On first impression, Selfridge & Co. is huge. The department store’s massive showrooms are adorned with Greek-style columns and ornate flower vases, as well as shiny glass cases and elegant shelving units filled with meticulously arranged perfumes, shoes, and cosmetics, all for sale in London, circa 1914. “We’re not the biggest attraction in town,” admits owner Mr. Harry Gordon Selfridge (Jeremy Piven). “We’re the third biggest behind Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London.” A smart businessman, Selfridge, as proud as he is of the size of his business, like to focus attention—at least the attention of his workers—on its function as a “family”.
His investment in this fiction is clear as Mr. Selfridge begins its second season this week on PBS. Still impressively detailed and masterfully assembled, the show again focuses on the classed relations among employees and employers, relations that can be both supportive and dysfunctional, and, increasingly, affected by external forces. In particular, this new season looks at the ways that the women around Mr. Selfridge seek to break out of traditional roles and in so doing, pose challenges for him.
The season opens on Selfridge & Co.‘s preparations for its five-year anniversary. Workers appear in a series of long tracking shots, sharply dressed and frantic, scurrying to achieve aesthetic perfection in order to impress their beloved boss. While some sneak around in the background, others corral Mr. Selfridge in the in-store restaurant, the Palm Court. Mr. Selfridge looks touched as he enters the room, greeted by his staff members’ applause.
He goes on to caution and reassure them at once: “These are uncertain times,” he says. “So it is more important than ever to pull together and to look to the loyalty and love of those around us. I thank you for this.” The workers are only briefly placated, as they contend with two sets of rumors about these “uncertain times.” First, war looms, more explicitly for us than for the readers of newspaper headlines that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated. Other rumors are differently troubling to the staff at Selfridge’s, that their boss might flee to America if war breaks out.
One of these workers embodies yet another sort of uncertainty. Just returned to London following a two-year study at a Parisian gallery, Miss Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) is both happy to be home and also nervous about her changing status. With her study sponsored by Mr. Selfridge, she’s now preparing for her promotion to the store’s Head of Display. As she clears the dust and clutter from her studio, Mr. Selfridge appears to take her downstairs for her first assignment.
In the elevator, he’s framed in a medium close up, looking over Agnes with a paternal smile as he observes that she’s “grown.” Mr. Selfridge has faith that Agnes will undoubtedly do well in her new job, but Agnes feels uneasy, working alone and often looking frazzled. It’s clear she feels pressure to show that she’s worthy of Mr. Selfridge’s generosity over the past five years, but also remain pursue her own ambitions, even as Mr. Selfridge continues to pile on more work and expectations.
In this story and others, Mr. Selfridge constructs multi-faceted individuals deserving of both our sympathies and criticisms. If Mr. Selfridge encourages his workforce to feel like family, his own domestic life is disjointed. At the episode’s start, Selfridge’s wife Rose (Frances O’Connor) arrives to celebrate the store’s anniversary. She and Mr. Selfridge left last season on bad terms, with her heading for America with their daughters and her mother. Back in London, she tells him she’s only going to play the part of “Mrs. Selfridge” in public.
Otherwise, she avoids her husband and busies herself with new best friend, Delphine Day (Polly Walker), an unmarried club owner with a scandalous background of numerous love affairs. If Delphine looks to be the antithesis of the very proper Rose, we can see how she’s appealing to her—and also how Mr. Selfridge might want to use her to appease his wife. When he agrees to hold Delphine’s book release party at the store, her self-performance underscores the changing times she embodies.
She reads from her autobiography: “I decided I would never tie myself to a man again. My life may be hard. It may be lonely. But I will follow my star. I would be a woman, true to myself.” The camera shows a crowd of women listening intently, as cuts to individual faces, including Rose’s, reveal that they admire Delphine’s story. Rose looks particularly hopeful, and we get the idea that she means to emulate Delphine, so as not to be hurt by her husband or any man ever again.
While Rose edges closer to finding her independence and an identity beyond “Mrs. Selfridge,” she steps further away from Mr. Selfridge. This disrupts his notion of “family,” As he senses her slipping away, he tells their son Gordon (Greg Austin), “I’m going to tell you something that your mother doesn’t even know yet. I am going to do my darnedest to get this family back together.”
Again, we can see the multiple, sometimes conflicting sides of Mr. Selfridge. He is a sincere and loving father who wants a solid family, but he’s also at a loss before his wife’s new desires, desires that don’t fit with his own. Not only is the threat of war brewing in the world at large, but as well, Mr. Selfridge will be fighting another kind of battle in his own home.
Trying to support her employer and mentor, Agnes inadvertently articulates Mr. Selfridge’s precarious new situation: “What you said about success meaning nothing without loyalty and love,” she offers. “I know what you mean.” Her understanding may be premised more on desire than experience, but her tentative hopefulness frames the new season’s focus on changes for Mr. Selfridge.