Photo: Hulu

Ah, Harlots. Rarely has a show about such wretched people been so delightful to watch.

Much of the discussion of this show spotlights the women behind the camera, and how that allows for a re-centering of women in a familiar story of Ye Olde Sex Work. That’s certainty a hallmark of the show; Harlots treats sex work with all the illegal pragmatism of running a coffee shop without a license, and turns the focus of everyone’s internal lives entirely elsewhere. It’s also been praised (here as much as anywhere) for its pulp and its camp, as with one of my favorite world-building touches in recent years: making characters constantly use full names when referring to each other, because nearly every line of dialogue is on some level a pronouncement that requires it.

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And it’s easy for for these elements to overshadow discussion of story beats—
particularly because plot twists regularly slip from their mob-drama moorings and drift into soap archetypes. This is a season where characters discuss their deepest secrets (using full names, as contractually obligated) in enemy territory at a hearty volume behind barely-closed doors and then are stunned to have been thwarted by an enterprising eavesdropper.

But it’s also a show that’s using its pulp and camp in the service of a vital story.

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The spine of the series, as characters keep helpfully repeating to each other, has been to Get Lydia Quigley. Fair enough—her list of dirty deeds is stomach-curdling. But it’s not the show’s heart; that’s family and how much blood it takes to keep it. And it’s not its narrative framework; that’s how women get by in a world where men give them so little power they have to fight each other for the scraps. Lydia Quigley herself barely keeps her head above water with all the powerful men she scrambles to appease. (The “High Priestess” of the old-money Spartans is still consigned to Bedlam by the son whose word was the only thing needed to lock her up, in case you need reminding about the power deferential.)

What Lydia Quigley provides, in a show where tertiary arcs get drowned by sheer momentum, is a toxic mirror for anyone who cares to look. Those who try to bring Lydia Quigley down will have to work for it, and much of the show is driven by the ways that quest compromises them and the people they love. That isn’t always a negative—Emily Lacey made at least one compromise for the better—but there’s almost no way to get into Lydia Quigley’s orbit and come out unchanged. All praise is due to Lesley Manville, who effortlessly puts the “arch” in arch-nemesis while allowing Lydia Quigley a particular, chilling humanity. (Her face is haunting any time she realizes the legacy of cruelty she inherited as well as the one she’s perpetuating.)

The other point of gravity in the series is Margaret Wells, and her attempts to keep her family safe. Who constitutes Family, and what constitutes Safe, are the subject of dozens of plot points—sometimes in a single episode. But for everyone else as much as for Margaret Wells, this season underscores the importance of naming as many people Family as possible, and keeping them as safe as you can. It’s the counterpoint to a world that’s doomed them to lives that are nasty, brutish, and short. The world’s best man, William North (Danny Sapani, making a meal of every sidelong glance), will come back from self-imposed exile to help anyone who needs it. Brittle naysayers will find themselves surprised by kindness, and changing in its wake. Those in power will be surprised by the fight left in those they thought they’d silenced.

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It’s a crucial story. The struggle is never over. None of these women has ever had a day in which someone wasn’t hurting them or trying to: the law, the competition, their families, rich men taking advantage of their powerlessness, other women fighting them for those scraps. Well-meaning men of the law are punished for speaking out against corruption, especially on behalf of the powerless. Occasionally, a particular axis of power is nuanced and heavy enough to draw out across a season (say, Lydia Quigley’s deeply unresolved emotional entanglement with Charlotte Wells), but otherwise it’s a free-for-all. It gets hard to watch people making promises, because of how impossible it is to keep one’s word in a world that demands so many, many compromises. Motivations often get so tangled that characters have to let bygones be bygones because they just plain run out of room to keep track of grudges.

But Harlots is never as dark as it could be—and is often grimly funny—because it’s never only about the fact that the fight is unwinnable. It’s about the people you can fight beside. Even in a world held under the thumb of powerful men, family is possible. Connection is possible. You can endure.

That free-for-all means that a lot of characters only have a few brief scenes together; the cast, by and large sublime, makes every one-liner count. Sure, this season never sold me on why consummate overactor Julian Rhind-Tutt was paired with consummate underactor Liv Tyler, but otherwise this is a canny ensemble with almost endless permutations. There’s community, in a purely practical sense, that doesn’t always happen for shows with more stratified stories. Despite the deep distinctions between Golden Square, Greek Street, and the less toney part of town, you’re as likely to trip over a lord as a beggar anywhere you go. (It’s close-knit enough that it’s strange when characters drop off the map, and frankly, none of this season’s absences was sufficiently explained.) No wonder everyone falls into each other’s business as a matter of course. Class and loyalty are both more porous here than one would think at first, and this cast plays it all out wholeheartedly.

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The strength of this ensemble helps mitigate the season’s most ominous loose end: Margaret Wells, that force of personality, has been shuttled off to America. There’s a vacuum in her wake; Margaret Wells was as complex an antihero as a story could ask for, played by Samantha Morton on a knife’s edge between ruthless and kind. Should the show get a third season, and should Margaret Wells not make it back from transport, her cackle will be deeply missed.

But despite the agonies of this season for everyone involved (constantly, all the time, everywhere), it ends on a note of promise. Many of the weak have banded together; some of the strong have been frightened out of complacence. We expect that even those at the bottom will, for good or ill, fight their way back up. It’s not over—it will never be over—but as new bawd Charlotte Wells looks out from the very place her mother stood, there’s the hope of one calm day. If Harlots never gets the third season it’s earned, then this ending might be enough. Families of one kind or another have come together for however long that lasts, looking to the future, using each other’s full names forever. Sometimes that’s all you need.


Stray observations

  • We don’t know what’s in store for Margaret Wells next season! Could be anything! In unrelated news, Samantha Morton just signed on to season 9 of The Walking Dead.
  • You have to think that even on a show where you get to say some real winners at regular intervals, “Give him an aide-memoir” is the sort of line that makes everyone else jealous.
  • “The wealthy stick together like pig’s cheeks in molasses.” Do not Google this.
  • While Tyler’s casting was underwhelming, the introduction of a character with endless social capital and absolutely no independence was a smart call for the season. Margaret Wells didn’t do right by her daughters in some critical ways, and this season doesn’t forget that, but watching a noblewoman beg her brother for some pocket money from her own inheritance will certainly drive home why freedom might seem worth any other moral compromise.
  • Eloise Smyth handles her second vaguely-thankless plot for Lucy, whose arrangement with Lord Fallon turned her into your friend from freshman year who started dating a libertarian and totally vanished into the relationship. The finale suggests those days are over; I believe her, but I’m also glad Fallon stabbed himself, just in case, you know?
  • Harriet’s often consigned to the edges of the wider story (should we get another season, I’m going to need more about her setting up her own shop with Nell). But she gets a thesis-statement line with “You cannot go alone on such an errand.”
  • This show makes great use of the law, both as a force for oppression and as a system to be gamed. It’s a framework created by deeply prejudiced people with deeply prejudiced effects that fundamentally fail those who live under it (ah, different times). Still, when Lucy, Charlotte, and Nancy take Fallon’s punishment into their own hands, there’s no sense of glee to their revenge. Just resignation at the infinite ways the system can fail.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Harlots is one of the best-costumed shows on TV. Costume designer Edward Gibbons and his department delivered costumes that define characters, silently indicate class systems, and function as wardrobe pieces (we understand every layer of these outfits and how they work together). It’s quite a trick, and it works marvelously – for Amelia Scanwell as much as for Lydia Quigley. This is a show that cares about the details, and it worked.
  • Given that almost everything that happened was bad, this season was genuinely a delight. Thanks for reading.

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