[29 April 2014]
Henri Leclair: You’re an impossible man.
Harry Selfridge: Look where it got me.
Mr. Selfridge’s second season takes a turn as the series is dominated by the oncoming war and its effects on all aspects of life, Selfridge’s included. As patriotism, responsibility, and difficult choices abound, the store continues to be at the center. It may not be struggling as it was in the first season, but Selfridge’s remains rife with personal dramas, now with the pressing backdrop of war.
The time period is especially important to the series for a couple of reasons. For one, the war makes for higher stakes that color everything; from difficulties in getting shipments to losing employees as they sign up to join the war effort. In addition, the role of women is quickly shifting in especially interesting ways, as they are now moving into jobs traditionally held by men. These changing gender dynamics are not always well received or understood, yet they are undeniably necessary, further cementing Harry’s (Jeremy Piven) modern approach toward running a business.
The change in workforce also brings an opportunity for Mrs. Selfridge (Frances O’Connor) to play a growing role in the family business. She’s instrumental in adjusting work clothes for the women in new labor roles. While Mr. Crabb (Ron Cook) is scandalized by these changes, Harry takes it all in stride and sees the change only as another opportunity to improve Selfridge’s. As an American in England, his ideas tend to be too modern for English sensibilities at times, yet that is precisely the key to his success. Harry’s enthusiasm for trying new approaches, no matter their source, is at the heart of what inspires such loyalty in his employees. In such a class-based society he is a breath of fresh air to many, if also a conundrum to some.
The personal lives of Selfridge’s employees is often the focus of the series, and season two continues to follow their increasingly complicated lives. Agnes Towler’s (Aisling Loftus) professional rise in the ranks, along with her romantic problems, is a running thread through the season. Her professional life is often much more interesting than the love triangle she’s embroiled in with Selfridge’s restaurant manager, Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle) and her display mentor, Henri Leclair. The outcome is telegraphed from the beginning of the season, making the drama surrounding the three ineffectual.
Yet it’s Agnes’ role as the head of display that is most engaging, as she must deal with envious colleague, Mr. Thackeray (Cal MacAninch), and her own self-doubt. She is young and only a few years into her career, but her ability to overcome and convey boldness and persistence ultimately make her successful, as well as very likable.
Similarly, Miss Mardle (Amanda Abbington) is another independent woman whose professional standing is at the heart of her appeal. Though early in the season she inherits enough money to leave her job, she has no interest in not working. Miss Mardle works because she is fulfilled by her position at Selfridge’s, and she’s well regarded by Harry and the rest of the senior staff for good reason. Both Abbington and Loftus bring an energy and charm to their characters that make them especially easy to root for.
Apart from the lives of Selfridge’s employees, the series also focuses on some of its regular customers, such as Lady Mae Loxley (Katherine Kelly). Again, as war is on the horizon, Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle), Mae’s usually absent husband, returns and his intentions are decidedly unaltruistic. He is instantly at odds with Harry, even though Mae is a close friend of the family’s, and in turn, causes problems for all.
In addition to Lord Loxley, the second season also introduces Delphine Day (Polly Walker) as a new friend of Rose’s. She owns her own nightclub and is involved in various other business dealings, making her a powerful figure in her own right, albeit one with questionable scruples. Her friendship with Rose is particularly interesting as Rose is still personally, if not publicly, estranged from Harry after his affair last season and Delphine serves as a figure of modern independence.
Mr. Selfridge is especially successful in setting the scene of the department store beautifully. Since Agnes, Henri, and Mr. Thackeray are so directly involved in the design of the store, the series does an excellent job of dressing the set in unique and unexpected ways. From safari themes to a fully patriotic display, Selfridge’s attention to detail creates a gorgeous setting for the series that adds to the overall story in integral ways.
Though the central figure of Mr. Selfridge is obviously Harry Selfridge, it’s really the supporting cast that makes the show come alive. Agnes, Ms. Mardle, and Mae Loxley are just a few of the characters whose stories are just as engaging, sometimes more so, as Harry’s. The series highlights a wonderful cast of characters in a riveting time period, as well as beautiful sets and costume design. As the war affects all aspects of the business, and employees and customers alike, the second season employs a more serious tone than the first, although, in the end, it remains more entertaining than thought provoking.
The DVD release includes Behind Mr. Selfridge, a behind-the-scenes featurette, along with deleted scenes. They’re a nice addition to the series and the deleted scenes in particular fill in some of the story arcs very well.