“I soon took up her petticoats so as to feel her naked thighs next to mine. Then, after kissing with my tongue in her mouth, got the middle finger of my right hand up her & grubbled her longer & better than ever, she seeming rather more at ease than before & taking it with more emotion & apparent pleasure, which made me keep dawdling there a long time.”
—Anne Lister, 1825
Those are the words of the real Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister. On Friday I participated in an HBO-sponsored reading of her diaries to promote this very show, and this was one of my entries to read, which I nailed because I really get what she’s talking about.
Straight up: real Anne was a pervy, detailed sexpert. It feels important that you know that because TV Anne is somewhat more chill.
And so episode two opens with Anne (Lister) going to visit, well, Ann (Walker), her new — I believe the word is conquest? Like if you’re trying to marry someone for their money, that’s a conquest, right? I guess it could be sugardaddy, or just daddy, but then there’s gender and sexuality to consider and Anne is definitely Ann’s daddy, not the other way around…
By the way: the fact that they are both named Ann(e) is rather under the radar in this show, as they are more often called Miss Lister and Miss Walker by the other characters, but it didn’t escape this lesbian, who knows sharing a first name with your partner is truly the gayest thing of all time. The second gayest thing is rhyming names (Carey and Mary, Max and Jax), and a tertiary gay thing is non-dairy milk. Butt sex, however, is actually sort of a straight thing since statistically more people on this earth are straight and everyone (truly everyone) loves butt sex.
Anyway, Anne goes to visit Ann and they talk for hours about things like how neither of them wants to give birth (relatable), and Anne reveals that she once dissected a human baby as part of an anatomy lesson. That is less relatable; like most lesbians, I used to be a nanny and that involves keeping a baby together. Anne is using MOVES to win Ann’s affection and amongst them is brainpower. We learn that Anne wasn’t able to attend school, but she speaks ad nauseum on literally everything so it’s easy to imagine how obsessed with extra credit she would have been had she been able to go. She’s a real valedictorian, that Anne.
Over this visit and the next, the women decide to go to Switzerland together and then to Rome for Easter (honestly, I’ve been to Rome for Easter. Why is this show my life?) after discussing Ann’s upcoming time away from Anne in the lake district. Planning a trip together on your third date? Again, this show is queerness.
We also see Anne make her first real pass at Ann, delivering the Han Solo-esque, “I think you’re a little bit in love with me.” A note to both Anne and Han: sometimes just say how you feel. After the pass, Ann freaks out a bit, but then, while packing for the lake district trip with her cousin, she defends Anne, so we know it’s on.
Anne Lister also does a lot of business in this episode, much like in the pilot and I’m sure every episode. She hires a coal assistant, wears a series of great vests, and visits with two different Rawson brothers: a smart weaselly one and a dumb sputtering one. She intimates that Weaselly Rawson ran down the boy from episode one whom I laughed at when he flew out of his carriage and lost his leg, and she outmaneuvers Sputtering Rawson when he tries to cheat her on the price of coal he’d like to mine from her property. Anne is a hardass to both, and the viewer knows Weaselly did hurt that kid and Sputtering is already robbing her of coal, so we’re on her side through it all.
That said, I honestly think we could be more on her side. What this show does well is allow Suranne Jones, who plays Anne, to show off strutting, eyebrow-raising, and meaningful-leaning skills, and be charming and likable while doing it. The show is also very good at playing its own theme song in the background during every transition between scenes, and also at all times, really. What this show does badly, however, is provide a sense of stakes. Like, there is a servant who is pregnant out of wedlock and needs to find a husband so she won’t be ruined, but I’m not sure I actually care about her. Anne’s family is hard to love, too, though the actors are giving it a solid shot. Even Anne’s actual love life is hard to invest in. We see four seconds of cunnilingus in this episode, as a cutaway joke when she speaks about learning anatomy, and I for one would like more cunnilingus in this show!
However, there are two scenes in this episode I really like. In one, Anne goes to see the small boy who lost his leg and, upon meeting her, he asks “Are you a man?” Weirdly, because misgendering is a huge part of a butch or gender non-conforming identity, I haven’t seen this type of scene too often on television. It’s especially notable because the boy asks the question earnestly, without intending offense, and there are two things every gender non-conforming person has experienced: questions asked with malice and questions asked with genuine interest. Even genuine interest can be tough to take in a culture that treats variation as wrong, so I loved seeing the embarrassment pass across Anne’s face before she addressed the question honestly and openly.
The other scene that stands out falls toward the end, when Anne has been invited to her ex-partner’s wedding to a man. She is on the fence about going but is pushed to attend by Ann and spends the wedding dressed for a funeral, before approaching her ex and taking a long pause before speaking. It’s clear she’s shuffling through her mind and all they’ve been through before speaking. Both Anne’s ex and I braced for impact at whatever Anne might dish out, but all that passes her lips are congratulations. It’s a heartbreaking and real moment for anyone with any sort of ex, and I have several.
The episode ends with Anne deciding to make a last-minute trip to the lake district to see Ann. After all, her ex has found happiness. Why can’t she? (I think the answer is historical oppression and gender norms, but let’s see what happens.) Anyway, we’re going to the lake district!
• Go see Wild Nights With Emily! It’s fucking amazing and queer as hell and funny and poignant and I saw it with my mom this weekend and she loved it (and kept loudly commenting so in the movie theater and I had to shush my own mom. Terrible.)
• The smart, weaselly bad guy in this show (Mr. Rossen) wears a blue suit and has a small dog but I HAVE THOSE THINGS.
• Anne’s ex is the actor who played the woman Nan King ended up with in the BBC adaptation of Tipping the Velvet which is very satisfying if you are as devoted to lesbian cultural crap as I am. Also Benedict Cumberbatch is in Tipping the Velvet and is, like, maybe 20. Look it up; I swear!
• Best quote of the episode: “I started wearing black because of a wedding”