything and the sexy love triangle between Ross Poldark, his hot sister-in-law Elizabeth, and his wife Demelza (an equally hot ex-scullery maid with common sense but few social graces) were suddenly faced with the failure of Ross’s business ventures, the death of his infant daughter from diphtheria, his arrest for plundering a shipwreck to help feed his starving miners (also: murder), and the triumph of his loathsome antagonists — the very New Money Warleggan family, who give excellent villain face. All of which went down in the season finale.
Like many period dramas, the creators of Poldark go out of their way to make their hero anachronistically woke: “Why are there social classes? Why CAN’T I marry my scullery maid? These puffy shirts are uncomfortable and overpriced! What if miners had a living wage? I sure wish there were some way to prevent these deadly childhood illnesses!” At any given time, he has six ungrateful wastrels living rent-free in a surprisingly large number of his outbuildings, though it is unclear why he has any money. Ross is usually right about things, except when his wife is right about things, but he can also be relied upon to choose the stupidest path possible whenever he can, all with a surly sense of self-righteousness. As we begin our journey through the second season, that self-righteousness is at an uncharacteristically low ebb.
We pick up just as we left off, with Ross clapped in irons, standing in front of a judge to answer for his alleged wrongdoing. He indeed committed an impressive number of crimes over the first season, but, like any good hero, is wholly innocent of these crimes, having been framed by the aforementioned New Money Warleggans. Unfortunately, Ross has made enemies of essentially every magistrate in the land, so even though he gets released while awaiting trial, it’s not looking good. He busies himself attempting to comfort Demelza, who is still reeling from the loss of their daughter, Julia.
Demelza, of course, remains the real MVP of the show. In addition to experiencing one of the best “hair down, glasses off” makeovers in TV history, she has the obligatory heart of gold and is gloriously DTF. Her only flaw, of course, is her complete horror of mixing with fancy company. This will be the season, I suspect, that Demelza squares off with the gorgeous, classy, good-at-embroidering Elizabeth, to whom Ross was almost engaged when he went off to war. (He would totally have given her his varsity jacket if that had been a thing in 18th-century Cornwall.) Instead, she is now married to his useless, self-loathing cousin Francis, a textbook case of the dangers of aristocracy. Ross still vibes Elizabeth pretty hard and eye-humps her at parties, despite being truly devoted to Demelza. Elizabeth, in turn, is filled with buyer’s remorse over backing the wrong cousin. Demelza is finally picking up on this tension, and she is not here for it.
Elizabeth’s main character trait is being super-duper hot, as well as being much cannier than her well-meaning idiot husband, who is happy to let the Warleggans lead him around by his balls. He’s pretty much a hock. George Warleggan, for his part, is very clearly trying to get in Elizabeth’s voluminous undergarments, as she is obviously the Jolene of Cornwall.
Knowing the extent of her influence over George, Elizabeth tries to convince him to make sure Ross gets a sympathetic judge. (George is, in fact, leafleting nearby towns with anti-Ross sentiment.) She also invites Demelza and Ross to their home to mend a rift which developed last season over an issue that was literally the plot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and hence we do not need to revisit its specifics. Ross has zero interest in being helped by a Warleggan, and sweeps angrily out of the house with Demelza in tow, leaving Francis to stare daggers at Elizabeth for her obvious, ongoing attraction to his cousin.
Unexpectedly, a new female character has sallied into town: the orphaned ward of the exceedingly wealthy Lord Ray. Her name is Lady Caroline, she totes a very fat pug named Horace, and she has some excellent jewelry. It is as yet unclear whose life she will ruin, but the precedent is not good. The last time a new female character rolled in, she was a trampy actress with zero morals who cheated on her pleasant miner husband, and he accidentally killed her in the ensuing confrontation. Note that this is the SECOND male character on Poldark who has “accidentally” killed his wife, which is not my favorite thing. But I digress!
Francis heads off to Ross’s trial, but not before the music swells and he gives Elizabeth the sort of serious and heartfelt good-bye that telegraphs either death or serious injury.
Lady Caroline, the aforementioned pug-toting blonde, summons Dr. Enys to treat Horace (yes, the dog), and despite his reluctance to waste his talents on an animal, she heaves her bosom at him until he relents. It seems clear that THIS is the man whose life she will ruin — having been one half of last season’s disastrous adulterous duo, you’d think Dr. Enys would avoid such entanglements — but you’ll have to watch this space for more. Amusingly, the fatness and constant presence of the pug is an attempt to disguise actress Gabriella Wilde’s pregnancy, so get used to his squished-up face and adorable rolls.
In a highly surprising development, Francis sacks up and confronts George over the leafleting and also tells him that everyone knows he’s thirsty. Go, Francis! This looks like a permanent rift. Unfortunately, Francis decides to build on this momentum by bitching out his sweet sister, Verity, and immediately returns to my ill graces. George, in turn, rolls up on Ross in prison and offers to intervene on his behalf, in exchange for becoming his “friend,” which is hot nonsense. Ross, of course, shoots him down, at which point George reveals that his whole aim was to impress Elizabeth with kindness after Ross goes to the gallows. COLD AS ICE.
We are briefly led to believe that Francis has shot himself in the head due to feeling like a colossal failure in all avenues of his life, and I didn’t appreciate having my emotions toyed with in that fashion. He did not, however, shoot himself in the head. (Or at all.) He’s just generally dismal.
Meanwhile, all of the trial-related scenes are dull as dishwater. We know Ross isn’t fated to hang or go to prison — the show relies too heavily on sweeping shots of him galloping along the Cornish cliffs to put him away — but they nevertheless go on forever. Demelza looks faint for a second, so she is obviously pregnant. Ross’s quisling ex-servant recants his testimony for the prosecution at the last minute. When Ross himself takes the stand, he engages in the Classic Ross behavior of acting mildly apologetic and then delivering a stirring speech about class, poverty, and the equality of man. “I MAKE NO APOLOGY FOR MY ACTIONS” — an actual quote from man relying on the mercy of the court.
Buddy, you need to help yourself for once. You have hundreds of dependents!
To the great surprise of the court, but not to our viewing audience, the jury acquits Ross on all charges and he is surrounded, Khaleesi-fashion, by his many, many delighted miners. At last, we are primed to get back to the real business of Poldark: bodices and love triangles and family feuds.
Shirtlessness Report: Ross briefly and sweatily engages in some topless mining work, but we only get the side view. Aidan Turner has expressed his regret that his gorgeous torso reveal in the first season set the standard for how much he would have to work out going forward, but things look pretty good so far.