The charming Canadian adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables comes to a lovely (if untimely) end.
It’s hard to find good television for the junior high set. Stuck between two worlds— squeaky-clean children’s programming and edgier shows meant for older teenagers—tweens are often left bereft of stories that appeal to their interests in an age-appropriate way. Every once in a while, a show like Anne with an E comes along to fill that need, so it’s a shame that its third season will be the last. It’s hard not to feel the series was ending just as it began to find its voice.
Showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett‘s Anne with an E was notable from the gate for diverting greatly from the events of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, making preternaturally empathetic orphan Anne Shirley Cuthbert (Amybeth McNulty) a champion of marginalized people of all stripes, and adding more diversity to the Green Gables universe with each episode and every season. It was a bold choice, and one worth applauding: costume dramas and period pieces have a ways to go when including people of color and LGBTQA+ characters, so such a marked effort to bring a variety of lived experiences into Anne’s world makes a refreshing change.
That’s not to say the show’s messages about race and acceptance haven’t been muddled at times. Season 2 admirably handled a subplot involving Anne’s friend Cole (Cory Gruter-Andrew) coming out to her as gay, but Trinidadian sailor Sebastian “Bash” LaCroix (Dalmar Abuzeid) felt like a vehicle built exclusively for Gilbert Blythe’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) character growth. This time around, Abuzeid (one of the most charismatic and magnetic members of the cast) has a lot more to do. Unfortunately, it’s at the expense of Bash’s wife, Mary (Cara Ricketts), the show’s only significant adult woman of color.
Before being struck down with Beautiful Old-Fashioned Love Interest Disease, Mary tangles with the uptight British Barrys (Jonathan Holmes and Helen Johns) in a disappointing storyline emblematic of the show’s occasional fumbles in trying to tell kid-friendly stories about prejudice. In the telling, the show treats racism as a personal failing easily fixed by a single positive interaction with a member of a marginalized group, rather than an institutionalized system of oppression.
As a result, characters like Marilla Cuthbert (Geraldine James) and Rachel Lynde (Corrine Koslo) can sometimes seem to toggle back and forth between being totally open-minded and very uptight, depending on the needs of each particular episode. However, since Anne’s superpower is getting ill-tempered older people to lighten up, it’s easy to let that slide.
A storyline involving the forced separation and re-education of Indigenous Canadian children fares a lot better. Anne’s new friend Ka’kwet (Kiawenti’io Tarbell) and her family are tricked by the false promises of residential boarding school, a process of attempted assimilation of native peoples by the Canadian government that resulted in the deaths of as many as 6,000 Indigenous children. The last residential school of this kind wasn’t closed until 1996, resulting in generations of abuse and suffering.
Illuminating, tense, and often frightening, Ka’kwet’s struggle serves to both educate young Anne fans about the historical evils of colonialism and work as a foil to Anne’s personal journey. Anne had to do hard labor for cruel adults until she found a family of her own; Ka’kwet was ripped away from her loving family to do the same. (Parents beware: like every season of Anne with an E, Season Three does contain brief scenes depicting physical abuse of children.)
It’s hard not to feel the series was ending just as it began to find its voice.
But what of Anne herself? McNulty is an ideal Anne, as winsome and bright-eyed as the enduring novel character herself. Her expressive face can make moments of Anne just staring out a window or plucking petals off a flower seem incredibly touching. Never sexualized or made to look like a glamorous beauty queen, McNulty radiates earnest, big-hearted energy, leading a cast of equally age-appropriate peers. Watching a show about young teens who actually look and act their age is a breath of fresh air. Anne’s fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds getting worked up about a school dance felt more realistic than anything on Euphoria last year.
As the show begins to interweave plotlines about the light-hearted romantic foibles of Anne and her friends with Anne coming into her own as a proto-feminist, things finally fall into place like never before. The dreaded Josie Pye (Miranda McKeon), the closest thing the Green Gables series ever had to a true villain, gets her shot at redemption in a timely arc about slut-shaming and victim-blaming.
Dalila Bela remains a series standout as Anne’s best friend Diana Barry, as stoic and practical as Anne is fanciful and impulsive. Diana and Anne’s friendship is tested when a boy catches Diana’s eye, and Gilbert’s courtship of a rich girl (Ashleigh Stewart) leaves Anne feeling lonely and desperate as the group transitions into adulthood at uneven rates. Luckily, it’s not all bad news for our girl Anne. Marilla and Matthew (R. H. Thompson) remain the most delightful adopted parents any turn of the century orphan could hope for. Besides Marilla and the indomitable Rachel Lynde, Anne and her friends have a worthy female role model in Miss Stacy (Joanna Douglas), a spunky educator who encourages them to start a school paper.
Even Prissy Andrews (Ella Jonas Farlinger), the teenage character who famously got engaged to her own schoolteacher (Stephen Tracey), returns to have her say about the man who courted—or as we would say in 2020, preyed upon—her as a student. Most importantly, after an excruciating season apart, Anne and Gilbert, the show’s central characters, are back in the same place. Anne’s relationship with Gilbert, a sensitive young man who highly values her intellect and imagination, formed the backbone of the book series. As happy as I was to see Anne explore her friendships in Season Two, it was hard not to be disappointed that this pivotal relationship was excised, especially in light of the positive, feminist values it promotes. It doesn’t hurt that McNulty and Zumann have a wonderful, playful onscreen chemistry.
Just like Montgomery deftly slipped pacifist messages in accordance with her own political beliefs into the original books, Walley-Beckett and the writers understand that young teens are mature enough to want stories with substance, where characters handle real challenges without acting like mini-adults. It’s tempting to think that Montgomery, a champion of women’s rights in her own way, would applaud the choice to let the girls of her stories run wild and free.
In one of the season’s most visually stirring sequences, Anne and her friends dance around the woods in long white nightgowns and flower crowns. They build a fire and pledge to respect themselves and their bodies. Ruby collapses in the moonlight, sobbing joyfully “I’m so glad to be a woman!” It all feels a bit modern and anachronistic. But who cares? If it inspires one young girl to feel less ashamed of her body or her sexuality, it was worth it. Young people deserve stories that were made for them, not in spite of them.
For three seasons, Anne with an E strove (and often succeeded) in telling a story for tweens with real substance. I’m sure we’ll all return to Avonlea again someday, but I’ll miss it until we do.
Anne With an E is currently streaming on Netflix.