It’s hard to believe it’s been three years since we last saw the incredible Suranne Jones don the top hat and curls of Anne Lister, aka “Gentleman Jack”, in my favorite period drama on TV. Representative, daring, cerebral, and romantic, GENTLEMAN JACK remains one of the most original and refreshing series. It highlights the true story of Anne Lister, a woman that was ahead of her time both in her business acumen and her willingness to be herself and love who she wanted to love.
Set in the mid 1830s, season two quickly picks up soon from where we left off. Anne Lister (Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) took the sacrament of communion and are now secretly wife and wife. But of course, things are not smooth sailing for the couple, who still have to keep their romantic relationship hidden from the world. Ann’s family remains suspicious of her “companionship” with Anne and is trying to keep the two women separate. They are also pulling out all of the stops to prevent Ann from signing a new will to combine her estate with Anne’s estate. On top of that, Anne’s jealous ex-girlfriend Mariana (Lydia Leonard) keeps slinking back into the picture, trying to convince Anne that she is actually the love of her life and any dalliance with another woman is meaningless. And just when you think Anne cannot afford any more turmoil, she is also up to her eyeballs in business drama, trying to raise capital to open a hotel/casino while also sinking her coal pit. Phew!
I have been obsessed with Suranne Jones since I first saw her in DOCTOR FOSTER, which is how I found GENTLEMAN JACK. It’s hard to think of a performance, save Jodie Comer in KILLING EVE, that so expertly balances portraying a character’s headstrong, intrepid traits, while also showing the vulnerabilities that are lingering beneath the surface, no matter how much she tries to hide it. Jones expertly highlights the contradictions in Anne’s character, juxtaposing her intensity to her sensitivity, her charisma with her restraint, and her dedication to her bouts of duplicity. It’s hard to think of an actor that better understands their character than Jones, both who Anne is as a person and her cultural and social importance.
Full disclosure, the shipping in season one is more robust than season two, so prepare your heart. There are still sweet and steamy moments between the Annes (and :ahem: potentially other characters), but this season is more about how the couple can overcome adversity and grow together in their marriage. And perhaps more importantly, it shows that Anne is so much more than her sexuality and gender; she is an ambitious industrialist and businesswoman that is seeking to make a name for herself in a society that ignores women like her.
I love how show runner and writer extraordinaire Sally Wainwright balances tension and adversity with the romance of it all. This season shows that it is not all sunshine and rainbows for the Annes, both in the perception of their relationship to the outside world and trust with each other. Believe me, I would love for each season to be a giant love fest for our favorite couple. But it’s important that the show focuses on the realism of a relationship and how it would be affected by the environment at the time.
My favorite element of GENTLEMAN JACK, besides the shipping of course, is the fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience. This season’s most iconic was when Anne is going on and on about her business and Marian looks at the camera and exclaims, “WHAT?” She is all of us. It’s clear that Wainwright understands Anne’s business operations are extremely convoluted and confusing and it is going to be hard for an audience to follow that storyline throughout each season. But that is entirely the point. Anne was ahead of her time in her understanding of business and ability to go toe-to-toe with leading industrialists of her era. These conversations are less about having the audience understand the minutia and more to show just how smart Anne was amongst her peers, regardless of gender. I pretty much only understand the wave tops of what is going on in this plot line of the show, and that’s all you need.
GENTLEMAN JACK is a breakthrough show, proudly featuring an LGBTQ+ story that showcases steamy moments without shying away from showing the environment of judgment and animosity that comes along with being who you are and loving who you want to love. It is sad that many of the issues we see the Annes deal with in the 1830s are the very same that members of the LGBTQ+ community have to still combat today, which is another element of the show that really resonates with me. I love that the BBC and HBO have brought such a progressive, representative period drama to the forefront; this is how you make steps to changing the narrative once and for all.
My Review: A-