Suranne Jones never lets us down, and in episode 5 of Gentleman Jack she delivered a heartbreaking, important performance that had us reaching for the tissues.
The fifth instalment of Gentleman Jack, BBC One’s refreshing period drama about 19th-century landowner Anne Lister, left us feeling dejected and, quite frankly, disturbed. With the slimy Mr Ainsworth turning up in Halifax, Anne and Ann’s relationship becomes strained and the ongoing meddling of the Priestleys threatens to tear them apart for good.
There’s plenty to unpick – here are five things we took away:
Mr Ainsworth is categorically the worst
If the arrival of Mr Ainsworth prompted boos worthy of a pantomime villain in your house, you’re not the only one.
The man who abused and assaulted Ann has slithered his way over to Halifax under the guise of seeking a position at the local church, but we know he’s just trying to get closer to Ann after his wife – her good friend – died in an ‘accident’.
His speech about a proposal to Ann being “what Mrs Ainsworth would have wanted” might have fooled the dim-witted Priestleys, but it didn’t fool us. And just when we thought he couldn’t get any worse, he turns up at Ann’s house – unwanted – and gives her a gift that includes a “biographical account of himself”. I mean, how many more ways can this man be awful?
Anne is more traditional than we thought
We’ve seen how much closer Anne and Ann have gotten since their first coy meetings, but we were still shocked by Anne suggesting “more formal ties”.
Puzzled, Ann asks if she’s talking about their plans to live together after their trip to Europe. But Anne says it’s more than that: she wants to take sacrament together, exchange holy vows and wear rings, the whole caboodle.
Despite being a gender non-conforming pioneer (approximately 200 years before that word existed), Anne truly believes in the institution of marriage and wants her relationship to receive “God’s blessing”.
As she later states in an impassioned speech, she is determined to make Ann her wife “and everything that that means”. And silly things like deeply entrenched patriarchy and, you know, the law, are probably not going to stop her.
Their relationship is not unshakeable
One thing that may stop her, however, is Ann. Despite the clear connection the two lovers have and the support Anne has given her throughout her ordeals with her awful family and the vile Mr Ainsworth, in episode 5 we see Ann withdraw from the relationship and all the stress that it brings.
Queen of the curtain-twitchers, Mrs Priestley continues spreading mean-spirited rumours and pours poison into the ear of Ann’s friend, Miss Parkhill, about her “unnatural relations with Miss Lister”. This prompts Miss Parkhill to completely freak out, telling Ann: “I think you’re in the worst kind of danger, in this world and the next.”
All this drama pushes Ann over the edge, and her fear of becoming a social pariah – or worse – prompts her to say some pretty heartbreaking things to Anne. “It’s wrong, it’s repugnant,” she says of their relationship. “I would rather die than people know what we do.” Anne is clearly shattered by these words, and it’s frustrating to watch their love being ripped apart by the bigoted ideas of others.
Anne won’t go down without a fight
If we’ve learned anything about Anne Lister, it’s that self-respect is her greatest strength.
She does understand Ann’s fear, especially when people like Mrs Priestley are going around saying they’ll be “ostracised and jeered at in the streets” if people know they are a couple. She tries to reassure her that there is a way for them to live a quiet, happy life together – that there has to be.
“I love and only love the fairer sex,” Anne says. “I was born like this. If I was to lie with a man surely that would be the unnatural thing.” She has always known who she is and that she deserves to be happy and loved. When she pleads with Ann, “Don’t let them poison you against me, against us”, we can’t help but applaud her and hope that the message gets through.
But her strength may be her downfall
No sooner have we been inspired by Anne’s self-assuredness than we see how it can put her in grave danger. The final scene of episode 5 shows her being badly beaten and assaulted by a male attacker in the street, who spits in her face and warns her to “stay away from Ann Walker”.
We don’t know who he is or why he’s so furious about Anne’s love for women – but with horrific attacks on LGBTQ+ people still all too common today, it’s a chilling and timely reminder that we have lots of work left to do.
Gentleman Jack continues next Sunday at 9pm on BBC One
Images: BBC One