“I want your forgiveness.”
If you’ve seen ads for Harlots, Hulu’s new period piece (ticking off a box on their Prestige TV Bingo card ahead of The Handmaid’s Tale), they’ve probably reminded you of the greatest Downton Abbey promo of all time. In fact, the entire ad campaign has been trying very hard—too hard, probably—to convince you Harlots is the Cool Girl of post-Knick period pieces. That’s not entirely misleading; certainly Harlots provides its fair share of anachronistic and obtrusive background score (the 18th century, turns out, was constantly dropping the beat).
But thankfully, this show isn’t quite as advertised. Framed and shot like a mob drama, stocked with actors who are more than game, and balancing its exploration of the commodification of women with scenes in which people casually slap each other mid-conversation to punctuate their points—this show may suffer from wanting to be Everything All The Time, but it knows what it’s about.
In particular, Harris’ Guide To Covent Garden Ladies is a smart spine for an introductory episode. A Zagat’s for London’s prostitutes, the book was published for four decades as cheerful, boys’-club softcore, and at first it seems quaint viewed from two hundred and fifty years on (puns and “love hillocks” aplenty). There’s also some fairly practical, vaguely devastating critique. (Of a Miss M—rr—s, the author says, “Had she less partiality for a certain hair dresser, we think she would be more pleasing to the generality of her visitors.”)
But the phrase that starts to stand out in Harris’ Guide is “good teeth,” a note that recurs again and again, until you realize the book’s closer to a catalog for a horse auction than an entertainment guide. It reduces the women it discusses to disparate parts, and happily buys into the fiction that the women listed in this book (and their gardens, grottos, and mounts of Venus) are just as complicit as the fantasy version of them described in their listing. If they aren’t—well, God forbid the Guide make a note that there’s better-tempered company elsewhere.
For a show that’s interested in how a broken system can turn anything into a commodity, and there’s no handier reference text, and this episode makes the most of it. Through it we get our first glimpse of Margaret Wells’ scrappy but homey setup, the poison-pastel confection of Mrs. Quigley’s upper-crust establishment, and the hard realities of the object business. Even in dynasties decisively headed by women, a man’s opinion holds such sway that a single listing can function either as a resume or a potential downfall. (And this is before ambitious Emily Lacey ditches Margaret’s for an interview at Mrs. Quigley’s and gets introduced by young Quigley as, “It’s looking for a position.”)
And of course, given the nature of the business, things could easily tip toward titillation or wallow in agony. But creators Alison Newman and Moira Buffini (who wrote the episode) made much of the show’s “whore’s-eye view” in press interviews, and this episode is being careful not to overdo either. Its depiction of sex skews closer to The Crimson Petal And The White, in which men and sex were more or less equal impositions on a woman’s internal life, than it does to Game Of Thrones, and there’s a practical comedy to much of it. Via director Coky Giedroyc, our glimpses of Margaret’s girls in particular have all the dispassionate pleasantness of overworked baristas.
The matter-of-factness of it all does exactly what it’s meant to do by keeping the focus on the women involved—the relatively collegial chatter, the social ambition, and the simmering revenge are all largely divorced from the customers. It works so well that you wonder about the undertone that somehow there’s less artifice in one house than the other. Margaret chats frankly with her regulars about Lucy’s virginity auction, while Mrs. Quigley delegates complex static tableaux; naturally Mrs. Quigley’s meant to put us off (and Lesley Manville is positively gleeful about the chance to play such an arch antagonist), but Margaret is every bit the saleswoman, and her daughter Charlotte (first sold at twelve) and Lucy (auctioned off here) are more than happy to remind her of it.
Luckily, the show has Samantha Morton for its Margaret. She effortlessly holds the center, calculating and unguarded by turns. There is, as always, power in her silences, but she’s aware that subtlety will only get you so far in a show called Harlots, and is more than happy to storm across an opera lobby screaming at Lesley Manville like her life depends on it. And as much as this episode can set up issues of class, it’s fascinating to watch her madam skills at work as she attempts not just to sell Lucy, but to launch her higher in society than any of her ‘real’ girls could ever aim for. (There’s bonus Dangerous Liasions undertones in her performative indulgence of her daughter’s emotions: “Silly girl. The opera moves her. She cries.”) Morton makes Margaret a woman shaped so completely by her circumstances that though she may be overcome with guilt after selling her younger daughter’s virginity, she retches neatly—no point getting a good gown messy.
Jessica Brown Findlay, more vibrant here than in Downton or Jamaica Inn, grounds Charlotte’s restlessness in a morbid curiosity about life outside the trade, and offers a handy check on Margaret’s more self-pitying impulses. (Nothing contextualizes a trauma cycle like: “My ma sold me for a pair of shoes!” “I’ve heard about those shoes so many times I could start a cobbler’s.”) But she’s also at risk going it alone; George Howard starts out an “easy keeper” whose gullible possessiveness is played for laughs, but though Charlotte handles him, we can guess he’s more vicious than he seems. Among the many men jockeying for screen time, he’s potentially the most dangerous. Whether that will hold—or whether, in a story that casts such a suspicious eye on the men who exploit this system, it matters—will be interesting to see.
Of course, there’s plenty of camp to be found in the meantime. Mrs. Quigley taking a cab into Covent Garden to peer at the goings-on is hilarious, and only gets funnier when you realize the episode’s big mystery for Margaret is who sent the constables down on them. (First rule of a mob story, Margaret: If your kids know your nemesis’ name by heart and repeat it during your anecdotes about them, you probably have a top-of-the-list name for everything that suddenly goes south for you.) There’s still an undercurrent of tension in everything, but this show sees no reason why irreconcilable inner turmoil can’t work alongside penis jokes.
There’s no telling where Harlots will go from here. There’s almost too much pulpy intrigue for any of it to matter at the moment; Harlots acknowledges the quagmire of its premise, and explores it rather than drawing sharp lines. Charlotte resents her mother for starting her in the family business, but equally fears being tied to a man by any contract that resembles marriage. Margaret uses her girls (biological and otherwise) as bricks in the staircase she’s building to come up in the world—and for her, that interferes not at all with loving them. And the show is practical about prostitution, but that interferes not at all with either the dark side of objectification or the comedy of having to pull a customer away mid-cunnilingus so he can outrun a raid. If it’s a bit too much of a good thing sometimes, well, why not?
- Obviously Harlots is more than happy to tackle its problems from every side at once, but Betsy Fletcher, a corner girl, gets to bookend the episode with a reminder that the real enemy is something harder to strike down. Mr. Oswald can abandon her to the constables, and then come back to pay his debts knowing she has no choice but to let him.
- With Haxby, the World’s Most Profoundly Disillusioned Butler contest gets a new and impressive entrant.
- Speaking of Haxby, I’ll be interested to see how the beat with Howard in Charlotte’s accessories plays out. Harlots has plenty of nods to 18th-century gender presentation—most of the men at the opera are wearing the same makeup and wigs as the women—but all of them are meant to be sinister. (The two heroically-inclined men we meet this episode either lack the social standing or the inclination to dress similarly, and neither does our frankest customer, Mr. Gibbon.) Especially in light of his “man enough” comments to Charlotte and his manhandling of Lucy, I’ll be curious how the show tackles gender presentation as a sliding scale of virtuous masculinity.
- None of that reflects on Hugh Skinner, who’s great in this episode; the line between comic and villainous is always an odd one, and he’s walking it very well.
- “Take me to the circle of bliss!” Oh, Mr. Gibbon. If Margaret’s semi-honest conversation didn’t single you out as a customer of distinction, I suspect your enthusiasm here was meant to.
- Danny Sapani is someone I’m happy to see no matter what he’s doing; I’m glad he’s here.
- Lines that make you look forward to someone’s return: “Why don’t I just jump in the Thames and pull your bitch of a mother down with me?”
- I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the silhouettes on these costumes, including several visible layers that each serve a practical purpose. Bonus: the almost-garish colors of Margaret Wells’ house—a taste that Charlotte’s inherited—contrasted with the toothache sweetness of Mrs. Quigley (a palette Margaret’s deliberately echoing with Lucy’s virginal blue at the opera) is so interesting and instantly establishes so much about class and character that I’m mad at the ads for reducing everybody to the same hot pink.