In the first one minute and 30 seconds of Gentleman Jack, a child flies off the side of a horse-drawn carriage with such Tim–from–the–first–Jurassic Park–getting–electrocuted–on–that–fence aplomb that, if you are me, you will toss back your head and laugh before the show reveals this child’s flight to be an actual tragedy, and you may wonder: Am I a monster, or is this show’s tone inscrutable?
The answer is both: You are in fact a monster, and this show is pretty hard to read.
We are in the era of tone-breaking entertainment when seemingly a third of the shows on cable could be described as “Ryan Murphy covers death with campy crane shots and Skittles colors.” The Favorite was as horrifying as it was uproariously funny, Killing Eve makes me want to be hunted by a contract killer, and both of those shows take place in England. So does Gentleman Jack, specifically in Halifax, which is in Yorkshire, which is a pudding. I am American, so anything with an English accent feels like it’s from the same tricornered-hat time frame, but this show takes place between The Favorite and Killing Eve, in the 1830s.
Anyway, as the post-childflinging carriage rolls past a large estate, we cut inside and meet a woman who looks like what would happen if Reese Witherspoon bred with Christina Ricci, and I’m sorry I used the verb “bred” there. The older woman whom Reese Ricci is riding with mentions that the estate’s owners, the Listers, are a “a bit odd,” but when we meet the family members a few moments later, nothing seems amiss.
An old man with great muttonchops, the woman who played Bridget Jones’s mom in those movies, who I think is Muttonchops’s sister, and Yara from Game of Thrones, looking stressed out on dry land, sit around talking about the dressed-in-black sheep of the family, Anne, due home any minute after something went afoul between herself and another woman. A woman she was living with. But what kind of women live together???
That question is answered pretty quickly as we cut to the show’s title sequence, a montage that is to butches getting ready as Rocky’s is to boxers in training. We see boots, a tie, a vest, a hat, and honestly, those are the only things you really need to be a lesbian. Also, get used to hearing this show’s theme song, because you will hear it CONSTANTLY throughout this episode! I’d recommend watching the song’s charming music video by O’Hooley and Tidow and keeping that in your brain, because otherwise the oft-repeated theme can feel distractingly like the score to something Baloo from The Jungle Book would sing.
We soon see who all that clothing belongs to when another carriage flies down the streets of Halifax before screeching to a halt, the driver dismounting with ease. (As an aside: This show is very white, but I bet you got that from how many carriages I’ve described.) Everyone else on this second carriage is mad at the driver and/or barfing from her driving, and that’s when we meet Anne, the titular Gentleman Jack, who insists she had to drive after the real driver’s arm was broken. This “having to drive” is in fact Anne’s whole thing. She so often takes care of business that Elvis himself would be like, “This is honestly too much business.”
Also introduced along with Anne and her can-do attitude in this scene: a direct-to-camera address. Remember how I said the tone of this show is hard to judge? Well, characters make eye contact with or speak directly to camera without any particular pattern or regularity — it’s so erratic that I thought I was hallucinating the first three times it happened. But I rewatched and, in fact, those gummy worms I ate were pot-free.
Before long, Anne arrives to meet the other Listers at the family home, Shibden Hall. Now, this is all based in history. Shibden Hall is a real place, and Anne Lister was a real person: Often described as the “first modern lesbian,” she left behind a 4 million-word diary about her life as a lesbian, written in code, which I for no reason assume was posthumously cracked by Rihanna’s character from Ocean’s 8. That’s why I’m writing about this show: It’s important to me that shows centered on lesbian characters survive and currently this is the only show on TV centered on a lesbian main character. Lotsa queerness in ensemble casts these days (yay!), not so much as single central characters (booooo). Come soon, new The L Word!
Anyway, Anne isn’t stoked to be home at Shibden but nonetheless gets to work figuring out how to keep her family’s wealth intact. She visits the family’s business manager, who’s been taken ill with dropsy, which looks a lot like Swiss-cheese leg from what’s onscreen. Anne doesn’t blink at his leg, nor did she flinch when recounting how her groom (helper, not husband) was shot on her way home. Instead, she describes going to his autopsy, and decides to collect the family’s rents from their tenants and look into the family’s coal mines herself, even as the most powerful family in town, the Rossens, have an interest in mining her family’s coal. She also takes an interest in the young boy thrown from the carriage in the show’s opening, his carriage having been run off the road.
So Anne is already a landlord/investigator/coroner/coalguy/horse wrangler, and it’s the first episode. Also, every time she walks, the show’s theme song kicks in, so I just want to say: Lesbians are not all this capable and music doesn’t play when I walk, except Tegan and Sara’s Bad Ones, which plays for me only, in my earbuds.
Back at the ranch, Anne gets yelled at by her sister because collecting rent is a man’s job, then tells a maid who speaks French to prepare for her friend Mrs. Laughton’s arrival with “the usual sleeping arrangements” before having a memory of the reason she left her previous household: The woman she loved and lived with is going to marry a man. Receiving this news in flashback, Anne scream-cries into her girlfriend’s crotch, and I get it, sister, but that’s a tough reaction to look back on. At least scream into her hair next time.
Speaking of hair, I should also mention that Anne’s hairstyle is this very distracting number that looks like she has a Twinkie glued to each temple, and that makes sense. Lesbian haircuts are usually teeter-tottering between cool and totally bananas. She also has the best dresses that look like suits, and as with Warren Zevon, I’d like to meet her tailor.
All of this is to say: It’s clear everyone in town knows something is up with Anne’s sexuality. She has a very sweet chat with her aunt that makes it seem like she’s out to her, she crosses her leg at the ankle in this way that looks 100 percent queer while interviewing a replacement business manager for her family, and she gets in the face of a tenant who defies her rent collection and draws attention in the pub where they’ve met up so he can pay his debt. It doesn’t seem that Anne is at all subtle about her tastes or her identity, and this makes it a little unclear what’s at stake for her in this world, safety-wise. Her sister, Marian, worries about Anne coming home alone late and butched-out, and I do, too.
Before the episode wraps up, we see Anne in bed with the visiting Mrs. Laughton, a longtime lover who finds time for Anne amid her husband’s schedule, and — seemingly directly after orgasming — encourages Anne to marry a man, even as she calls her “Freddie.” Anne is clear: She’s looking to share her life with a woman, and one character introduced in this pilot seems to fit the bill: Ann Walker — or perhaps you know her from paragraph four of this recap as Reese Ricci.
Miss Walker is rich as hell, single, and isolated. She sees a doctor for depression but also seems enormously improved just by meeting Anne in the waning minutes of this hourlong show with no boobs in it yet. (Just shocking for HBO, really.) Upon meeting Miss Walker, Anne impresses her with her snobbishness by launching into the reason she should be able to vote instead of poor, non-landowning men. Her sister Marian is even sorta like, “Let’s all vote.” And Anne is like, “No. Just me, the most oppressed person.” Her justification feels very “white women in the 2016 election” — she seems to feel she’s in the worst situation of anyone in Britain, even as her social class allows her to defy social norms.
The episode ends with Anne shooting a sick horse in the head when her groom can’t pull the trigger and with me wondering if I like Anne at all. It’s clear that Anne will next pursue Miss Walker, aiming to win her heart and her money, but what else she will get up to I cannot quite imagine. If her skill set up to this point is any indication, I expect Anne will show her astronaut skills next week and cure death by the end of episode three.
• Anne’s new lady’s maid is pregnant, the groom who was shot on their way to Shibden was her fiancé, and now she’s fucked, just like many American women will be if states keep passing new abortion restrictions.
• The son of the tenant who defied Anne visits the boy waylaid by the carriage accident and brings him a whittled wooden soldier. I myself just took a wooden-spoon-carving class, so I related to this character.