If you live on the American side of the pond and have never heard of the British show Mr Selfridge, you’re not alone. As the second series begins on ITV this month, however, you may have more reason than ever to start tuning in. It’s a bit Mad Men meets Downton Abbey meets Bomb Girls: Mad Men for the fact that much of the plot revolves around arrogant men behaving badly; Downton Abbey for the lavishly delicious sets and costumes; and Bomb Girls for showing a world of increasingly powerful women during an important era in history. Mr Selfridge is set slightly earlier in the 20th Century than the times of Victory Munitions, though, starting in the unassuming years before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and the world went to hell.
And like all of these shows, it’s actually the women of Mr Selfridge that drive the story, that are the most fascinating, that are the backbone of the whole ship.
Mr Selfridge himself is played by Jeremy Piven, of Entourage fame, an American entrepreneur who comes to London to start one of the UK’s first premier department stores. There is something about Piven’s acting that threw me off during the first season, that seems oddly unnatural. Then again, I was never an Entourage fan, either. But once you get used to it, you can better focus on the ladies, and there’s a lot to focus on. Let’s introduce them:
Played by Aisling Loftus, Agnes is the heroine of our store, the Peggy Olson of our tale. A poor girl who comes from an abusive home, she barely scrapes her way into a job at Selfridge’s. And while seemingly quiet and unassuming, provoking condescending eyerolls from the other shop girls, she has an artistic mind full of ambition. Her persistence, along with her ability to quickly and consistently come up with good ideas, charms both the boss and many other men at the store, including Victor, an Italian who works at the store’s restaurant, and Henri, the very-French artistic director of window displays, Agnes’s coveted job. After an affair with Agnes in the first season, Henri left in the season finale last year to take a job in New York and follow his other, French lover. Which I can’t completely blame him for, since said French girl wears a hat and tie very, very well. So, you know. We get it.
The second series of Mr Selfridge begins a whole five years after the first series, and when Agnes walks into the store as everyone is bustling around for the Selfridge’s 5 Year Anniversary, people look at her in astonishment. It appears she has spent the last two years in Paris, sent by Selfridge himself, to study art and design and Paris-y things. But now she’s back and ready to waltz right into her new dream role of lead designer of displays, like the badass woman she is.
Kitty is the catty girl that irritates you at first but that you soon grow fiercely loyal to, that you would pledge your undying love to. She gossips and talks in an impossibly high, girlish voice, always followed by an impossibly bright, girlish smile. Yet as she giggles and glares, she is just as ambitious as Agnes, yet noticeably less respected, a fact that pains her. As the second series begins, she has been promoted to head of the brand-new beauty department, with dreams of working for the top perfumer in the world.
Lady Mae is one of the most powerful women in the high society of London at the turn of the century, and one of the chief backers of Selfridge’s when the store opened and everyone doubted him. This leaves Mr. Selfridge constantly in her debt, whether he likes it or not, and she not-so-gently bosses him around while looking out for the women of the world, all the while practically purring like a queen tiger. It’s hard to know whether to hate or love Lady Mae half the time, but as Series Two begins, her lord of a husband suddenly returns from his life in the country, a life that previously seemed to be a permanent arrangement. But now that he’s back in town, we learn that he is a certified dickwad, and you can’t help but suddenly feel a little bad for the pretentious but whip smart Lady Mae.
The Mother Hen of the shop girls, Miss Mardle is a class act, always maintaining and demanding the highest standards of professionalism from her girls, as well as being one of the few women on Mr. Selfridge’s senior staff. Yet her storyline has been heartbreak city from the start. After carrying on a passionate affair for years with Mr. Grove, Mr. Selfridge’s chief of staff, at the end of the last series Mr. Grove suddenly proposes to a young, sweet thing who believes more in being a wife and less in being a career woman than he believes Miss Mardle does. And while five years have passed, it’s clear in the first episode of Series 2 that working alongside Mr. Grove still stings. She also receives a telegram in this opening episode that lets her know that her brother is dying in Geneva; she asks to take leave to see him.
Played gorgeously by Frances O’Connor, Rose is the dutiful wife of a powerful, cheating man, the dutiful wife who’s increasingly tired of being so dutiful while he continues to do whatever and whoever he wants. After almost carrying out an affair with a douche of a painter in the first season, she and the children finally leave Harry Selfridge at the end of the first series, going back to the life they used to lead in Chicago. When we see her at the beginning of this second series, she is visiting London in what seems to be a slightly unclear but still obviously distant relationship with Harry. She and the children still live in Chicago, but visit occasionally and during the summers to keep up appearances.