*** Warning: Spoilers***
Harlots is a Hulu series that I have been hearing a lot about through the period drama related social media I follow, mainly the blog Frock Flicks. My interested was piqued but since I did not have Hulu, I got a late start in watching it. This was what made me give in and finally subscribe to Hulu.
The series follows Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), an upwardly mobile brothel owner in 18th century London trying to provide for her two daughters: Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, London’s most sought after courtesan, and Lucy, whose innocence attracts a number of sadistic men. Margaret’s social climbing provokes a feud with Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) a high class madam and Margaret’s former employer, who steals the entire series with her bird-like menace. Manville’s performance as Lydia Quigley is something watching a vicious parrot.
One interesting thing about the series is that it includes elements usually missing in your typical costume drama: lesbianism and mixed race relationships. The slums and brothels of 18th century London are shown as a diverse place which caters to all tastes. Margaret Wells is in a common-law marriage with William North, a free black man, and they have a mixed race son. Amelia Scanwell, the daughter of a puritanical religious campaigner, has a lesbian romance with a local prostitute. It is also noteworthy for its depiction of prostitution, one of the few professions available to an 18th century woman where she could rise to wealth and prominence but at the risk of abuse and condemnation. The prostitutes in the series are not portrayed as pathetic victims or vice-ridden jezebels but rather as women using the few opportunities offered them to try to survive and get ahead. Whoredom is both glamorous and degrading.
The rivalry between Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley is the most interesting part of the series. Other storylines such as Charlotte’s romance with an Irish gigolo named Daniel (Jessica Brown Findlay in another relationship with a hunky irishman), and the murder of a noble client in Margaret’s brothel do not grab you as much. You do not really care about what happens to Charlotte and Daniel but you want to see Margaret take Quigley down. I love where the character of Lucy, who starts off as a reluctant prostitute and is afraid to go off as the kept woman of a wealthy man, is going. In the last episode, she is taken under the wing of Nancy (Kate Fleetwood) a friend and neighbor of her mother who works as a dominatrix and taught the art of flagellation. Lucy returns to her mother and tells her “I’m ready now.” My prediction is that in the next season, Lucy, who serves as one of the series’s defactio ingenues, will become a dominatrix like Nancy.
Harlots has little of the stodginess which people all too often associate with period dramas but does not feel historically inauthentic or untrue to the time period. There is a fine balance between “this is a different time period” and “and these are understandable and relatable people.” It is accessible and appealing to the general audience but does not feel dumbed down.