A major theme in Harlots is how violence abuse is perpetuated throughout generations, and how the various women in the show have coped with their trauma. Margaret’s mother was so unfeeling towards her daughter, she sold her off to Quigley, an abusive brothel madam. Quigley herself was clearly abused, but she internalized the values of her abusers in order to enrich herself. Margaret may have broken this cycle in some respects, but she still came to believe that prostitution was the best way for her own daughters to come out on top in a world which believes in depriving women of all agency and control in their lives.
Other shows would simply explore the aftermath of trauma with clearly designated victims and villains. But Harlots recognized life is more complex than that from the beginning. Last time, Charlotte was at risk of losing her life, with Quigley in danger of realizing that her new surrogate daughter has been plotting against her all along. But now she has to come to terms with the fact that she has been a party to rape, having used an innocent young woman as a pawn in her quest for vengeance. She failed to save her, and the young woman issues a curse upon her. Her disgrace means that she can no longer allow her beloved family to see what she has become, so she says Charlotte deserves to lose her loved ones as well. By the end, she just might.
Margaret also has to come to terms with what she has passed down to her children. She has realized that Lucy’s keeper, Lord Fallon, is the killer they’ve been searching for. When she tries to retrieve her youngest daughter from his home, she finds her unwilling to go until others are finally able to persuade her. When she goes to rescue Charlotte, she finds her eldest with her hands around Quigley’s neck, as fully prepared to kill as her mother was. It drives Margaret to try to experience the consequences of her actions, which seems to be a must for female anti-heroines.
Then again, she had another shocking development to spur her on, which in any other show would’ve been pretty obvious coming. Last episode focused on just how beloved the compassionate Amelia has become to everyone. It was bound to have consequences, and it finally does when she tries to stop Lord Fallon from stabbing Rasselas, the man who knows his crimes. This shocking act, and Fallon’s pursuit of Rasselas, is one of the most suspenseful sequences Harlots has given us, and they’ve given us quite a few. Amelia’s wounds could very well be fatal, and her future is in doubt in other respects, with her would-be husband Justice Hunt having discovered her mother’s past as a prostitute.
We also learn more shocking truths about Lady Isabella’s past. The existence of her illegitimate child has already been revealed, but now we learn just how she came to be. We have watched Isabella, a woman who seemingly has this world’s wealth and privilege at her disposal, not only have to beg her brother for money, but scramble around on the ground for the scraps he chooses to throw her way, even as he berates her intelligence and her abilities. She blames herself for the life her brother has created for her, so much so that she considers herself damned. No one has touched Isabella since the rape that led to the existence of the daughter she doesn’t dare contact.
Amidst all the heaviness, Harlots also gives us a moment of grace, as Isabella is able to reveal all this to Charlotte. Their alliance has long since had a sexual undercurrent which we knew was going to be indulged sooner or later. But the fact that the show chose to do it when Isabella reveals her most painful hidden secrets allows the two women to find a possible source of solace after all they’ve endured, even if it does brush aside Charlotte’s actions a little too much, with the victimized girl still living in Quigley’s house.
Lucy’s decision is less easy to understand. After escaping her keeper, she sneaks out and willingly returns to him after a short speech about how her family overlooks her compared to her older, more well-known sister. In a sense, it must be tempting to be with a powerful man who seems to have come to care for her and accept her for who she is. She doesn’t have to deny what she’s done, and can even relish killing the man who hurt her and raped Charlotte. After being so coddled, then suddenly thrust so quickly and easily into such power in the first pleasurable union she’s had, it would make sense that she would see Fallon as her greatest triumph and return to him. I just wish she was able to be seen as just as worthy of investing in as her sister Charlotte, who finally got an apology from her mother and a genuine moment with her. Lucy should be just as worthy of investment.