Harlots was always a show with quite a bit on its mind. Call it a byproduct of its subject matter, which happens to be about prostitutes in 1763 London, a time when one in five women made their living that way.
But in the season 2 premiere, the times they are a-changin’. The bawdy 18th century is showing signs of giving way to the more puritanical, evangelical 19th. The women of the show are beginning to suffer far more serious consequences for their infractions, and it’s those who are impoverished who suffer the most. Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, another show where women fight for ownership of their bodies and lives, Harlots delves right into how race and class shape such battles, and it does it well.
In the era #MeToo, the show has even more to say about how women from all walks of life suffer under a system that gives men all the power over their lives. It’s an exceptionally bad time for up-and-coming brothel owner Margaret Wells to be going through a series of personal crises. She seemed to have gotten away with murder last season, and that still seems to be true. However, the consequences still linger. She’s thrown out Harriet, the woman she helped, for the feelings she correctly suspects she harbors for her lover William. However, he leaves soon after, still wrestling with the part he played in the murder.
The other women she works for are also growing increasingly distant. Her daughter Charlotte is still working for her ruthless rival Lydia Quigley while secretly plotting Lydia’s demise. Surprisingly, Quigley seems in danger of combusting without her help. She kicks off the season by getting arrested, although her sentence isn’t nearly as harsh as a more impoverished woman of color who works the street and ends up getting literally branded for a petty crime. Quigley, a white woman who is complicit in the rape and murder of other women and the rampant abuse of those who work in her brothel, merely has to come up with an absurdly high amount of money.
But as most wealthy and connected people do, she has power even while imprisoned. The vicious, wealthy men she willingly supplied with unsuspecting victims soon make witnesses to Quigley’s crimes reluctant to speak out. One of them does take an interest in Lucy. She may no longer be the shy, timid virgin of the first season, but she’s nevertheless vulnerable in a completely different way. She now possesses experience and the careless feeling of invincibility so many teenagers possess, thus possibly making her just another type of easy prey.
Prostitutes suffering for society’s sins is practically one of the oldest stories we’ve told. However, the way these stories are told is what makes Harlots feel different. This is a show created and told by women who have very little interest in catering to expectations. When the women of Harlots do inevitably suffer, they are not faceless victims waiting to be avenged by righteous male heroes. They are well-rounded characters we’ve gotten to know, and their deaths are genuinely tragic.
Harlots has also showed the upper classes the women typically cater to, but this season it widens its scope to include the delightful Liv Tyler as scheming courtier Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam. It’s been briefly mentioned how such women are often similarly trapped, with all money and property falling into their husbands’ control after marriage. It seems as if Tyler’s Lady Isabella will embody this, seeing as she’s being blackmailed by Quigley while having to beg her brother for her own money. It’s a role Tyler seems to relish, and it’s fun to see her continue to take on darker, more complicated roles after years of playing innocent, not just as Arwen in Lord of the Rings, but in movies like Jersey Girl, Super, and Robot & Frank. Like most actresses, TV seems to be giving her more opportunities, with her more shocking turn in The Leftovers, and now this one.
If Harlots seems to run a bit too high on melodrama with too many threads unspooling for its own good, at least it has this stellar cast of women to heighten it. It may not exactly be subtle about the points it’s trying to make, but I can’t think of a way it could be in a climate like this. If the showrunners can’t either, it’s hard to really blame them.