The second season of Mr. Selfridge aired in Winter in the UK, but it just finished airing on PBS in May. I really like this show. I think it strikes an excellent balance of drama and enjoyment. Though bad things happen on the show, there is a sense of optimism about it that sort of matches Mr. Selfridge’s (quintessentially American) sense of possibility. Of course, the real story of Mr. Selfridge is far less joyful. By the end of his life, he had spent a fortune on dancing girls and mistresses, was ousted from his position in his own store, and died penniless. Apparently he used to come to the store, every day after he’d been sacked, and just stare up at it. That makes me so sad. So I will pretend none of that happened and embrace the much happier story presented on the show.
The second season (series) begins at the 5 year anniversary of the store’s opening. There are some big changes among the ranks at the store. Agnes Towler has just returned from Paris and has been made head of displays, a big promotion. Mr. Grove has something like 5 children with his sweet uncomplicated wife, and is slowly becoming more and more lost and unhappy in his choice. Good. He is a berk. Miss Mardle, who was jilted by Mr. Grove, has taken the opposite trajectory in life. She has inherited a small fortune, and soon catches the attention of a very young, very attractive Belgian violinist.
This change in balance between them makes me extremely happy. Life rarely turns out this way, but oh don’t you wish it would? Everyone who ever hurt you regrets his/her decision, and you don’t regret it at all. You’re much better off. Lovely.
Over the course of the season, despite it being only 10 episodes, a lot of shit goes down. Harry and Rose are estranged at the beginning of the season, because of his philandering in the past. He wants desperately to earn her love back. Eventually, he does. I really like Rose. I actually like almost everyone on this show. Except Mr. Thackeray and Lord Loxley. But more about them in a minute.
WWI breaks out a few episodes into the season. It’s an interesting perspective from which to see the war. Mr. Selfridge and his family are American, and of course America had not yet entered the war. His loyalty to England is questioned, even though Harry wants to do what he can. We also see the experiences of other non-English people. Victor and his cousin (or brother?) are Italian, and feel a keen sense of growing xenophobia. Two things take up the minds of the lower-class men that work at Selfridges–labor unions and the war. Nearly all of Selfridge’s men enlist. The result is (hold on to your monocle) young women working in the loading bay and warehouse. The big scandal of the series involves Lord Loxley, Mr. Selfridge, and some inferior boots given to the army.
So now is a good time to talk about Lord Loxley. He’s Lady Mae’s husband, and the single most odious man to ever appear on the show.
He is violent, manipulative, super creepy, and entirely lacking a soul of any kind. Lady Mae can occasionally seem manipulative and cold, but as soon as we see her husband, we realize that she is entirely justified, and entirely victimized by him. Despite being a strong, smart, independent woman. And even if he wasn’t abusive to her, he would still be blackmailing government officials, profiting from war, endangering the health of enlisted men, and blaming it on Harry Selfridge. He is truly awful. In a way that makes your skin crawl when you think about him, particularly if you are a woman.
Much of the season shows Lady Mae attempting to extricate herself from his clutches. Keep in mind that at this point, a woman could only petition for divorce if she could prove adultery AND could prove another form of cruelty (rape, incest, abuse). And I mean prove it, as in eyewitness accounts. So Lady Mae cannot work within the law, but she does work with Harry Selfridge to prove Harry is innocent and that Loxley is guilty. I know real life isn’t like this, but I do enjoy a show that lets me think that things can turn out right in the end.
My only real complaint about this season is Agnes. She was so strong and interesting in the first series, learning new things and trying to become more competent. This season, she is facing a bigger challenge, of course. She is the head of displays, and is often working very late hours by herself. That’s all fine–showing a woman working hard, or even a woman trying and not quite achieving her lofty goals is interesting and fine. My big problem with her this season is that almost all of her emotional changes come not from herself, but from men.
The most action and perseverance we see from her character is when she is attempting to prove Henri Leclair innocent of the crimes he is accused of (at first, espionage, and then theft). She is strong and capable in those scenes. But the rest of the season she is merely reacting to the actions of the men in her life.
Shortly after she returns from Paris, Victor Colleano asks her to marry him and she says yes. Even though I’m not certain they were actually dating at the time. Henri is being rude and curt with her, and I wonder how much of his actions weighed into her decision. Her brother George enlists and heads out to the front–this isn’t a situation a woman, or anyone can control, so I don’t fault her for this, but it adds to the number of scenes where she is just waiting for a man to do something. He is missing in action for a while, and she fears the worst, but he eventually returns and she can relax. Victor, who is a very nice person for doing this, realizes that a life with him won’t make her happy. Her talents would be wasted as a wife and helping him in his family restaurant. He knows that Henri still loves Agnes, and that Agnes still cares about Henri. So he lets her go, ends their engagement. This is very nice of him, but it’s yet another example of the men making decisions for Agnes, and of her having little control over her own life. Of her asserting almost no control over her own life. And considering how strong she was last season, I was disappointed with that. But, at least they didn’t have her get married and have kids and have no other role, because that sounds nauseating. I’m hoping they’ll give her a little more proactive and assertive actions in the third season.
Yes, they’ve renewed for a 3rd season (series), and I believe they’re already shooting it. It’s not a challenging show, it falls firmly on the entertaining side of the drama pendulum (rather than the realistic end of things), but it is entertaining. A lot of shows firmly throw away any semblance of reality in favor of entertainment, but still miss the mark. I think Mr. Selfridge is a very good balance of realism and optimism, so I’ll keep watching.