Lesley Manville
Photo: Liam Daniel (Hulu)

The first season of Harlots was an unexpected delight: a dialed-to-eleven revenge drama with a stellar cast, featuring historically accurate deshabille, and—perhaps most important—everyone referring to each other using full names whenever possible.

If you’re looking for a well-designed period piece (about, say, eighteenth-century London) and a wild, complex show about women and power, the first season is only eight episodes, which makes for a quick catch-up. (Do not make a drinking game of the full-names thing. Emily Lacey alone will give you alcohol poisoning.)

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And you will definitely need to catch up beforehand, because this season hits the ground running.

One of the hallmarks of Harlots is the sheer confidence with which it conducts its business. This season opens with an in medias res montage: Violet Cross snatched by the law, Margaret Wells throwing Harriet Lennox out of her house for making eyes at her common-law husband Will North, Emily Lacey enjoying the spoils of war, Charlotte Wells gearing up for another night of kissing up to Lydia Quigley. It also introduces Josiah Hunt, the new magistrate, when an irate woman spits on him and he bears it Javert-ly. That, and the arrest warrant he serves a stunned Mrs. Quigley, presumably set the stage for what we can expect from him. (For a while, anyway; this show doesn’t let anyone rest on their laurels for long.)

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The primary tension in this episode is meant to come from Margaret Wells and Nancy Birch trying to gather enough witnesses against Lydia Quigley to get her condemned to death before she can post bail and return to business. There’s plenty to work with, especially given that Margaret Wells is somewhere past knee-deep in all the moral compromises she’s made in her dual quests for betterment and revenge; at this point, if she doesn’t take Quigley down, she’ll have ruined almost everything in her life and have nothing to show for it.

However, the actual tension in this episode is Lesley Manville walking the knife’s edge of Quigley’s downfall, enraging one moment and pathetic the next. This show doesn’t put particular value on subtlety, but subtlety and complexity aren’t mutually exclusive, and Lesley Manville wields it to great effect. Samantha Morton, her equal in wallowing amid the protagonist/antagonist sliding scale, is also a powerhouse and, as ever, even the promise of interaction between Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley is electric.

If nothing else, they can bond over their shared enemy: the secret society of aristocratic monsters to whom Lydia Quigley spent last season feeding victims (and to whom Margaret Wells very nearly gave up the painfully principled Amelia Scanwell). This show is concerned at every turn with the relationships between power, sex, and money, with this season poised to be even more pointed about the way even “disinterested” justice harms the powerless. Given all that, is there much point being subtle about the rising threat of a society of rich men who cloak themselves in secrecy and stop at nothing in order to protect their crimes and maintain their vise grip on power? There sure is not, and Harlots knows it. Slap on those masks and drop hearts on the doorsteps, guys; I guess there’s room.

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Strangely, even the murdering secret society gets overwhelmed by the sheer speed of this episode. The show’s characteristic energy is, sometimes, all that keeps the full weight of everyone’s sins from crushing the story’s forward momentum. So much happens—and so much of that is fallout from last season—that we’re clearly just spending an hour setting a very crowded stage. (Margaret Wells has half a dozen changes of heart in this episode alone, and nearly everyone she runs into can’t help but mention the time she strangled a man with her bare hands.)

Luckily, the production design on this show does such a fantastic job of creating mood in a single shot that we still get exactly the impression we need to. Mrs. Quigley’s house is still a poisoned Fragonard painting. Margaret Wells’ house is a bloodstained Vermeer with her girls wearing cooler jewel tones as they sour on her management style. Emily Lacey went into stores, announced “Like a Brothel But Even More” and took the results home. And for this episode at least, Nancy and the other girls seem to exist only in the streets. Taken together, it creates a neat visual hierarchy...that’s promptly turned on its head by nearly everything else that happens.

Given the way things are going, we can expect more of the same; I suspect the flux of last season’s mafia-family scheming is going to look positively stable as we go along now. Nothing is permanent here. No one on Harlots is ever safe enough to sleep well, and the ambient chaos is so intense that fortune can always turn. (That would seem like good news, except it never really has been. This fight is grimly funny, but it’s always a fight, and things seem to be getting ever more dire—sorry, Kitty.)

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It’s too early to say how well this season can spool out these dozen intersecting plots, but if it keeps this up, the ride will be a miserable delight.

Stray observations

  • This show is very good at avoiding voyeurism. I especially like that early beat of Kitty and Lucy more interested in the fight going on upstairs than the sex they’re having, their clients suddenly anonymous nobodies who couldn’t matter less; Lucy’s naked and mid-deed, but the tension and focus are directed entirely elsewhere, and it makes a big difference.
  • That shot of Margaret Wells watching a butcher’s window is definitely not a prelude to anything, I’m sure.
  • The easy family warmth that Charlotte and Lucy have with each other and William is such a good grace note, and gently frames (and condemns) Margaret Wells in a way a hundred Lydia Quigleys couldn’t.
  • This ensemble is so good, including the less-flashy parts; there’s hardly ever a cut-to where you’re not interested in the actors, even when the editing is hard-pressed to keep things together.
  • Barring a miracle, we’ll bid farewell to Lottie Tolhurst; we knew Kitty was doomed as soon as she started wistfully talking about setting up an egalitarian house (in the world of the show, the only way to be free is to crawl over someone else before they know what’s coming), but she made sure we’ll miss her.
  • This episode seems to have the same music direction as the first episode of last season, which is Intense Music Constantly. Occasionally it’s more distracting than engaging, but “Begin with Revenge Guitar and just never let up” is, in its own way, perfectly suited to this show.
  • Harlots is very good at asking you to take things as given, even when it’s selling you things you don’t think you need. Did we need Liv Tyler as an aristo with a Terrible Secret whose brother (Julian Rhind-Tutt, fulfilling his annual quota of snide jerks) is giving her the full Emperor Commodus? It isn’t like we’re short on plot points elsewhere. And yet, here we have a woman with plenty of money and absolutely no freedom or power—a position we haven’t yet seen—and there’s already been so much loaded staring between her and Charlotte that you might as well give this a shot, you know?
  • The clothes on this show are a costuming masterclass. We see every layer of these robes, understand class differences among the brothels, get individual character distinctions (Margaret Wells would likely refuse the Quigley finery if her life depends on it; she positively aches to look respectable and unremarkable), and understand the visceral reality of a world in which your entire wardrobe might be the clothes on your back—assuming the clothes belong to you at all.
  • I’m going to assume the 15-second segment of Josiah Hunt and Charlotte Wells just saying full names aloud was a gift for me personally.
  • I won’t be covering Harlots weekly, but I’ll be coming back for a season-wrap recap after the finale, by which time the dozen plot points introduced in this episode will undoubtedly feel like a children’s show compared to the chaos of the interim.

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