“A lucky and narrow escape.” – Anne Lister (Season 2, Episode 5)
In Gentleman Jack Season 2 Episode 5, the show takes a scheduled break from Anne Lister’s (Suranne Jones) cheating to focus on her Tory politics. There is no lesser of two evils here. It is frankly looking bad for Lister, and the episode delights in mining the complexities of her character. Lister’s radical attitude towards lesbian sexuality is often undercut by her extreme social conservatism – finding a balance between the two is what Gentleman Jack struggled with in its first season.
As a show acutely aware that a character’s unlikeability is the kiss of death for lesbian media, the first season was understandably more focused on emphasizing the miraculous nature of Lister and Ann Walker’s (Sophie Rundle) relationship. It had to set a groundbreaking standard for lesbian media and it succeeded. With all that established, however, the show’s second season takes a critical attitude towards Lister’s conservative politics: she was a thoroughly unlikeable woman in many aspects. But her life still mattered.
Gentleman Jack Season 2 Episode 5 is a risky one, threatening to alienate audiences who see Lister’s status as a lesbian pioneer as a redeeming factor when it comes to their viewership. Yet it is for this reason that Gentleman Jack is now in uncharted territory when it comes to gay representation, a situation further complicated by the simple fact that Lister was a real person who had all these terrible bits to her. To be marginalized is to understand that your lesser worth demands overcompensation: we have to be better than everyone else in everything just to be taken slightly more seriously. But the conflation of acceptance with respectability also gives people convenient leeway to dismiss our existence when we fail (and we will, eventually). By balancing empathy and acute criticism in its portrayal of Anne Lister, Gentleman Jack pulls off the impossible in lesbian representation. The series bravely asks its viewers to take all of Lister’s character traits or leave her at the door, which is already wide enough to fit the show’s overall unabashed pride for its lesbian protagonist.
This critical portrayal of Lister may not bode well for the possibility for a Series Three renewal, but it attests to Sally Wainwright‘s relentless dedication to lesbians being represented for everything that they are. Like a meteor, Lister’s ambition blazes a trail both luminous and destructive – it is only fair that we do justice to all parts of her story.
Anne Lister: A Cheat, A Tory Bastard, and A Lesbian
It is the election of January 1835, and Lister is determined to further the Tory cause despite being banned from voting on the basis of her sex. I do wonder if it ever crossed her mind that both Toryism and gender inequality are connected. As Lister’s passionate speech on the 1832 Reform Bill in the Gentleman Jack pilot episode signaled to us, even if women were allowed to vote, Lister would probably find a crude way to disenfranchise her female tenants from doing so. Like a true girlboss, Lister sends Joseph Booth (Ben Hunter) and John Booth (Thomas Howes) running all over Yorkshire to check on poll numbers for her. Meanwhile, riots are occurring in Halifax and Lister is afraid that the working-class folks might come up the hill to attack Shibden Hall.
I mean, these lesbians are seated comfortably near a fireplace reading books – the same ones that Lister bans her servant Martha Booth (Matilda Holt) from reading in episode four – so I think that they are being a tad bit dramatic. Similar to bigoted conservatives in our present, Lister also mourns the destruction of public property by the rioters and makes several grand, obtuse speeches on the violence of the working-class. It is a difficult watch, but even more so when Wainwright drags Margaret Thatcher out of hell so that she can possess Lister for a minute to reiterate her infamous 1979 St. Francis of Assisi speech. It is a creative choice that reminds us Lister’s conservatism in politics is precisely what gave her a semblance of freedom to pursue women.
Let Us Talk About Gemma Whelan’s BAFTA-Worthy Performance
In the Sally Wainwright cinematic universe, the relationship between sisters always takes priority over their relationships with various inept men. I am thinking of the scenes in Happy Valley in which Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) and Clare Cartwright (Siobhan Finneran) share a cup of tea on their front porch. Decades pass within a few minutes as Catherine mourns the loss of her daughter and Clare tries to cheer her up whilst struggling with her own sobriety. They chat about the past, the present, and the futures brutally denied to them – a whole history between sisters unfolds over a cup of tea. In Gentleman Jack, the relationship between Lister and Marian (Gemma Whelan) is both loving and complicated, as Lister’s class snobbery undercuts Marian’s own harsh opinions on the landed gentry.
Marian may not know that Lister is a lesbian, but she does know instinctively that Walker makes her happy. And so she braves insults from Walker’s relatives just to make peace with them, cries silently over the homophobia that Lister endures, and tries her very best to make Walker feel like she is part of the family. Apart from Lister and Walker’s relationship, Marian’s unconditional acceptance of Walker as Lister’s “companion” is one of the most generous displays of love between women in the series. In return, however, Lister does pretty much nothing but be an asshole to Marian. She threatens to disinherit Marian if she chooses to marry carpetmaker John Abbott (John Hollingworth) – which is exactly what Mariana Lawton’s (Lydia Leonard) parents did to force her into a marriage with a man she despises. Despite condemning Walker’s relatives for disrespecting her life choices, Lister does the same to her only sister. Even then, Marian’s response to Lister’s insult is couched in a loneliness all too similar to Lister’s own before she settled down with Walker: No one else has asked me before. Like Lister, Marian wants to settle down with someone she loves – but Lister is too trapped in her own arrogance to see past her own pain.
Through this short and heartbreaking scene between sisters, Wainwright paints a contradictory portrait of a lesbian pioneer whose freedom to love is sustained by her ruthlessness in both the public and domestic sphere. Gemma Whelan is sublime and astounding in this episode, as the love that Marian has for Lister gradually morphs into a visceral pain. She would never betray Lister, as many others might have done. But love doesn’t always assuage the cruelty with which we are treated, and Lister’s hypocrisy towards her own family members is revelatory of the cruel ways she has had to harden herself in order to survive in this world.
A Devastating Turning Point for Ann Walker
1835 was a tumultuous time for Lister and Walker, as their peculiar domestic arrangement attracted the ire of Halifax and beyond. During dinner, Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong) informs Lister and Walker that someone has publicly announced a marriage between “Ann Walker and a Captain Tom Lister” in the Halifax Guardian. It is a crude mockery of both Walker’s status in polite society as a respectable landed woman and Lister’s butchness. It also marks a devastating turning point for Walker, who has never had to contend with homophobia on such a public scale before. There is no turning back from her commitment to Lister now, only the forced acceptance that ridicule and humiliation are the cost of lesbian desire.
The hurt on Lister’s face was striking but brief. As expected, she switches into damage control and laughs the pain off. Our eyes are on Walker, whose previous encounter with homophobia by her relatives left her with a nervous breakdown. In a surprising turn of events, there are no tears, only a flash of anger which flickers across her face before she joins Lister in rising above it. She braved the world’s opinions just to be with Lister – these are not the actions of a woman who has been labeled insipid and weak by everyone around her.
The camera lingers just slightly above Walker’s face throughout the scene and this heightens the suffocation she feels. In Gentleman Jack, rising above it is not something to be applauded by straight audiences, who often use our resilience to avoid their own complicity in homophobia. While this show is set in the 19th century, every lesbian has had a dinner table scene like this one. “Laughing it off” is a skill not so much learned as necessary to make it out alive. Walker’s newfound resilience highlights how lesbians have to harden themselves in order to survive with pride, and the emotional costs of this bravery are immeasurable.
- Did anyone notice that Marian’s elegant maroon dresses make her look a little bit like Walker? Even the curls on their hair mirror each other, which highlights how Walker is now fully part of the Lister family.
- Yes, it is awful that Lister is bringing two guns to defend herself against rioters in Halifax. Terrible. But I am also a simple lesbian who is attracted to gun-wielding hot women. Even more so when they are butch lesbians.
- Upon encountering a group of radicals who ask Lister whether she’s a blue or a yellow, she replies that she’s black in mourning for all the damage that riots have done to Halifax. A real Tory moment. Per Lister’s diaries, she actually did say that and thought she’d done something.
- I see Gentleman Jack is toning down its croquettes in favor of more casual hairstyles, which speaks to Lister’s newfound comfort in sharing a life together with Walker.
- Walker notices that something is off with Lister and that Lister is acting like a guilty cheater…this does not bode well for them at all. I hope Walker puts Lister in her place soon.
- Lister’s internal monologue being transformed into a fourth-wall break has taken me out. It’s like she is so turned off by men that she simply cannot keep quiet about it anymore.