TV Review: ‘Anne with an E’ Continues to Tackle Timely Issues in its Third Season

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As “Anne with an E” returns to Netflix for its third and final season, there have been some significant changes in the idyllic town of Avonlea that our heroine calls home. Anne Shirley-Cuthbert is now 16 years old, on the cusp of adulthood, and preparing for entrance exams that will determine whether she will be admitted to college the following year. So close to embarking on her life as an adult, she’s suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to learn more about her late parents.

Gilbert is committed to his dream of pursuing medical research at an elite universe, although the decision of which girl he should spend the rest of his life continues to elude him. Diana is about to be sent off to finishing school in Paris, despite desperately wanting to go to college with all of her friends. Our babies are all grown up!

Although the performances from the young actors on this show have always been above average, especially among the main cast, there’s an air of maturity this season that shows how far they’ve come over the years. Amybeth McNulty, as Anne and Lucas Jade Zumann as Gilbert, in particular, have both developed a unique screen presence and acuity with the period dialogue that allows them to handle the more substantial subject matter and act well alongside actors twice their age. Their romantic storyline, long a favorite for many fans, is sweet and genuine, albeit with a few too many missed connections to be entirely plausible.

“Anne with an E” continues its tradition of modernizing the source material to acknowledge perspectives and experiences of the period that remain underrepresented. After last season’s introduction of black and LGBTQ characters into the Avonlea community, the show further expands its scope by highlighting the First Nations tribes that occupied a tenuous position on the margins of Canadian society.

It feels wholly appropriate for Anne to embrace marginalized people, being naturally empathetic and canonically one of the most open-minded characters in literature from this period. Plots that see Anne advocating for the freedom of the press and rights for women can be viewed cynically as an unsubtle attempt to bring the period drama into the 21st century. But ultimately, it works because these are the causes that we can imagine Anne fighting for. 

The First Nations storyline, on the other hand, is a bit clumsier. It’s certainly commendable that the show would choose to draw attention to Indigenous people and give voice to those who have so frequently by silenced by traditional historical narratives. But in tackling the tragedy of the Canadian residential boarding school programs for First Nations children, a system that resulted in widespread abuse and is now considered nothing less than cultural genocide, they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Its devastatingly bleak tone is entirely appropriate for the subject matter but makes the transitions between it and the rest of the generally optimistic show feel jarring. 

And most importantly, having it be just a minor subplot in a white story, viewed through the lens of a white girl, does it a profound disservice. How could Anne focus on anything else in her life once this horrific injustice has been discovered? It feels awkward to bring this into the picture and then go back to business, as usual, the following week, where characters are worried about boys and who is going to walk them home from school. Despite this, I think the show does deserve some credit for attempting it.

There’s so much more content within the “Anne of Green Gables” universe. Author L.M. Montgomery saw the character through college, marriage, and old age, so the show could conceivably run forever. But it seems that it will be ending after this season (barring any last-minute intervention from the networks on behalf of the fanbase that has since launched a frantic renewal campaign, of course.) And if this is where the story ends, it will have given us a creative and imaginative interpretation of Anne Shirley-Cuthbert’s young life and first steps into adulthood that should satisfy any fan.

“Anne With an E” is now streaming on Netflix.

GRADE: (★★★½)