‘Gentleman Jack’ Season 2 Expands Its Romance and Drama Into Even Richer Territory

HBO’s “Gentleman Jack” is yet another televsion series that doesn’t miss a beat despite taking a three-year break. It is still stylish, witty and emotionally stirring. For newcomers, the basics are that “Gentleman Jack” is based on the life of Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), a landowner and industrialist who was also a lesbian in 19th century England. Known as “Gentleman Jack” to her neighbors, due to her preference for masculine attire, Lister also left behind a diary of over five million words. For showrunner Sally Wainwright, this means there’s plenty of source material to adapt into excellent television. The first season was a global hit, even spawning a festival in Halifax. The follow-up season delivers with another great performance by Jones, who navigates love and aristocratic demands with exceptional presence.

Season two begins soon after Anne and her great love, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), held a secret wedding in York. At the time same-sex marriage was, of course, unheard of, but in 1834 it’s compounded by other complexities. Ann remains under the care of Dr. Steph Belcombe (Michael D. Xavier) as she grapples with mental health issues. Her family is also becoming increasingly intrusive, especially her aunt (Stephanie Cole) and cousins, William (Peter Davison) and Eliza (Amelia Bullmore). What they’re more interested in is how Ann will manage her estate. Anne wants her to make a new will to finalize how the estate would be divided with Ann’s sister, Elizabeth (Katherine Kelly). Meanwhile, Anne faces her own financial headaches while running Shibden Hall. An estate nearby is up for sale and she immediately wants to buy it, and when a tenant moves out of one of her properties, Anne is advised to sell it since her borrowing rate is getting quite large.

The enjoyment of “Gentleman Jack” is in its pace and language. It’s a costume drama with melodramatics but not exceedingly done. It’s more genuinely romantic than exaggerated. Like Apple TV’s “Dickinson,” it helps that the writing borrows a lot from real, solid sources, so Anne’s voice feels genuine. When she gazes at Ann working on a painting, her voice-over sounds authentic and driven by powerful emotions. This new season also feels distinct because it allows Anne and her life experiences to expand. The first season was about establishing her unique presence, while the plot was driven by societal pressures to marry. Her relatives wanted her to find a suitable husband, but Anne knew she wanted to be with Ann. Now that she has gone so far as to tie the knot, the series does away with cliché, easy romantic solutions. Not only is Ann’s family life complicated, but Anne’s own relatives can’t hide their doubts about the compatibility of both women as a couple. A scene where Anne and Ann are having sex brims with passion, but will being physically devoted to each other be enough?

“Gentleman Jack” has grabbed audiences because it is both groundbreaking as a representation of sexuality while leaving enough room for genuine personal intrigues. Anne’s sexuality is simply who she is. It’s almost by accident that she happens to be ahead of her time. What truly dominates her thinking is how to have a successful, albeit clandestine, marriage, and take on her competitors, the Rawsons, who also hunger for dominating land. There’s also heightened tension with important side characters. The Sowdens are drowning in complicity after Thomas (Tom Lewis) not only murdered his abusive dad, but disposed of the body by feeding it some eager pigs. To continue the cover up, Thomas forged a letter by his uncle claiming Thomas’ father was in America. Now the uncle has returned and is baffled by the claim. Naturally, Anne’s estate manager, Samuel Washington (Joe Armstrong), begins to suspect something strange is going on among the Sowdens.

While “Gentleman Jack” is part of the ongoing crop of period dramas, it’s still superior to truly corny fare like “Bridgerton.” Suranne Jones makes the show work even better by expressing vulnerability mixed with the focus of a real entrepreneur. She wants to rise and live her life as she pleases. This show has a potent resonance in our time because it captures what empowerment is in a unique yet very entertaining way. We get pulled in by all of the romance and family drama, while the subtext makes itself felt in the strong writing. Many other period shows simply come and go, this one seems sure to last. Besides, there are 5 million words worth of diaries to go through.

Gentleman Jack” season two premieres April 25 and airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.