Gentleman Jack’s Finale Was One of the Finest Hours in Lesbian Cinematic History

A week ago, in a crowded room of people managing an emergency, Laneia knelt down in front of the chair where I was sitting, removed the phone I was close to shattering with the rage of my grip, and replaced it with a generous pour of whisky. I followed her out to the porch, eyelids red from crying, jaw clenched in silent fury because I’d let other people see me lose control of my emotions. I’d ripped off the tie I was wearing, run and leapt and driven a pickup truck backwards at full speed, and now someone I loved was in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital, and now the situation was out of my control.

I could tell Laneia was startled. Of all the things we’ve seen each other through in our many years as co-workers and eventually dear friends, she’d never seen me like this. She said, “Are you all right?”

I said, “I’m always all right.”

Her eyes smiled and my eyes smiled and then we laughed with our whole faces. I was quoting Anne Lister, sitting on a log with her field workers, day-drinking warm beer from a borrowed canteen, after an afternoon spent smashing rocks and trying to forget she’d proposed to another women who hadn’t said yes. And again, at the breakfast table, every man in town terrified of her and trying to kick her into her place, the woman she loved hundreds of miles away in a mental health crisis. “I’m always all right,” Anne told Joseph. “I’m always all right,” she told her sister. Laneia and l have that in common with her: Just a couple of dykes who’ve spent a lifetime trying to hold our families, our communities, the world together with duct tape and butch energy and sheer willpower.

So many people were upset with me when I called Anne Lister “butch” in my initial review of Gentleman Jack, which was the weirdest thing in the world to me because if Anne Lister isn’t butch, how come the first words out of her mouth in the whole series, as she takes a carriage on a tear through the streets of Halifax, because the actual driver hit a pot hole and dislocated his shoulder, are, “No one else seemed disposed to rise to the occasion.” And the cape-coat and the top hat and the cane and why does her walk — the blessed, unconstrained, arrogant swagger of her walk — have its own score? Okay and the way she sits and gesticulates and makes eye contact and her know-it-all overall competency; what about that? The way she does the thing no one else has the heart or guts or fortitude to do, not because she even wants to, but because she’s the only one capable of getting it done — and it has to be done. If Anne Lister isn’t butch, why does she remind me so much of me?

It’s a heady thing seeing yourself, really seeing yourself, on TV for the first time in your life at the age of 40. And oh sure, I’ve seen bits and pieces of myself in stories before. Neville Longbottom, of course. “I’m worth twelve of you, Malfoy.” Disaster baby gay Paige McCullers. “I like worrying! I’m very good at it!” Willow Rosenberg. “Nerds are in… they’re still in, right?” Jo March, obviously. “I like good strong words that mean something.” At some point, though I can’t remember when, I started thinking of myself less as an Elizabeth Bennet and more as a Mr. Darcy. Except there’s not a lot of women characters out here in the wide world of fiction allowed to move through the world like Mr. Darcy — displaying judgment that’s both keen and flawed; acting in ways that are both heroic and weak; confidence teetering on smugness, and humble too and afraid; buttoned-up and messy; mistakes born of insecurity and mistakes born of prejudice and mistakes born of over-caring or not caring at all, mistakes mistakes mistakes; learning and growing and holding failure up to the light and distilling strength from it — and, in the end, finding oneself worthy of the love and devotion of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth Bennet! (Not one of those boys deserved Hermione.)

Women, in general, aren’t given the latitude to contain multitudes in stories; and queer women even less so. Yet, here is Anne Lister! Here is Gentleman Jack! Someone said to me I write about her so fondly because I want to justify her flaws and her vices, and good heavens no. Only a narcissist is so weak they’ll say or do anything to preserve their fragile self-image. Lay Anne Lister’s weaknesses bare that I might be better able to see and stand up under my own!

It would have been enough for me, going into this week’s finale, to see her tromping around Europe in her boots and waistcoat; pocket watch always at hand, as if meticulously keeping track of that tick-tick-tick-tick at her waist helps her hold herself together. I’d already watched her walk through the English countryside, making men her enemies and women her lovers. She tipped her top hat with her cane and then turned that cane on more than one predator, baring her teeth, sending those men running. Even that would have been enough. But then, I saw her with her hair down in the light of the morning sun, disheveled and heartbroken and hopeful and raw. And I saw her choose gentleness. And I saw her unravel, and grapple with the things she’d conditioned herself to ignore just to survive, and beg to be loved. She tended to her own bloodied mouth and broken ribs and only cried in the presence of Ann Walker because she’d come so very close to allowing herself to commit her life to another woman.

“Are You Still Talking” was all that, all everything I fell in love with and very obviously over-identify with about Anne Lister, framed and filmed inside the kind of aching, sweeping, desperate, tender, pleading, triumphant storyline only the most epic romantic movies about straight people ever are. Anne Lister racing home from Europe: on her feet and on a boat and on a horse, bursting out of carriages and sneering at the man she’d hired to travel with her: “You’re ridiculous!” And Ann Walker, standing incandescently in her own power, for the very first time. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of it.” “I want to go to Dr. Belcombe, in York. I want to get better.” “I’m not playing; I already told you that.” Arriving at Shibden, and then — my god! — arriving at that pit!

Declarations of love and promises and pleas not to be hurt, a camera on a crane sweeping the Yorkshire landscape, rings! Fingers intertwined! A wedding! There has never been a show like Gentleman Jack on TV. The messiness and the misandry and the ascendent lesbian happiness.

I’ve been writing about LGBTQ television professionally for eleven years and Anne Lister gave me something brand new: shorthand for how I see myself, a way to relate to other butchy, dykey women my age who know who they are; and who, one way or another, are always all right. Because what other choice do we have?

Laneia and I, we laughed about Anne Lister and swooned about Anne Lister and stayed up late to pull apart her motivations, to try to find new ways to tell ourselves our own stories, to draw constellations in the pinpricks of light we were witnessing for the first time in a TV character. Stacy laughs at me affectionately every time I bring up Anne (because it’s all the time) and at A-Camp, Laneia’s wife came to fetch her at 2 a.m. when we were still awake talking about the finale. I took Anne with me to therapy, to be quite honest, and I bet Laneia did too. That night I broke down in front of too many people, and Laneia gave me whisky and a hug, she also threatened to give me a good walloping if I didn’t stop apologizing for letting people see me cry.

I’m not as strong as you think. Well, I am obviously. But. Sometimes I’m not.

I think of Anne Lister all the time when I’m walking now, weaving my way in and out of crowds in New York City; baseball cap flipped backwards, headphones on; my gait quick and long, arms swinging wildly; jaunty; masculine; same as always — only taller.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle managing editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 855 articles for us.

61 Comments

  1. I’ve been waiting on this for days (after your tweet about writing it Heather) and it’s even better than I could have imagined, thank you for your voice, your insight and for your sharing. It made me cry (of course) and I’ve already seen the finale several times with my fiancée and we love it just as hard every time.

  2. I’ve been eagerly anticipating this essay since I saw your tweet about it a few days ago, and once again, this magical blend you do of talking about a show and talking about yourself is so beautiful. It IS so rare still to see butch/masculine-of-center lesbians onscreen, but to get Anne Lister on Gentleman Jack, with, as you say, all her complexities – character flaws and messiness – but also the grand scope of her romantic heart was unparalleled. All that already was amazing. But then the finale gave us THE happy ending, the Wuthering Heights-sweeping panoroma romantic climax with heartfelt confessions and Anne’s tears and tender touching and finally the kiss, and it was almost TOO MUCH.

    Three years ago, things seemed pretty grim for queer women on tv, and this year has given us Juliantina (with its finale on the 3rd anniversary of Lexa’s death) on Amar A Muerte and Anne/Ann (what *is* their ship name, anyway?!) on Gentleman Jack. And GJ also gave us a butch lesbian protagonist to identify with for the first time ever. As they say, what a time to be alive :)!

  3. This is gorgeous, Heather. This was a period piece that treated both our struggles and our love with the respect that it deserves.
    I tended to identify with Ann Walker for similar reasons that you connected with Anne Lister actually. I’ve spent most of my 20s in the grip of depression that is in some respects the results of internalized homophobia. The dream sequence where she imagines herself and Anne being executed together is very *ahem* similar to my brush with psychosis. I’m a lesbian who is also a survivor of sexual abuse by men as an adult and felt tainted by guilt.
    But you know what? Ann is given the agency to define her experience. She’s presented as being unconditionally worthy of Anne Lister’s (!!!!!!) time and attention. I’m sorry about rambling but it’s just, idk I’ve never experienced anything like it on television.

  4. I would agree that Anne Lister is butch. In this series and most definitely in life – more so. But then I guess that conjures up different stereotypes and misunderstandings. I love the way we categorise things

  5. I really love when you write about television, but especially when you get to write about television that is worthy of your writing. This piece will sit inside me, just like this show.

  6. It’s a beautiful twist of character development, isn’t it, that in order to be together, Ann must become more empowered, while Anne must become more vulnerable. Somehow, that enables them to meet in the middle, on equal footing. Actually, now that I think about it, they’re sort of like Carol and Therese in that way.

  7. Heather, you are one of my favorite writers, ever. Your words have a way of staying with me.

    I loved the finale; it was romantic and sweet and earned. My wife can be quite the cynic and even she was moved. She turned to me and said “and you said I don’t like romance!” lol

  8. This was beautiful Heather! I honestly fell in love with this series, more than I ever thought I would. There is something about it that just captures me. Maybe it’s the stolen glances shared between the Ann(e)s? The quiet kisses and gentle touches played so beautifully? Maybe it’s the fact that Anne Lister was revolutionary for her time, which in today’s lens can come off as problematic? I like how the show didn’t paint her as this amazing figure with progressive politics. Not all lesbians are good? The show made multi-faceted characters that felt real. Yes, they were her diaries and real people, but sometimes diaries can really be distorted by the lens of the author. They were able to flesh out these characters and made them feel like not just mentions in her diary.

    The fact that it was written by women and directed by women also made this an amazing first season. The acting was incredible. Suranne Jones and Sophie Rundle deserve the recognition they are receiving for these roles.

    I could watch the scene in the church and on top of the hill on loop for the rest of my life and be content.

  9. This piece is absolutely gorgeous, Heather, thank you! I love this show and the finale…about halfway thru I was on the edge of my seat rocking back and forth and could not believe what I was seeing. The scene on the hill!!! I’ve never seen anything like it! I’m so happy this exists. And yes, I definitely see myself in Anne L.’s butchy sweeping romantic protective swaggering self. Never before.

    (THE BLUE WEDDING SUIT. OMG.)

  10. This was so beautiful to read Heather. I can’t believe how perfect this show is. I’ve been waiting for it with bated breath for two years and for it to not only not disappoint, but be better than I ever dreamed is an incredible experience!

    Oh and I hope everyone is okay from the emergency you mentioned. *hugs*

  11. It’s not often I will read a review that brings me to tears. In fact, I don’t believe it has ever happened to me before.

    There is something about vulnerability in a butch woman that is utterly breathtaking — like a most sublime, rare bloom fighting its way through concrete. This whole piece captures and celebrates that beauty superbly! Well done!

  12. oh, heather. i have not watched a single episode of this show – you know me, and you know perhaps i never will – but i still knew i would have to wait to read this review until i was done with all my major deadlines of the day because it would reduce me to tears, and i was right.

    i love you. i love your butchness. i love butches. i love making space for a better narrative than the one people often reduce everything to when they talk about butches and queer masculinity. i love the work you do in our community and i also appreciate you extremely occasionally letting us care for you, too. gratitude for forever, i am so lucky to know you and to call you my friend. <3

  13. i, too, wept (internally) at seeing as close a version of myself as hitherto has been possible on screen, and also, Heather, in a very similar way, in your writing. both make me come closer to finally accepting that i am butch and always have been, multitudinous definitions and connotations be damned.

    i’m so glad you defended the complex multitudes of her character, though other critical voices wanted.. something else? perfection in character and filmmaking and representation for now? that’s what made it entirely more relatable for me, that one can have flaws, just as one can be vulnerable.

  14. I was the one who ran up to you as soon as it was over bubbling over about how for once a show with lesbians ended on a truly happy note despite knowing they were renewed for another season. It was such an amazing feeling to experience that with the people I did. Thank you for this article, thank you for what you do. It means so much to so many of us.

    • I think, to parse it more finely, that insisting that you are always alright because you refuse to show weakness or vulnerability is typically butch. Insisting that you are always alright for other reasons (such as feeling obligated to prioritize others’ well-being over your own, or feeling obligated to put on a “pretty/happy face”) is not.

      • I wonder where “I’m not okay right now, but I will be. I always am in the end.” falls, then. I mean, it is admitting vulnerability, not really putting on a pretty/happy face, or prioritizing others’ well-being above… Hm.

        • That doesn’t sound like the butch version, that just sounds like the honest self-assessment of a pragmatic person. I think what Heather is talking about is an aversion to showing vulnerability in public (like, for me, I haaaate crying in public, but it still happens sometimes at weddings and funerals). *shrug*

          Of course, these are all just generalizations and stereotypes. You can be butch and vulnerable in public, or vice versa. You be you!

  15. Heather, I love you so much and I am so happy to call you a friend! You handled that night brilliantly and i think this is my favorite piece you’ve ever written.

    I have never been so struck by a television show so quickly. I’ve never really been interested in period dramas but between The Favorite and Gentleman Jack I’m starting to reconsider.

    The world we live in does so much to tear us down, makes us feel invalid, tells us we don’t matter, and yet Anne Lister shines brightly like a beacon from the past reminding us all that queer people have always existed and will always exist no matter how hard other people wish we didn’t.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences and making us feel so many feelings! I’m crying happy tears (what a surprise) 🐍🐍

    • Even though there is no queer women content on the show you should check out The Spanish Princess on Starz. It’s about Catherine of Aragon’s early life as she was about to marry King Henry VIII.

  16. Ugh, I FELT this. I’ve always loved your recaps Heather, you have a way of dissecting these profound moments in television and reminding me why I feel things about it. I am also someone who definitely resides in the realm of “I’m always alright” and hates losing emotional control in front of anyone and I too, feel kinship to Anne Lister in a way I’ve never quite experienced before.

    Thank you, for what you give of yourself in your writing. It’s honest and raw and more often than not, I relate.

    I sometimes mournfully think about all the shows that have retired with my favorite gays, and shows like Gentleman Jack remind me that we’ve only just begun x)

  17. Gentleman jack was amazing. I grew up a tomboy somewhere between that and a soft butch not really knowing who I was. I admire Anne Lister for being who she was in such difficult times striding through life as who she was and not settling until she found a woman who would live with her as she wanted and wouldn’t compromise on her beliefs. The show obviously dramatised a lot of it but the message remained. It was wonderfully romantic,soft, gentle and uplifting at the end and has been the first show in a long while to really affect me. Loved it and Suranne Jones who I loved btw ( Scott and Bailey and a touch of cloth are excellent as well as her stint as “sexy”in Doctor who are amazing) was perfect as Anne and I can’t wait for the next series.

  18. Thank you Heather, for dissection what is at the core of every TV shows that I adore (always and forever Skins seasons 3-4, and now GJ). There’s no strength without vulnerability, and you’re wearing that badge of boldness and courage right over your blessed heart.

    The depiction of mental illness was quite devastating throughout the season, and being aware of what happened to Ann Walker IRL makes me sad thinking about her struggles. So true, a condition some people have to live with rather than being cured of.

    That scene on top of the hills, breathtaking!

    Cannot wait for season 2.

  19. oh heather, as always you masterfully weave your real life experience in with a television show that reminds me why we love the medium (and your writing) so much. thank you for sharing so much of your vulnerability and kindness with our community, for letting us occasionally take care of you too, and for being far more than “all right.”

    i love you and thank you so much for writing this piece. it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

  20. This is something I never thought I would say about a television show, but watching Anne Lister so fully realized over the course of this season has given me an appreciation for who I am that I’d never fully realized before, and has also helped me to see that I can continue to grow into that person over the rest of my life. The season finale of Gentleman Jack (and, really, the entire show) thrilled me, and made me feel raw and excited in ways that I don’t think any piece of cinematic media ever has. The last episode was transcendent in more ways than one. You’ve captured them all here, in words that resonate with me so deeply that I’m still crying, and in ways that pull at the edges of myself where I haven’t yet had the life experience that I think will make the show and your writing about it even more powerful for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  21. Much love to you Heather you are strong, tears not a weak person make. They make you human

    I loved this. It has so much more in it than a finale review. You are an Amazingly good writer.

  22. Everything. This.

    I first saw mention of Gentleman Jack on Heather’s feed. Having been disappointed so many times by show writers, I waited until the series finale before watching it.

    I too see so much of myself in Anne Lister. Always being alright. Waking up every day, chin up, knowing I’m “different” than what society deems “normal”. Taking care of myself on my own, trying to stay strong and not show weakness. I’m still processing this show.

    The side plot of Thomas while predictable was fun to watch. When at the end after the wedding. Mr. Washington realizes the truth about Thomas.

    The show has been renewed for a second season, I was hoping it was just one season. Afraid they’ll mess the love story between Ann and Anne up in the second season. But if they do it right, I can’t wait for it 🙂

  23. Such a great review, and such an amazing show.

    Can we also share some kudos for the fabulous lesbian wife folk duo O’Hooley and Tidow who wrote (and perform) the amazeballs theme tune. It’s from their gorgeous, gorgeous album The Fragile released in 2015. They live in my hometown. Here they are in the (extremely dapper) flesh: https://youtu.be/YInK5yhBQE0

    I’ve never been more proud of Yorkshire.

    I am a bit worried for season 2 given the real life arc of the Ann(e)s. This was such a perfect place to leave them.

  24. Echoing the other commenters to say thank you. It’s been tough to wrap my head around what this show means to me—to see so much of who I am and strive to be in Anne and Ann; to see them get a full-on, majestic, Pride and Prejudice type ending. It helps to read your account.

    Also, to keep up the P&P allusions in Season 2, Anne could cool off in a pond (à la Colin Firth) after a day of collecting rents and supervising the coal pit… just saying. We’re not alive, are we, if we’re not imagining our favorite characters’ lives, now and again?

  25. I read this whilst watching the last episode of the first series (yes the BBC has commissioned a second). |I first found out about Anne Lister while researching another couple from 50 or so years earlier (The Ladies of Llangollan who were actually Irish but I digress) and she fascinates me! That we now have a drama worthy of her memory is great! And oh congrats Heather you’ve hit t’ nail on t’ head as usual!

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