Triumph has seldom been so sweet on Harlots. The women have been constantly at the mercy of men who would break them and the women who abet them. But in the season finale, they take the power back into their own hands.
Last episode, Justice Hunt transported Margaret Wells to America rather than killing her. Her family still believes her dead and are frantically trying to find her body, while others are trying to protect the few vulnerable ones among them. Amelia has woken up and seems to have recovered enough to identify who stabbed her so she’s still a target to the ruthless circle of wealthy noblemen who call themselves the Spartans.
Meanwhile, Lucy is finally beginning to realize that her lover, Lord Fallon, isn’t as innocent as she would like to believe. When she visits Amelia, she finally learns of her mother’s supposed hanging. After spending much of the season being led by the most persuasive person who happens to be near her, she finally decides to take action on her own terms. Even if it’s a bit late, any development that makes her less of an annoyance is very welcome.
It even finally makes her a part of the overarching narrative of supposedly powerless women who nevertheless manage to hold the most powerful accountable. Harlots has never depicted its female characters as helpless, but they’ve generally been forced to fight for their basic rights in a system that barely acknowledges them, let alone invests in their protection. But in the finale, they prove more than capable of protecting themselves when no one else will.
When Fallon sneaks into Hunt’s home to try and finally finish off Amelia, it is Violet who saves her by knocking Fallon out, tying him up, and quickly gathering the others to her aid. Amelia’s mother Florence quickly doles out some Old Testament justice to encourage him to talk, and talk he does, implicating all the other members of his circle. In one of the show’s most satisfying moments, Nancy leads him back to her home as a prisoner.
Quigley is, of course, still acting on behalf of the Spartans and it is she who takes Lady Fitzwilliam’s innocent daughter right out of her hiding place to her uncle’s estate. When Lady Fitzwilliam learns of this, she manages to use her brother’s captured comrade to her advantage… by selling out the other women who helped her. It makes sense that she would prioritize taking her power and fortune back and keeping her child safe, but it seems rather unnecessary to actually tell him where Lord Fallon is. She justifies it by saying that he is still her brother, but her brother is the one who has spent years taking everything he could from her. It’s a great way to take Fallon out while keeping the rest of the villains a threat for the sake of continuity, but it comes across as little more than a decision for the sake of that continuity.
If the show won’t sacrifice the Spartans, it’s unlikely to do away with Lydia Quigley. She has long been an unrepentant, if tragic, villain, but there is something deeply pitiable in the way she ends the season. Emily returns to her brothel to help free the girl she kidnapped, and she succeeds, only to lose Charles and the girl in the process. Charles has returned because he believes his mother has changed, but when he finds out it’s still business as usual he stands up to Quigley and then discovers how easy it is to eliminate her as a threat. Turns out, it only takes one male relative to consign a woman to an asylum, and she ends the season there.
Both madams have been taken off the board and it’s to the credit of Harlots that the void left by Margaret makes the finale no less exciting. Her family even finds out she is alive and are overjoyed. “She work some trick to get back to us,” muses William North. “She’s Margaret Wells,” and it’s impossible to disagree with him. Harlots has earned a third season, but if it ends this way, with the family who’s chosen to stay together in the face of all odds triumphantly standing together and awaiting their matriarch, it’s a good place to end.