Elephants! Germans! Love Triangles! Oh my! That’s right folks, it’s time for Emma: A Victorian Romance Season 2! Buckle your elephant-riding seatbelts, prepare your mechanical bathing machines, and get your ship building tools ready to hand because we’re in for another great adventure circumnavigating the choppy waters of Victorian England and no less than two Bermuda love triangles in order to rescue the shipwrecked romance of Emma and William and bring them safely to harbor, possibly somewhere in the New World where class doesn’t matter quite so much (theoretically).
As the story continues, the would-be lovers have been separated seemingly for good by Emma’s decision to leave the Big Smoke and continue her domestic service far from London. The two spend Season 2 tottering on (and sometimes over) the edge of new romances that are more appropriate to their station in life than are their feelings for one another. But will their love rekindle when Emma must return to London at the behest of her new employers and a twist of fate (or the eccentricity of a society lady) entwines their paths once again?
In the battle between 19th century social norms and the delicately fluttering hearts of two shy cinnamon rolls, which force will win out?
In my review of the first installment of this tale of star-crossed lovers separated by the cruel rungs of the Victorian social ladder, I lamented the poor pacing, weak characterization of the lead, and lack of sensitivity to historical context that marred the first two-thirds of the series for me. But I also highlighted that the final few episodes pull things together nicely and set up what could be an amazing second season once Emma, the demure-to-the-point-of-muteness heroine, finds her voice.
So was my prediction right?
I’m delighted to say—without even a hint of pride (ahem!)—that it was!
Season 2 gets off to a rip-roaring start with an opening episode that is worthy of a post all on its own: both the story itself and how the story is presented in this premiere are full of vitality and direction.
Most importantly, Emma has been promoted. And I don’t just mean in her new role as a maid in a Big House—that is, a manor on the level of Gosford Park or Downton Abbey—though this too sets her up to encounter an opulent lifestyle she had but glimpsed during her humble post in Kelly Stownar’s Marylebone townhouse.
No, what I mean is that Emma becomes the narrator of her own story. Finally! We hear her voice as she explains her thoughts and feelings. No longer must we try to imagine what is going on behind that inscrutable, reserved smile of hers that aroused such ardor in the male contingent in Season 1. (It was definitely the maid outfit.)
Emma becomes a person with agency, literally writing the story of her own life in diary entries and letters that provide the basis for her voiceover narration. This tiny adjustment in presentation adds considerable energy to the story and enables the viewer to finally connect with a character who otherwise proved frustratingly elusive in the first season. It also makes for some tantalizing cliffhangers, as the closing narration hints at twists and turns to come.
As a result, the Emma of Season 2 has transformed into an active heroine of the sort who would be at home in a Jane Austen novel, had that illustrious wordsmith ever deigned to foreground the service class in her delightful fictions. (And indeed, there is a distinctly George Wickham-like character who makes a cameo early on.) Just to give a little hint and without spoiling too much, Emma manages to speak up for herself, articulate her values as she confronts authority, prevent a suicide, and gain the admiration of a powerful noblewoman through her actions and words all in the first 24 minutes. Welcome to the show, Emma!
It’s also clear from the first episode that the world-building is much richer in social nuance than anything seen so far in the series. With her transfer to a Big House, Emma is cast into the intricate Downstairs world where the various ranks of domestic servants and the distinctions between them are observed much more precisely than in Season 1. No more retired governesses acting like ladies of independent means in posh London neighborhoods (sorry Kelly!). Kitchen staff, household staff, ladies maids, and butler and housekeeper are each distinguished by their dress and accent, with the addition of an intriguing foreign element into the mix as the aristocratic Mölders Family and the top servants are of German extraction.
Unfortunately, none of the growing entanglements and building tensions between Germany and Britain at the time are explored in the series, and instead the Germanness of the Lady of the House, Dorothea Mölders, seems to be used more as a plot device to account for her strange ways (which include prancing around naked a few times, occasionally in front of windows overlooking London, oh my!) and her proclivity for flouting Victorian social norms (and common sense?). But still, it’s great to see acknowledgement of the international character of Victorian London—something that a lot of period drama misses out.
By the end of the first episode, my most pressing critiques of the first season had evaporated.
And so I found this season far more watchable and more-ish than the first go round.
The wide array of new characters and the development of old ones make for an engaging season. In particular, the character development for Eleanor Campbell is very well done, rendering her a sympathetic (rather than simply pathetic) second lead.
William, on the other hand, suffers from Indecisive Male Lead Syndrome for most of the season, which gets a little annoying at times as he leaves it to the women in his life to make the decisions for him and remains almost obstinate in his obliviousness to the fact that his inaction has consequences—and potentially hurtful ones at that. But William is nevertheless humanized in that he eventually becomes aware of his own inability to act decisively, and does ultimately confront and overcome it. In short, he gets his Training Montage and learns to Speak His Heart.
There is a silver lining to William’s indecisiveness though too, in the form of one Countess Monica Mildrake, Eleanor’s older sister, or as I like to think of her, Princess Hakim. She is spectacular…ly outrageous! Completely over the top and a bit of a siscon, Monica takes over as William’s foil when Hakim’s hookah-infused puffs of passive-aggressive advice can’t seem to move the indeterminate hero to action. It’s no surprise that the ostentatious nee-san hits it off with the rakish Prince—winning the approval of his harem—though sadly the two disappear rather abruptly from the story once their role of catalyzing the romance plot is fulfilled. (I would watch a spin-off of these two in a heartbeat, just saying!)
There is also a certain mysterious woman nicknamed “Mrs. Trollope” (doubtless a reference to the prolific Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope) who appears on the scene, bringing with her a small monkey, daring hairstyle, and a backstory that fleshes out the trials and tribulations of life in High Society at a time when tensions were fraught between the aristocracy and emergent industrialist class, to which William belongs. This adds a whole new layer to the drama, and although a bit rushed and at times sufficiently serendipitous to approach shark-jumping, the High Society & Industry parts of the story keep things moving along apace whenever the romance plot threatens to drag a little.
As with the first series, the art is Pierrot at its best (read: consistent in quality) with a softness that bespeaks its romantic subject matter. The backdrops are lush, particularly Mrs. Trollope’s crystalline conservatory, and a number of expansive rural landscapes and some seascapes are added to the selection of familiar locales of ye olde London from Season 1. The cinematography and lighting of the climactic scene are noteworthy, if a little jarring in the suddenness of their cinematic sweep.
The BD release boasts a new English dub—a feature I was impressed with in Season 1, and continue to be with this sequel, albeit with some reservations. The regional accents of the new cast have been further diversified and assigned with care to reflect the social hierarchies within the British domestic service, with Scots in the kitchen, various “regional” English among the front-of-house servants, and slightly more polished for the lady’s maid (though the latter, Nanette, is rather shaky). The German accents are more of a mixed bag, with Hans frequently sounding like a Hollywood Russian—not an actual Russian, mind. But Erica Schroeder and particularly Winnow Bromes are convincing as Dorothea Mölders and Adèle respectively. I wanted to mention them by name because they seem to be missing from the English cast lists available online and really deserve some credit for their performances! (I personally switched to subs after the first couple of episodes though… Hans, smh).
To conclude then, Season 2 can be summed up as follows:
Emma is active, Eleanor is sweet, William is a nincompoop, Monica is a hoot, Mrs Trollope is key, Hakim still has elephants, and German Ladies break taboos. ... Oh, and the harem laughs. (I know. That alone is worth the price of entry.)
Emma: A Victorian Romance, Season 2 is available on Blu-Ray from RightStuf Anime. A free copy was provided for this review, for which I am very much obliged!