Gentleman Jack season 2 review: Suranne Jones is back with gusto
Sally Wainwright’s lesbian period drama is back with new energy – but the show hasn’t lost its heart and soul.
We first met Suranne Jones’ Anne Lister, aka Gentleman Jack, almost three years ago – in Halifax in 1832, as she returned to take over the reins of the Shibden estate and set her sights on wealthy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle).
We watched, alternately shifting between tears and laughter, as the landowner, businesswoman and adventurer overcame many obstacles – from homophobia and business rivals to breakdowns – and strode her way to a happy ending, reuniting with Ann on a blowy Yorkshire hilltop and taking the sacrament together in a wedding (of sorts).
Now the second season is here, and has a slight hurdle to overcome: what’s next for the couple who’ve already got their happy ever after? It’s a dilemma that writer Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) overcomes by adding new energy and wit to the show. Season 2 picks up where the first left off, with Anne preparing to live with Ann at Shibden Hall as wife and wife and combine their estates.
She opens proceedings with a visit to Ann’s disapproving aunt (Stephanie Cole), glancing powerfully to the camera in the first of many Fleabag-esque asides (which nod to the real Anne Lister’s diaries), before cheerfully breaking the news that Ann is making a new will – of which, of course, she’ll be the executor.
Jones remains terrific as the fearless and headstrong Gentleman Jack in the new season, while managing to convey her vulnerable side as well.
But it’s not just Ann’s bristling relatives this time that are threatening to rip the couple apart, but also Anne herself. As she reunites with Ann in York, where she’s been receiving medical attention, she starts to have doubts – is Ann too boring, too insipid for her?
She’s not the only one: Anne’s old friend Charlotte Norcliffe (Jenna Russell) is incredulous that Anne could be with in love with such a dull creature. “She isn’t really your sort, is she?” she asks.
And it seems she might be right, as Anne pens a gloating letter to her old flame Mariana Lawton, informing her that Ann is moving into Shibden Hall, which lays the groundwork for the character’s dramatic return.
In some ways, it feels like Wainwright has missed a trick here by having Anne meet her soulmate right at the beginning of the first season, and then spend the next 16 hours distracting herself with obstacles and subplots, rather than kicking off the show with her earlier romantic experiences and wild adventures, which are constantly alluded to in the show (and which were chronicled in the real Anne Lister’s diaries).
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But that’s not to say that season 2 is by any means dull by the end of the first episode – on the contrary, Mariana’s re-emergence (which looks set to form the spine of season 2) imbues the show with new energy, and the smaller story arcs concerning Anne’s daring business pursuits and the Thomas Sowden murder plot are also back with gusto.
What’s more, none of season 1’s well-drawn characters have been diminished. Gemma Whelan and Gemma Jones continue to give powerful performances as Anne’s forlorn sister and tender mother figure, respectively.
In a moving exchange in episode 1, Anne shows her aunt (Jones) her wedding ring, making clear its significance by revealing she and Ann plan to change their wills and leave each other a life interest in their estates. Aunt Anne is horrified, but only because "[Anne is] saying it could all still go off". As ever, the show manages to strike the perfect balance between sly humour and sorrow.
Lydia Leonard is brilliant at serving up the darker moments as Anne’s jealous ex-lover, while new cast additions, namely Anne’s outrageous former lover Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe (Joanna Scanlan), who tells Anne in the trailer that her beloved hasn't got a clue about “the vast tapestry of your fruity past”, look set to provide plenty of fun in upcoming episodes.
With a once again unapologetically romantic focus (but also a look at Anne’s other ambitions, beyond her sexuality) and the same rollicking theme tune, the show has lost none of its brilliance, nor has Wainwright dislodged its heart and soul – she has only added to it. Gentleman Jack remains a bold and transgressive figure not just for a period drama, but mainstream TV in general, and season 2 another emotional ride.
Gentleman Jack will return to BBC One and BBC iPlayer at 9pm on Sunday 10th April. Season 1 is available to stream in full on BBC iPlayer.
Looking for something else to watch? Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage or check out our TV Guide to find out what is on television this week.