Enthusiastic young vet Jill Blake (Victoria Thaine) arrives in the dusty one-horse town of Paringa to find only a curt note directing her to her spartan new home. When her new boss, the notoriously "difficult" Kate McDonald (Rachel Ward), turns up, her attitude is as dry as the drought-stricken landscape... Set to work immediately, Jill encounters many of the problems of dry-land farming in stark relief: a farmer who can cope with neither the drought nor his mounting debts; another forced off his land by the bank; and a third confronting the vexed issues of succession and future planning. Then there's the spectre of a notifiable sheep disease, the mere mention of which turns Kate's prickly attitude to open hostility. It's clear that Kate has a stronger connection to the land and the people on it than just treating their animals. Kate tells Jill that she either accepts her way of working or she needn't bother unpacking her bags. If that weren't enough to scare Jill off, there's the mysterious locked room in Kate's house, and the light from its window in the middle of the night...
Jill is shocked by the austerity of life in the drought-stricken area, and is sensitive to every sign of distress and decline. From the bruise on Gail Klein's cheek to Kate's attempt to exclude her from Tom Huppatz's father's funeral, Jill senses there is much amiss in this place, and it goes far beyond the lack of rain. Neither Kate nor the local farmers seem willing to admit to their dire position and a government sponsored drought relief workshop comes as an unwelcome reminder of their plight, rather than an offer of hope. Meanwhile, for those who can no longer live on the land, the very real choice to die on it lurks in the shadow of debt. Sketchy information about the premature death of Kate's husband, and its effect on her, is another puzzle for Jill to solve. The sheep disease, which should be reported to the authorities, causes more tension between Jill and Kate. Tom Huppatz's distress at learning he won't inherit the family farm is nothing compared to Fred Klein's tipping over the edge as everything he knows and holds dear is stripped away from him. Kate's handling of these issues - the first infuriating, the second with all the gentle brutality of a mercy killing - leaves Jill awe-struck but wondering if she can ever really fit in.
Achmed Aziz (Panda Likoudis), an Iraqi agronomist, arrives on a study tour and Kate (Rachel Ward) fears he will submit a report on the condition of the local sheep. Having rebuffed Jill's attempts to empathise with her, Kate then forces her to co-operate with a plan to cover up the sheep problem until the drought breaks, after which it will be irrelevant. Jill is morally and professionally challenged by this, but then finds herself defending Kate to James Campbell, a vet in a nearby town who has designs on Kate's practice (and Jill's body). Meanwhile, Achmed meets diverse characters such as the mysterious Larry Riley, a wealthy man with no known source of income, and Harry Greene (Shane Withington), the ultimate pragmatist, known locally as the Grim Reaper for his blithe exploitation of others' misfortune. After the sale of the Huppatz farm for a knock-down price reignites a feud between Tom Huppatz (Tom O'Sullivan) and local bigwig Lachlan Balfour (Kim Knuckey), Kate is furious when she discovers Jill, unable to suppress her personal and professional curiosity, has conducted laboratory tests on the diseased sheep.
Kate is injured in a cattle yard accident, forcing Jill to run the practice on her own. It seems the order of the world has been restored when Jill gets to do some refreshingly routine vet work and achieves results, mostly without Kate's help or interference. But her world is thrown off kilter again when she and Kate perform highly illegal life-saving surgery on Larry Riley, who has managed to acquire a gunshot wound. Then Kate tests Jill's courage, watching her destroy Larry's mortally wounded dog. While Kate seems able to justify breaking the law to achieve the right result, Jill now feels completely compromised. By helping to save Larry's life, she has become part of the skewed morality of the Rain Shadow country. Ironically, having longed to be accepted, she is now wondering exactly what it is that she's embraced.
With Jill almost reconciled to the idea of an imperfect future with Kate, the past catches up with her when her father, brother and then Shane, all descend on them for an impromptu country lunch. All three men are there with the intention of wooing Jill away from her new life, although each has a very different motivation. Meanwhile, Kate is trying to persuade the departing Iraqi agronomist, Achmed Aziz, not to tell the authorities about the widespread sheep disease in the district. A horrific attack on the Balfour farm by a pack of dogs distracts everyone, but it gives Jill a chance to show her true worth as well as crystallising her decision to stay in Paringa. She is unexpectedly rewarded by Kate's confession about what really happened the night her husband died. The revelation is as shocking in its candour as it is in content. Jill is both accepted and challenged as she realises she's now privy to the dark secret that has cast its shadow over the last decade of Kate's life.
Relieved of the burden of her secret, Kate appears to have lost the will to challenge the area's destiny. Threatened by the fact that rival vet James Campbell will expose her decision not to notify the authorities about the sheep disease, she agrees to sell him her practice, mostly in order to save Jill's career. But Jill, realising she is the only person who knows what really happened to Kate's husband, and in view of the new bond created between them following Kate's confession, refuses to allow her to give up so easily. Even when Kate is determined to sacrifice herself yet again, Jill comes up with a radical plan that could save the farmers of Paringa and allow Kate to embrace the possibility of a happy and guilt free future - but only if Kate can overcome her notorious stubborn streak.