Harlots opens with the Wells women tearfully mourning the loss of their home and the money they had stashed within, but it’s not the crushing blow it would’ve been in seasons past. They’ve made enough friends and connections to find comfortable lodgings elsewhere, and even Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey) takes in Cherry Dorrington (Francesca Mills), although she’ll probably come to regret that. In the meantime, Emily is trying to get an education in finance, although she’s already savvy enough to give some pretty smart advice that the Pincher brothers completely ignore.
Then again, such behavior isn’t limited by gender, even if such disregard tends to be common with men who are unused to thinking of women as worth listening to. The Wells women and their friends show a different form of disregard once patriarch William North (Danny Sapani) and advises them to de-escalate their behavior while he tries to recoup a few of their losses another way. And while the cat is away, the mice decide to execute a heist where they steal the money the Pincher men have stashed in their cellar. William is probably correct about what the fallout will be, but it is one of the more fun, triumphant sequences the show has had.
The triumphs and pleasures of the Wells’ are also starkly juxtaposed with the misery of Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) and Kate (Daisy Head), who are still plotting their escape from the asylum. They’re a stark reminder of the fate that could await any of the women of Harlots, many of whom also found themselves precariously close to being stripped of control over their bodies. This is taken to the extreme with Kate, since the doctor’s idea of curing her is to touch her against her will, justifying his behavior by saying such grotesque “stimulation” will purge Kate of her urges. Unlike other shows where characters are assaulted, Harlots knows how to depict such a development without piling on the humiliation, showing Kate’s assault from a nonexploitative distance while emphasizing Kate’s pain, granting her a dignity other shows don’t extend to their female characters.
The fact that we sympathize with Kate is a given, but shockingly, we also continue to feel compassion for Quigley. We know she’s a monster and so does the show. Yet we also feel the pain she doesn’t deserve and the men equally responsible have mostly evaded. So we root for them both to escape and rejoice when they finally do, even as we fear what’s been released. It’s the kind of complicated reaction the best villains bring out, one which female offenders are rarely even given the chance to provoke. Then again, it’s also difficult not to feel like she’s gotten her just desserts when Quigley returns to her former home to find that her son has fled and the Wells women have taken it over.
After such developments, Harlots could really go in any direction, and it’s fascinating rather than frustrating. Isaac Pincher (Alfie Allen) seems to bury the hatchet, but their dynamic could take a number of turns. There’s also another potential subplot when it’s mentioned that a number of Black women are disappearing at night, as well as reminders from Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner) that neither she or the men around her are helpless or resigned.
Harlots also plays around with the gender binary, with Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth) doing a little cross dressing to promote the new house she’s set up with Elizabeth Harvey (Angela Griffin), and her son Fredo (Aidan Cheng), who intend to cater to the customers who have been underserved in their orientations. Harlots has had LGBTQ representation from the beginning, but it looks like new characters and the obstacles they face are about to take center stage. Lady Isabella (Liv Tyler) and Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay) also get a tender moment together, although that may get complicated now that Isabella’s idiot daughter Sophia (Hannah Dodd) is married to the footman she ran off with.
With any other episode, this would be exhausting. And it may be that Harlots will once again bite off more than it can chew, with characters and plot threads appearing and disappearing at will rather than taking time to build and taper off. But even if the various threads unravel without a trace, it’s still more fun and satisfying to watch than other shows that actually take the time to weave them together.