[S]he possesses a lively and entertaining manner, with an affable disposition, and refined, delicate sentiments, which has lately been much been abused by the brutality of her late keeper, Mr. K—d…all his business, delight, and employment, seems to be that of persecuting Mrs. W——… It is from such kind of usage as this that has taught Mrs. W. prudence and discretion in all her engagements with the men, nor will she ever admit a visitor to take any liberties, without first knowing the value he fits on her company…
Harris’ Guide to Covent Garden Ladies, 1788
Watch Harlots, I said! What a fun campy time, I said! Definitely nobody’s going to get stabbed and set off a chain reaction of heartbreaking betrayals, I said!
This episode is a return to the over-the-top energy of early in the season; in particular, this episode recalls the aftermath of Mary Cooper, and has a similar air of inevitability that leaps back and forth between tragedy and camp. But this one’s designed to shake the status quo; nothing after this will be the same. So much changes, in fact, that this episode’s best perspective trick is the way the fallout forces us to consider our first instinct—to wish Lucy hadn’t stabbed George Howard at all—and make us face what we’re really asking for.
We know Lucy’s been on the edge for a while, and that her utter inability to play along even for her own sake was going to eventually hit a wall. And in case we were on the fence about Howard trying to claim Lucy as his new companion without even speaking to her about it, he instructs her “I am now your master and your lord…you may not ever refuse me” as he tears at his trousers. If he was ever supposed to be any better than Fallon as a long-term option, this is a reminder that this is how he thinks—a reminder that he raped Charlotte and then bragged about it at a dinner party. Lucy stabbing him is a moment of visceral satisfaction for a girl who’s had to deal with a string of vile and vicious men. It would be monstrous to wish it undone.
And Yet, we think as we watch Kitty silently lose her belief in Margaret as inherently good; And Yet, we think as Margaret betrays the oath she and Nancy spoke of for their new generation of bawds to “sustain and defend each other.” Harlots wants us to feel the strain of that And Yet before we remember ourselves, because that’s Margaret’s inner monologue while she tears everything down. And since this is an episode in which she mortgages the goodwill of William, Nancy, Kitty, and Charlotte to the hilt and endangers everyone else, without this urge to undo Lucy’s self-defense pulling us back to the brink of understanding Margaret’s reasons, it would be a hard episode to watch.
It still is, of course; despite feeling inevitable, there’s more tension in this episode than there has to be, given the inevitability we see on Margaret’s face the moment she realizes what’s happened and what she’ll have to do now. Director China Moo-Young keeps the frame alive with possibility as everyone stews in their guilt; Lucy could confess and be taken, Howard could try to run and be discovered, William could plead his case and be heard. And Margaret knows the chances of all that (she’s almost clairvoyant this episode) and refuses to risk it.
Samantha Morton has been a vibrant presence at the center of this cast, but she’s at the height of her powers here. There’s an almost hypnotic calmness in her physicality, as if the danger has gently deadened her in order for her to see it all through. Margaret knows she’s lost the last of her claims to being an underdog, or being honest, or being a safe place for her girls, and we can see the loss of it in every too-long blink.
There’s also, admittedly, something over-the-top about it all; the episode has a veneer of grim camp even as things spiral out into disaster. In particular, Mrs. Quigley has smelled somebody’s blood in the water and doesn’t particularly care whose. Lesley Manville brings the full Quigley menace to bear as she purrs her way into getting everything she wants—the Magistrate in her power, Margaret momentarily under her thrall, and one troublesome girl out of the way. You feel, almost for the first time, what power she holds over this small sub-London, and why Margaret’s independence and success would have been such a threat. Quigley’s the most ruthless fish in a very busy pond.
Moira Buffini is careful to take time for grace notes that remind us just how small that pond is. Your friends are close but you can’t escape your enemies, either, and though the intimacy in this episode is often antagonistic, that’s still intimacy. There’s Charlotte’s growl of “Howard!” that encompasses years of close-quarters loathing. There’s Quigley knowing that Margaret blotches when she lies, and Margaret’s surprising concern when she finds out Charles almost died. There’s Quigley’s informant, sidling through the shadows like life depends on it. There’s the boss’s-daughter shift in the air when Lucy comes into the kitchen and the rest of the girls go silent. There’s Charlotte’s entire message to Nancy: “It’s Ma. Go.”
And despite the sense that the plot could fly off the rails any moment, the weight of all this terrible familiarity is enough to ground the episode in between stabbings, stranglings, kidnappings, and corpse-haulings. It’s enough weight to sink relationships; William and Margaret may well have run aground this time, and I can’t imagine what Nancy will say when she finds out Margaret betrayed her. I said at the beginning of the season that the show had the air of a mob drama; it’s earning that now. Wherever Margaret goes from here, she’ll be taking someone down with her.
- Though George Howard clearly had nothing else to offer the world, I bid a fond farewell to Hugh Skinner, who made Howard almost hypnotically awful, but also managed to make me laugh in his failure to tear Charlotte’s dresses, and gave Howard one strikingly canny moment before the end.
- I’m disappointed in how Haxby’s arc is going; we’re up to the ears in craven, feckless men, and I had hoped his power game with Charlotte would be the beginning of something more complex and not just more reason for spite. Spite, he already had plenty of.
- We got an interesting beat of William calling out Margaret’s frustration with him standing up for himself against Lennox Jr.; I’ll be interested to see how that plays out.
- Fanny’s pregnancy is so sad, and another pointed example of coming up against the limits of mercy even among those who are meant to be your support. On the other hand, she definitely picked the right day to freak out about it.
- The sound design in this episode is an interesting departure from the usual; the ambient noises of the brothel have never before intruded on the personal business of its occupants, but now that Lucy’s on the edge, we hear it all. (The lighting is also great; that dim hallway looks more hellish every time people duck into it to whisper about the dying man inside.)
- Despite the series’ ongoing attempt to provide some nuance regarding sex work, Marie-Louise riding a guy while chanting “Money, money, money” feels like thesis-statement material for this show.
- “I worry you’ll only live for a day. Don’t die, don’t die!” Mr. Oswald, I mean this sincerely: What is the matter with you.