Harlots, one of Hulu’s more underrated shows about women who deal most directly with the most personal consequences of our beliefs about sex, desire, and power, is back. And it’s…well, this is Harlots, so it’s entertaining and enjoyable, even at its most frustrating, something that can’t be said for another Hulu show that tries to tackle many of the same themes.
Last season ended on quite a cliffhanger, with the characters managing to escape with their lives (in some cases just barely) and take their power back from the aristocrats who viewed their bodies as property to be governed as they saw fit. This season picks up a year after, with things mostly on the right track for the Wells women. Matriarch Margaret (Samantha Morton) is still nowhere to be found, but Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is successfully managing the house, and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is a kept woman who is also the talk of the town.
Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) is still where her rivals and her own son left her, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have some compassion for her. Quigley was always and clearly a villain who deserved her fall from grace, but even she probably gets far more than her just desserts in a place that believes tying her down and spinning her around in a chair for two hours to induce “evacuation” to an approving, wealthy audience is a good treatment method. The guilt is killing her son Charles (Douggie McMeekin), who can’t bring himself to face her, but has managed to lose the empire she built to debtors.
Lady Isabella (Liv Tyler) now has her daughter and her freedom, but is paying the price for society’s double standards, especially after she tries to bring her fellow noblewomen and Charlotte together in an attempt at greater understanding and compassion between women of all classes. Needless to say, Isabella suffers the most, facing social ostracization and papers printing scandalous rumors about her past. Sophia (Hannah Dodd) also resents her mother for not telling her who her father is and having to be somewhat hidden away in plain sight as Isabella’s ward rather than her daughter.
It’s not unmanageable though, but the good fortune is about to come to a crashing halt. Things generally do when Alfie Allen arrives and in Harlots he’s a pimp who aspires to take over and control anyone who’s selling sex in their area of London. Since Charlotte is running one of the most successful houses, she’s a natural target. But she proves as hard to control as her mother, effectively turning the tables each time he tries to silence and control her. When he threatens to ruin her, she has him arrested and humiliates him in the same public fashion he tries to use against her. Since this is only the first episode, he’s going to put up more of a fight himself, and his desperation drives him to burn Charlotte’s house, leaving her and the women homeless right after Lucy makes yet another idiotic decision.
If anyone was hoping Lucy would be something other than an annoyance who was in constant need of rescue, it looks like they’ll be disappointed yet again. (Probably the only TV sibling who annoyed more was Dawn from Buffy, and even she had her good moments.) In an effort to retire and buy a house of her own, she decides to go into business with two people she hardly knows. Their motivations are similar to hers, even somewhat admirable in that they want to run a house where gay men can find a refuge and be themselves, but they’re also in business with a family rival, and Lucy has just sunk all the money she’s saved into their venture. Then again, she has company in terms of stupidity with Sophia, who just decides to run off with a servant with barely a buildup. Perhaps it’s just blondes that Harlots has an issue with?
While it is somewhat disappointing to see men as main antagonists in the battle for control of the sex trade rather than focusing on the rivalry between the two female families, Harlots proves it can still do what it does best, which is explore its themes with humor as it gives its female characters some very real obstacles without reducing them to outright victims. Its sprawling cast seems cut down a bit too much, with the show not just absent Margaret Wells, but the Scanwell women, Violet Cross (Rosalind Eleazar), as well as William North (Danny Sapani) and his son, which makes the least sense and is explained away with barely one line. This could go in any number of directions, but for a show down so many cast members, it’s one of the more enjoyable openers.