“Faith is all.” — Anne Lister (Season 2, Episode 1)
After three long years, Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is finally back! Based on the real diaries of English lesbian industrialist Anne Lister, the show’s first season boasted a radically unapologetic portrayal of lesbian butch-femme relationships in the early 19th century and concluded with a joyous wedding between Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) and Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle). Lister’s final fourth-wall break invited us to be the sole witness to a marriage that had secretly happened over two centuries ago amidst fears of criminal persecution. The bar has been set so high that I was left unsatisfied with any lesbian drama that has aired since after.
Despite being entrusted with the difficult task of navigating what a lesbian marriage looked like in an era when lesbian desire was unimaginable, the first episode of Gentleman Jack’s second season handles Lister and Walker’s domestic partnership with a miraculously tender grace. While it is Walker who initially struggles with committing to Lister, the latest season reverses these roles by bringing out Lister’s deep-seated fear of eventual loneliness and abandonment. Lister’s fierce strength required her to forget how impossible it is for anyone — not even her past lovers — to accept her completely. Walker’s total devotion and unconditional love for Lister is nothing short of miraculous. But miracles beget disbelief, and the season premiere gently charts the murky terrain of Lister’s struggle to have faith in Walker.
Where our two Ann(es) are at now
It is 1834 in Halifax, four weeks after Lister and Walker have taken the sacrament together, and two years since the beginning of the first season. Walker is currently in York recovering from anxiety and depression whilst under the care of Dr. Belcombe (Michael Xavier), who is the brother of Mariana Lawton (Lydia Leonard), Lister’s ex-girlfriend of twenty years. However, because Lister is a little bit of an asshole, Walker has no idea that Mariana (the other great love of Lister’s life) even exists. Not to mention that Lister has shagged like … almost all of Dr. Belcombe’s gay sisters. We love a booked and thirsty lesbian. I am not sure how this lesbian drama is going to work out but I am excited to see the bloodbath that will ensue when these women meet.
Meanwhile, Lister is brisk walking all over Halifax, threatening to beat up incompetent men and relatives with her walking stick. She also spends an absurd amount of time on house renovations to make Shibden Hall dolled-up and pretty for Walker when she eventually moves in. One stunning scene which reduced me to tears was when Lister visits Walker’s homophobic aunt and … begs her to say something nice to Walker upon her return from York. Lister is too proud and confident to beg anyone for their acceptance. But she knows that the opinions of Walker’s relatives mean everything to her, and so begging is now on the cards. Jones’ exquisite acting betrays a world of pain behind Lister’s facade of resilience — not from the sheer indignity of having to barter for acceptance at all but from knowing that the woman she loves does not deserve to be rejected so cruelly. Did I mention that Lister almost cried while asking Walker’s aunt for acceptance? Love makes her so vulnerable and I adore that.
It is all so sweet and chivalrous on Lister’s part. Butch lesbians have my whole heart.
A sexy gay merger
Since I come from a country that bans gay marriage, I find this period drama actually relatable in terms of the legal hassle even though it is set over two centuries ago. Lister and Walker’s marriage can never be recognized in law, which is why Lister has hatched a plan to rewrite both their wills, so that half her estate will go to Walker in the immediate aftermath of her death. She is doing this because she wants their union to be as close to a real marriage as possible — right down to the paperwork and living together at Shibden. What is striking is how Lister believes that her marriage is real and deserving of the same legal protections like everyone else.
This is a radical portrait of an uncompromising woman who truly believes that her desires are fully compatible with her happiness. Walker and Lister’s marriage may not be legally recognized, but they are honest with their desires. Not many people are lucky enough to know who they are — most of us spend our lives believing the hurtful things said about our identities. I know I have wasted many years to homophobia. Most of the women whom Lister has dated eventually settle down with a man, out of both financial precarity and the taught belief that it is a woman’s duty is to marry and bear children. Seeing Lister live her life authentically like it is her God-given right — the real Anne Lister was a religious woman and really did believe this — to be a lesbian is refreshing and healing. It is difficult to be uncompromising in a world that (quite literally) desires our demise, but Gentleman Jack celebrates the bravery required to live happily as a lesbian.
Sexy bonus: Lister uses legal talk on the merger of the estates as verbal foreplay with Walker. Just before they finish, Lister suddenly remembers that this merger is actually real, not just double entendre, and begins talking about it seriously. I don’t think Walker was listening to any of it, though.
Trouble in lesbian paradise
Walker hesitates on merging half her estate with Lister because she is afraid that her family will alienate her. But Lister, who has spent the better half of her life as the scorned woman left behind when lesbians eventually marry men, sees Walker’s uncertainty as indicative of yet another hurtful rejection to follow. After giving her entire heart over to so many women only to be crudely abandoned in the end, Lister’s fears are rooted in the real prospect of loneliness. Already in her forties, Lister is running out of time to commit to someone who will not do so in return. Yet Walker is struggling with the impending loneliness of being disowned by everyone she loves. This simmering conflict makes for their first screaming match at each other, as the once euphoric highs of courtship now give way to a maturing relationship.
The two angry lesbians eventually make out (not before checking out the windows first!) and Walker confesses that it breaks her heart to know that Lister will start a war in Halifax whenever Walker gets hurt. She does not want Lister to be angry … like ever. Unlike Lister’s past lovers who humiliated Lister for her defiant stubbornness, Walker is the only woman who actually cares that Lister’s mask of strength is painfully exhausting. As we recall from the first season, Walker has always publicly declared that she does not care if the entire world is against Lister because she loves Lister for who she is. Her unconditional love for Lister is specific to a lesbian butch-femme dynamic where a femme fiercely protects her butch partner from ridicule — this is one of the many beautiful things about the erotic autonomy shared between two lesbians. While it is true that lesbian characters on television have been overwhelmingly feminine, the portrayal of actual femmes utterly devoted to their butch partners remains surprisingly rare. Gentleman Jack understands that what being butch or femme means goes beyond gender presentation.
Gentleman Jack‘s second season premiere features a slowly maturing love between Anne Lister and Ann Walker. It is awash with familial conflicts but the show handles them with a remarkable compassion not seen in most lesbian and even queer media. With Gentleman Jack’s stunning comeback, Sally Wainwright’s well-deserved reputation as the titan of British telly rings truer than ever.
Minutiae lesbian observations
- As a nice homage to the pilot episode, Lister asks Walker for sex by tracing the wine glass with her middle finger. I am not going to elaborate what this raunchy action means. Both women were having dinner but their hungry minds were clearly … elsewhere. I love how dirty this show gets even with the clothes on for the most part. Not that I would mind otherwise, but the real Anne Lister did not like to be seen naked by her lovers so I am happy that the show respected this detail about her sexual preferences.
- There is a whirling drone shot in the opening scene that focuses on Lister walking faster than every other person in Halifax. I suppose that is one creative way to keep up with her rollicking pace. But it also signals a new directorial vision from Edward Hall, who has taken over directing duties from Wainwright in this episode. Notice how the episode has more establishing shots reminiscent of sweepingly romantic films like Joe Wright‘s Pride and Prejudice (2005), compared to Wainwright’s brilliantly tight focus on the everyday.
- Lister spends most of the episode nearly in tears — of course, she suppresses them like a true lesbian rising above it — when she realises that her wife exists. But she also insists that she is merely “satisfied” with Walker and convinces herself that unconditional love must be fake. The clock is ticking for her to say the three scary words!
- The scene where Lister watches from afar as Walker sketches the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey is the sweetest thing I have seen on television this year. She is almost in tears realizing how much she loves Walker, and the lush landscape which surrounds them tells us that everything else in Lister’s life is finally made beautiful because of this love.
- While at Shibden, Walker secretly watches with complete adoration as Lister loads a gun and bosses people around. Everyone is scared out of their minds … but not Walker. She might be the only person who is not even the slightest bit afraid of Lister. I am going to cry at the butch-femme gender of it all again.
- Mariana’s fourth-wall break was like an intense soap opera of epic proportions — tears and snot included. Someone in the writers’ room knows the wrath of lesbian exes. It is also a fascinating turning point in the series because Mariana’s anger stems partly from being coerced into an unhappy marriage for financial security, and the show is finally demanding us to recognize lesbians like that, too.