To observe, at any point, Suranne Jones striding into the frame as Anne Lister is a magnificent gift. Brilliant, confident, and without a moment to spare on any nonsense (“keep up!”) Lister is a force to be reckoned with. Gentleman Jack, a BBC series once again airing in the US on HBO (streaming on HBO Max) remains just as jaunty and charming as its formidable lead in its second season, which again runs for eight episodes and loosely follows the true events of Lister’s life as chronicled among the five million words of her diaries. About a sixth of those words were coded, though, as Lister was involved in many relationships with other women in 1830s England, and even married one of them—Anne Walker (Sophie Rundle)—the aftermath of which is the focus of Season 2.
Granted, the marriage between the two women was primarily symbolic, but Lister begins the new season wanting to codify it another way: through property and wills. Walker’s life may revolve around her faith, but Lister is more concerned with business and money. Because of this, Gentleman Jack is one of the rare series of this time period that doesn’t just frankly discuss money (seen as a gauche topic for the characters of most period dramas), it relishes in the details.
These details, really, are what help drive Gentleman Jack as a series, because otherwise there’s not a lot going on. The show essentially has two parts to it: Lister’s love life and businesses, and everything else. The former is dynamic, romantic, and completely unique, and the latter is… everything else. The secret is just Jones’ exceptional talent and charisma, which matches the vibrancy of her character. On the one hand, that means any scene the includes her sparkles; on the other, scenes that are devoid of her presence are lackluster to the extreme.
While creator Sally Wainwright again shows off her exceptional ability for writing dialogue and wonderfully natural conversations, not all plots deliver equal zest. Gentleman Jack is a talky show, and as such its episodes could be a little shorter and snappier to keep things moving as swiftly and effectively as its protagonist. A leftover murder plot from Season 1 is a snooze at best, Lister’s poor befuddled family remains exactly that (however adorable), there’s an attempt at tracking an important rebellion that doesn’t really go anywhere, and a revolving door of footmen and servants who don’t leave much of an impression. No one leaves much of an impression, really, aside from Lister. Even Walker gets steamrolled by her lover’s big personality—something that is occasionally addressed as a simmering issue between them.
But oh what a thrill it is when the fiddles strike up the show’s infectious theme from O’Hooley & Tidow, and Lister goes about her business dealings with the occasional wink at us, her confidants. She’s not infallible; she is bossy, a snob, a romantic mess, and a bulldozer of a woman (“is she… a man?”) but it’s all part of what makes her so captivating. Lister is also not immune to the difficulties her life as a (quasi-out) lesbian causes for her and those she loves—or in her terms, those she has some reasonable affection for. Still, the show never oversells it—there is, in fact, a tapestry of different responses to Lister and Walker’s “unusual” living situation and companionship. Some people know, others merely suspect, many don’t really care. Some turn a blind eye, others open embrace it, and there are some who quietly and meanly persecute or harass.
But while it is a core concern for Walker, it’s not at all what Season 2 is about—the whole thing ultimately hinges on a property deed and a single signature. And yet, as fantastic as the final episode is, the stakes never feel particularly high. Everyone is just going about their business, and there’s something very comforting about watching it all take place (especially since it’s so damned competent). Even when the Annes travel to Europe (amidst some very unfortunate green screens) and attempt to scale the Alps, the most dramatic thing that happens is when Walker lightly pouts over Lister not introducing her properly to her friends.
Gentleman Jack Season 2 is unexpectedly a comfort watch. It’s intimate and welcoming, with cozy settings by crackling fireplaces, and warm interiors of carriages and estates upon the misty Yorkshire Dales. Some of the plots are more interesting than others, but even at its most intense, the series is never designed to be too upsetting. It’s like we the viewers are Anne Walker to Gentleman Jack’s Anne Lister—it knows we are prone to anxiety and melancholy, and therefore handles us lovingly and carefully, only providing what we can take on. And like Walker, it’s hard—even when faced with faults—not to fall in love.
Gentleman Jack Season 2 premieres Monday, April 25th on HBO, and streams on HBO Max.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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