The scene is set, and the outlook is grim in the second half of the debut season of ANNE WITH AN E. In a surprising – and admittedly almost alarming – take on the classic story, we are thrust, not into the soft, cushy world of a child learning to grow up in the late nineteenth century, but into a period drama with a very adult world, as seen through the eyes of a child. It is both tragic and endearing, heartwarming and provocative. I couldn’t stop watching, and when the season was over, I was left in what I our beloved Miss Cuthbert would probably refer to as a fitful state.
Here’s the deal: fans of both the book and the original 1980s series adaptation will likely be shocked by the direction this interpretation chose to take. This isn’t a reboot of the bright, empowering girl story you were likely expecting. This is its own artistic and dramatic take on the characters and story set by the novel. It’s dark in a lot of ways, but it’s not without its own merit. Amidst the grave depictions and encroaching evils, the show still manages to depict Anne as a bright star burning with hope and optimism, even as luck would while away the good around her.
The show is still empowering in its characterization of Anne, and even extends that empowerment beyond gender; demonstrating that there is, in fact, room for other stories within period pieces. I am of course talking about Diana’s aunt Josephine, an aging, unmarried woman who lived with her now deceased lifelong best friend and “companion,” a woman she befriended as a child in school. It’s almost humorous to see how easily Lady Josephine maneuvers through society like a sophisticated spinster, without anyone batting an eye to the relationship she held with her “companion,” when it only takes a few descriptors in an exchange with Anne for us as viewers to understand the truth – or at least, perceive the truth through a modern lens. Josephine is a beautiful character for her manner and wisdom, and the mentorship she forms with Anne is delightful to watch. It’s a refreshing spin that adds depth both to character and story.
The show doesn’t stop there with its surprises, though. With each episode, the bleak and grim edges a bit closer, in a way resembling a child’s growing awareness of the world, as they age into young adulthood. As Anne struggles to find her place in Green Gables, she slowly earns the respect of the community with her savvy and good deeds. At the same time, she learns to have empathy for others, just as tragedy befalls or narrowly misses various families in the community. Her bond with the Cuthberts grows, even as hardship threatens to pull them apart.
When we last left Anne, she had most decidedly announced she would never return to school again. This is where episode four of the series picks up, and Miss Cuthbert is nearly driven mad with Anne’s wandering imagination constantly present. Her attempts to convince – and even force – Anne to return to school fail against Anne’s determined resolve. When Miss Cuthbert calls the pastor over to the house in a last ditch effort to have him use the will of God to convince Anne to return to school (a silly though understandable effort, considering how religious Miss Cuthbert is and how religious Anne is not), but even that backfires, as the man instead decides that it must be God’s will for Anne to stay home and simply prepare to be a wife.
The answer is abrupt and alarmingly – though satisfyingly – dissatisfactory to Miss Cuthbert, and to a slightly lesser degree Anne, who’d up until this point never thought of herself as wife material. It’s certainly an intriguing way to highlight the disparities in social expectation of the period, and, in a lot of ways, the humanly flaws in religion as well.
When Anne finally does decide to return to school it’s after a week of forced bonding with Ruby, whose family home caught on fire. Ruby and her siblings stay with the Cuthberts while the home is rebuilt and fixed up, and by the end, Anne’s charm has won her another friend. With this newfound confidence in her worth, Anne decides that maybe school isn’t so bad. Once there, a rivalry forms with Gilbert, who is Anne’s only academic competition. Meanwhile, we snatch another glimpse of the scandalous relationship the teacher clearly has with one of his pupils.
Anne also experiences her first “flowering” time – aka her period. The depiction of this young woman – particularly in a period piece – experiencing menstruation for the first time was refreshingly fun. It’s certainly a charming and relatable episode I would happily have my young daughters watch, if I had any. This episode is also where Anne realizes that Gilbert might be more than just a stupid boy to her. And speaking of Gilbert, the show does a wonderful job of providing a dynamism to his character in the face of his father’s death. As someone who has dealt with a critically ill parent, the performance and depiction given to Gilbert in light of this was incredibly relatable. And Anne learns true empathy from it.
In the last episode of the season, we learn that Green Gables is in trouble, as the farm’s entire crop from the harvest season was lost when the ferry transporting the goods went down, and the ship owner didn’t have insurance to cover the goods lost. In a panic, Matthew takes out a loan against the farm in order to pay for everything they’ll need for the next harvest, but when he tells Miss Cuthbert this and reveals that he’s already spent the money as well, Miss Cuthbert’s anger sends Matthew into a frightful state, and he suffers a heart attack. With Matthew bedridden, Miss Cuthbert sets about to resolve the loan problem and get an extension on paying it back, but when the bank hears that Matthew has fallen ill, they instead demand immediate recuperation of the loan in one month’s time. In an attempt not to be left penniless, Anne and Miss Cuthbert set about selling everything they can, including Green Gables. Miss Cuthbert stays to look after Matthew while Anne and Jerry set out for the city to sell the horse and as many of household items of value that they can. While there, two crazy things happen. First, Matthew attempts to kill himself so that Miss Cuthbert and Anne can collect on his life insurance money. Luckily, he is caught before he even has a chance to put bullets in a pistol. Secondly, Jerry is jumped by two men who steal the money he got for selling the horse. These two men show up at Green Gables under the guise of being interested buyers. We don’t know what their intentions are when Anne welcomes them into the Cuthbert home for dinner, and we can only hope to find out in a second season, as this is where the story ends in the season finale.
All in all, an incredibly fascinating watch, with increasingly layered drama to take in and digest. While not entirely a family show for all ages, certainly a show worth sharing with children who are themselves coming of age.
Season 1, Episodes 4-7 (S01E04-07)
Anne With An E debuted on Netflix on May 12th
Tasha is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles. Originally from Kansas, when she’s not writing about or watching TV, Tasha is searching for the best BBQ place in LA to fill the KC BBQ hole in her stomach.
Keep up with all of Tasha’s reviews here.
Tasha Cerny | Contributor