A story about prostitutes has many traps to avoid. But the Hulu series Harlots does it in a way that defies all expectations. This is not a story that portrays them as angelic victims, who sing of past hopes as they fulfill their destiny of dying penniless for their sins. Nor does it portray their work as always empowering or demeaning. There are instances of both, but Harlots aims for a kind of gritty, humorous realism as it follows the adventures of women who sold their bodies in London in 1763, a time where, the show claims, one in five women made their living in this manner, and were actually rated in booklets.
The show focuses on two rival madams, the ruthless Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), who runs a more upscale establishment, where her girls are expected to have all the affectations of high society, and Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), who is working her way up to a new location, which has the potential to bring richer customers and thus more money. This means a whole lot of ruthless behavior, as Quigley seeks to maintain her monopoly, and Wells striving to make a better life for herself, her girls, and her children, one of whom, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), is one of London’s most desirable courtesans, and the other, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), is a teenager who is just beginning to sell herself.
In the show’s sixth episode, everybody’s thinking about the children. Lydia is out for revenge against Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey), who drugged her son in order to escape her house. And Margaret has to deal with the aftermath of her daughter Lucy stabbing George Howard (Hugh Skinner) after he gets too forceful for her liking. It’s impossible to symapthize with Howard, a man who raped Charlotte after she tried to leave him, but it also brings out the worst in Margaret. She knows that Howard is a wealthy lord, so even if he survives, it will probably mean her daughter will be hanged. To save Lucy, Margaret will commit a series of despicable acts that will betray the ideals she has desperately tried to live up to, and mostly succeeded in doing until this episode.
It’s also been revealed that Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson), the religiously self-righteous moral crusader against Margaret, is a former prostitute herself. But revealing her secret to her far more compassionate daughter Amelia (Jordon Stevens) doesn’t free Florence, as Quigley once again intimidates her by threatening Amelia. Florence being strong-armed into once again doing Quigley’s bidding is the one dramatic development that rings false.
But the rest of the episode hits the right notes, excellently building on ground laid before as it demolishes much of what Margaret’s friends, and Margaret herself, believed about her. The repercussions will be personal, legal, and political.
It also builds on the shows strenghts. The women, who come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds, continue to be the focus, fitting for a show that is created, written, and directed by women. How they react to their situation is as varied as it is surprising. Every single one of them, including the villainous, ruthless Quigley, have their sympathetic moments. They are all trying, in their own way, to make a life for themselves in a system that makes it is mission to deprive women of power. In a way, it is the other side of the coin to The Handmaid’s Tale, another story where women are trying to find some sense of control over the bodies they are forced to relinquish over to others.