It’s been three whole years since the first season of HBO’s Gentleman Jack premiered. To refresh your memory, the 1830s-set British period drama, which follows the fascinating life of lesbian Anne Lister (Suranne Jones, deserving of all the Emmys) — based on Lister’s real-life diaries — left off with Miss Lister and her paramour Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) making private vows to each other in church, in what is essentially an unofficial marriage ceremony. With such a beautiful resolution and such a long wait, viewers may have gotten comfortable with the Season 1 finale as a permanent ending. But very quickly Season 2 proves that Miss Lister and Miss Walker’s romance is a rich subject matter of which we have only just scratched the surface.
Picking up weeks after the wedding, Miss Lister prepares for Miss Walker to move into Shibden Hall, following a period in which Miss Walker finally got the help she needed for her mental health after last season’s suicide attempt. It’s clear from the start that the pair will always face opposition, currently in the form of Miss Walker’s family, who object to what they see as an “unnatural” relationship, although what they’re really worried about is Miss Walker’s money. Hey, Miss Lister shouldn’t be seeking to control Miss Walker for her money, that’s their job! Miss Walker’s aunt (Amelia Bullmore), also named Ann Walker, and brother-in-law Captain Sutherland (Derek Riddell) continue their tenure as extremely effective villains of the series. Aunt Ann Walker can deliver biting criticism better than anyone, and it’s amazing that Captain Sutherland can manage to be so insufferable even all the way from Scotland, through his letters.
But throughout the season, Miss Walker learns to find her voice and assert herself. It is so gradual that it feels totally natural for her journey. Rundle expertly wields every subtle change in her character’s confidence levels. She’s hardly the meek and fragile person she was in Season 1. While it’s plainly Miss Lister’s influence — Anne certainly never holds back from speaking her mind — even she seems surprised whenever Miss Walker expresses an opinion contrary to her own. Watching Miss Walker be able to go toe-to-toe with Captain Sutherland and demand what’s rightfully hers is immensely gratifying viewing.
On the other hand, while Season 1 seemed geared towards endearing us to Miss Lister — infused with endless swagger by Jones — this season frames her in a harsher light. To the show’s credit, it has never presented Miss Lister as anything less than a fully fleshed out human being with flaws —her prejudices over class, in particular. But as she and Miss Walker settle into a life together at Shibden, Miss Lister’s attempts to make Miss Walker’s decisions for her are grating, and her relentless pace as she flits from one task to another is exhausting. Miss Lister’s best scenes are the rare moments when she drops her mask and allows herself to be vulnerable. An episode in which she and her married ex, Marianna Lawton (Lydia Leonard), express the deep hurt that’s been built up between them through the ages, as circumstances have kept them apart, are some of Anne’s best scenes. And while Miss Lister’s ambitions were a good portion of her appeal last season, her risk-taking reaches such heights of recklessness this season and it’s positively nerve-wracking. Also, there are disappointingly not as many fourth-wall breaks by Miss Lister this season, and when there is one, it doesn’t have the same charm and impact.
Now that the exciting courtship period is over, the relationship between Anne and Ann reveals itself to be a layered and complex one. The question on all of Anne Lister’s friends’ lips seems to be, is Miss Walker enough for her? Miss Lister is asking it of herself as well, for, despite her reassurances that she’s fond of and happy with Miss Walker, she doesn’t profess to love her. Meanwhile, Miss Walker grapples with the realization that her wife has a history, and has had other women in her life. The two find that they have to explore who they are to each other. And though the couple does their best to ignore it, the rumors — mostly from Miss Walker’s family — surrounding their illicit homosexuality provide a constant drumbeat of fear. One thing that’s noticeably missing from Season 1 is the depiction of the sexual side of the relationship — the heat that brought them together.
The unsung heroes of the show are Miss Lister’s relatives. Their constant support of her, no matter how unusual she is, and their warm welcome of Miss Walker into the family is the constant infusion of love and positivity we all need. Gemma Jones as Miss Lister’s aunt is a scene-stealer who delivers softly spoken encouragement and zingers. Gemma Whelan, as Miss Lister’s sister Marian, carries herself with a quiet dignity that implies that she’s not nearly as clueless as everyone makes her out to be.
Once again ending on a high note, the best portion of the whole season is the final half-hour. Perhaps the most satisfying scene involves a previously seemingly dull character. I dare not say too much for fear of spoilers, but who knew the minutiae of estate finances and ownership could be so thrilling! The season’s resolution is a hopeful one, without wrapping anything up too neatly. There is so much story left to tell, and anyone invested in the lives of these wonderful queer women will want to watch it, especially since it is so well and thoughtfully told. I’m just praying we don’t have to wait another three years for more!
Gentleman Jack, Season 2 Premiere, Monday, April 25, 10/9c, HBO and HBO Max