Canon be damned, “Anne With an E” is bolder, funnier, and just plain better in Season 2 as it imagines brand-new storylines for the characters laid out in L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” novel. This is not to say it’s better than the book, but now that the show has established its rule-breaking formula in its first season, this time around the story — much like its titular irrepressible orphan — jumps in with both feet.
What results is a more sure-footed and vibrant narrative that allows the show to play around with its characters in the bigger historical world that lay beyond the pages. It turns out that this strategy is the show’s biggest strength. Although the source material still provides some inspiration — such as when Anne (Amybeth McNulty) scares herself with the strength of her wild imagination — the new storylines offer more adventures, more ways to develop character, and more insights into the time period that are relevant to issues faced by youth today.
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(Purists who don’t want the darker, more realistic tone or awkward storylines can always rewatch the classic ‘80s miniseries that still cannot be eclipsed as an adaptation that captured the spirit of Montgomery’s work. But that is not what “Anne With an E” is.)
When the series last left off, the situation at Green Gables didn’t seem quite as dire. Although the Cuthbert family had been in danger of ruin thanks to Matthew’s (R.H. Thomson) unwise investment, selling off prized possessions and taking in a couple of lodgers brought in some money and a lot of relief. Unfortunately, those lodgers — the good-looking rascal Nathaniel (Taras Lavren) and the boisterous Mr. Dunlop (Shane Carty) — are actually grifters secretly working a long con the would affect all of Avonlea.
How the show deals with that storyline leads Anne and her pal Diana (Dalila Bela) to combine forces in a far more complex and proactive way than we’d seen previously from their fairy tale-spinning shenanigans. This sets the stage for an even bigger caper later in the season that never loses sight of what the show is all about: doing good and celebrating what is good in the world.
Although this may feel far too ideal for our modern world, Anne’s inherent goodness and her inability to hold back is one of her enduring charms, and by extension, the story’s. At one point, one character says, “[She] felt so openly. Life had so many colors through her eyes.”
This description could refer to the series’ heroine, who always expresses every emotion — good or bad — in the utmost, extra fashion. But the line could also refer to the series itself, which ping-pongs from grim to joyous, from awkward to tearful, and yet always feels genuine and celebratory of what all life has to offer. But that includes the dark side also, the part of Netflix’s adaptation that has received the most criticism.
The show continues the nightmarish flashbacks to Anne’s childhood at the orphan asylum where she was abused regularly, and McNulty plays these scenes as engrossingly as her exuberant ones. These bouts of PTSD are sprinkled throughout the season, yet for some reason, the show has so far not seen fit to actually address them.
But she’s not the only one to get this treatment. This year, her adoptive parents, Matthew and Marilla (Geraldine James), have their backstories revealed through flashbacks, and these are handled in such a way that offers neat solutions in the present. These moments feel the most manufactured, but fortunately, the show’s tendency for melodrama is tempered by its earnestness.
This year, the show’s already blunt messaging about bullying, acceptance, and inclusivity is even more in-your-face. After the death of his father, Gilbert Blythe (Lucas Jade Zumann) took work on a steamship in order to see the world and find himself before deciding on what to do with the land he inherited. This new enterprise takes him to multiple ports of call but also allows him to befriend Sebastian “Bash” Lacroix (Dalmar Abuzeid), an Afro-Caribbean worker from Trinidad, the first black character to ever have graced any “Anne of Green Gables” story. And even though there are whiffs of exoticism here and there, for the most part, the show is savvy in how it addresses characters’ racism head-on, the inequities faced by a non-white person, and how Bash is his own charming and fully realized person.
The other major message about inclusion involves Diana’s Great Aunt Josephine (Deborah Glover), who last season revealed that she had been in love with someone named Gertrude who is now deceased. That storyline picks up again in a way that also overlaps with Anne’s experiences in Avonlea and the idea of gender roles, identity, and self-acceptance. While none of these stories were included in Montgomery’s writing, the show filters everything through Anne, who herself had been misunderstood, ostracized, abused, and marginalized. It only makes sense that she’d gravitate toward those who weren’t wholeheartedly accepted in society during that time or this one for that matter.
One more new character of sorts is introduced and has been long overdue. Anne befriends a gorgeous red fox that hangs outside her hideaway that she built with her friends for their Story Club. Anne had always addressed the flowers and trees as if they were people in the books, but the fox is clever, more interactive way to represent her affinity to the natural world. It also plays an important role in a story later in the season and is a welcome addition to the cast.
Despite the periods of melancholy and turmoil, this season feels more energetic and subsequently lighter because of the faster pace. It also is more comfortable in its skin and handles humor in its everyday situations deftly while also poking fun at itself. A caper near the end of the season epitomizes how everything gels to create a thoroughly uplifting, and most importantly, entertaining adventure. The series’ youthful cast, in fact, steal the show from the already strong adult cast members who are game for anything, including looking foolish in the most delightful way.
It’s a shame, actually, that the series is released as a binge, because this is a show that plays better as a weekly or episodic watch despite the overarching stories. It takes its time to breathe and build out Avonlea, truly creating a fuller picture of a community that is not just in place to provide a backdrop for Anne’s shenanigans and growth. Each complete and satisfying episode deserves to be thoroughly digested before rushing headlong to the next. If only Netflix allowed users to permanently disable auto play. Besides, a quick consumption of the season means that much longer a wait for the next installment. Thus, viewers would be wise to take a page from Anne herself and savor the now to the fullest.
“Anne With an E” Season 2 is currently available to stream on Netflix. Check back with IndieWire for a more spoilery analysis and interviews.