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Power corrupts on a bleak, gripping Harlots

Illustration for article titled Power corrupts on a bleak, gripping Harlots
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This truly lovely woman is about twenty, and, whilst she remains in a state of silence, commands every attracting charm the heart of man can wish…pretty Emma has experienced every vicissitude the cruel hand of fortune could possibly inflict…she has fine blue melting eyes, with an aquiline nose, and a very pretty mouth, when her tongue is inactive, but when once she gives a loose to that unruly member, she pours forth such a torrent of blackguardism that shall destroy every attracting feature…Our damsel is therefore the most agreeable looking girl when asleep…

- Harris’s List Of Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

One of the central tenets of a mob drama is that nobody gets out clean. The institution is inherently broken; the people who operate in it bear the brunt of that. There are a lot of mob-drama beats in Harlots (this episode offers us a street standoff between the foot soldiers of opposing sides and a corpse left behind as a message). But honestly, that’s the least of the violence this episode’s dealing with.


Until now, Harlots has reminded us of the casual cruelty its women live with without allowing it to take center stage. It’s understood that power inherently corrupts (and that men have the lion’s share of it), but we had other things to settle first. This episode is a cascade of worst-case scenarios; women suffer both at the hands of men and at the hands of more powerful women. The good news—if there is any—is that the chain of power is so tangled that occasionally the web of it breaks your fall. This is a brutal episode, the show’s darkest yet, and forces us to confront the potential trauma involved. This is an episode about damage.

Lucy gets the lion’s share of the suffering; she’s sent off to the Reptons’ country estate for her second despoiling, where an attack of nerves and a bad joke land her in a horrific situation. We’re not surprised that they feel free to demand she perform on command; Harris’s Guide is clear that those with the power get to dictate what’s pleasing. We know why they take reptilian delight in making her a little doll (“Repton” is Dickensian levels of on-the-nose), and why they brought her to the country estate to isolate her from any help. But the episode’s careful not to draw a line by degrees; she was fundamentally unwilling, and so a brutal rape only changes the trappings of the rape, not the nature of it. And despite the suddenness of Lord Repton’s violent outburst, that isn’t much of a surprise either.

The surprise in the moment is Lady Repton’s vicious honesty about what awaits Lucy—the strange mercy of being spoken to like a real person about something terrible, and a few moments’ preparation before the worst. (That kind of cold comfort is all over this episode; Lady Caroline and Charlotte exchange a little of it once they drop the pretense of civility, and it works better for them than manners do.)

The surprise after the fact, as an obviously traumatized Lucy struggles to engage with anyone, is how directly Harlots is asking us to think about Lucy’s assault in a wider context. Though director Coky Giedroyc doesn’t show the assault, the episode makes us viscerally present for Lucy’s building fear, her disorientation in that poison-green forest; we get the stomach-clenching tension of her attempt at a bawdy joke and the low-grade agony of the ride back as we wonder if the coachman will pick this moment to follow through on his threats. It’s no wonder Lucy’s stunned in the wake of what happened to her. But the previouslies specifically remind us of the maid Mrs. Quigley procured for violent rape; we remember Charlotte was only twelve when her mother sold her virginity to Lord Repton. Kitty and Fanny are bright spots—Fanny’s glee at seeing her watchman is one of the episode’s sweetest moments—but Kitty’s first experience with sex was rape, and now, liking one’s clients is a luxury. Though everyone makes the best of their circumstances, Harlots is clear that this life is something one is inured to, not something any of these women can freely choose.

Illustration for article titled Power corrupts on a bleak, gripping Harlots

We see that in real time, too, as Mrs. Lennox faces this choice after some latent violence at the hands of her common-law husband (Nathaniel died without signing her freedom papers, which means she was at his mercy all along without knowing it). She calls Margaret to his deathbed out of duty, but Margaret turns out to be a galvanizing ally; Samantha Morton wrenches the practical “Do you know if you’re provided for?” right out of Margaret’s still-waters grief. But she’s also shockingly dismissive when Mrs. Lennox seeks sanctuary and advice about how to get her children back; she’ll buy her children on the slave market, and she can earn the money for it on her back, or in the kitchens. We can guess that Mrs. Lennox—already a victim of circumstance in several ways—might well find herself struggling on a kitchen maid’s wages; having to make this choice again; having to inure herself.


But the woman handing out the most pointed violence (hired thugs and otherwise) is Mrs. Quigley. Back under the thumb of her Justice, who’s looking for another girl for his royal client to rape, Mrs. Quigley sets her sights on Amelia Scanwell (now trapped between her mother’s unbending crusade and the sort of manipulation she’s going to find herself up against now). Though nothing happens to Charlotte this episode—she’s being very careful to play the game right—there’s dread on her face as Howard humiliates Haxby; she knows he’s capable of worse if she ever truly displeases him. And when Emily Lacey misbehaves, she’s first starved and then handed over to Mr. Osborne, such a specter of violence we don’t see his face, only Charles Quigley’s discomfort and Emily’s telling beat of trepidation. This episode wants to make perfectly clear that life is dangerous for a woman alone.

However, to keep things from being inescapably bleak, Harlots also reminds us the power of a good support network. On a more intimate scale, William has the unenviable task of being the only decent man in a sea of assholes, and he succeeds admirably. (Danny Sapani makes a subtle meal of William’s frustration with Margaret’s vendetta, his trepidation about such a risky move, and the almost unbearable tenderness he has for her through it all.) Margaret’s establishment is able to overcome the hired thugs and make the move to Greek Street by summoning Nancy and her girls as makeshift brute squad; Margaret doesn’t hesitate to let Mrs. Lennox in both times she comes knocking. Even the Scanwells draw strength from each other.


In an episode as tense and dark as this one is, these beats are necessary; they’re why these women have managed to move on from what Harlots admits is trauma. The show tends to keep things loose around modern concepts of consent, because to pretend everyone’s choosing this would be disingenuous, and to claim consent is utterly absent would make them endless victims. The middle ground is harder to hold, and will get even trickier as Lucy tries to come to terms with her assault, if she can. But like any good mob drama, the family is refuge. Maybe especially now, Harlots centers the relationships between women, not because they’re fun or easy, but because they’re necessary for survival. From this angle, Mrs. Quigley’s actually one of the weaker players; all her erstwhile allies are paid. She may yet be defeated, if only because her game is solitaire and everyone else is building to a full house.

Stray observations

  • Most Portentous Line contender: “Can I not rely on you for better?”
  • Genevieve Overthinks Things Corner: Though she was kept out of the fray, Lucy grew up in a brothel among women who routinely gauged what various types of men are like, and her first sexual experience was with a refined gentleman so sensitive about his penis that he roughed her up to scare her into lying about it. Violence was inevitable with the Reptons; they literally hunted her, we knew how this was going to end. I absolutely bought that she was so upset and nervous she just couldn’t summon a joke and sparked Repton’s anger by not performing happiness up to their expectations. It seemed odd to have her instead mock his manhood, given both her general experience with men and her specific experience with Lord Howard. I don’t think this show is trying to victim-blame, so this wasn’t an attempt to show her making a mistake, but it feels so out of character that I’m not sure what we’re actually supposed to make of it on Lucy’s side.
  • I laughed out loud at Charles Quigley adjusting those ladies’ heads by two degrees each. Now it’s nice.
  • The lighting both times Margaret was trying to deal with the remains of Mary Cooper was straight out of The Tell-Tale Heart.
  • I understand that it’s hard to separate potential homophobia from historical norms in a show that’s critiquing so much of what made 18th-century patriarchy awful, which sort of by default means that everyone adopting the aesthetic presentation and affectations of the nobility are probably going to be bad people. However, making Mrs. Quigley’s shifty henchman both Orientalist and kind of effeminate on top of all that feels…pointed.
  • Mrs. Lennox pushing “I was a slave” out from behind the backs of her teeth after Margaret has the gall to tell her she’ll know what it’s like to work was as satisfying as Margaret’s insinuation was appalling.
  • Related: I liked the look between Mrs. Lennox and William. William’s already worried about race being a factor in Greek Street the way it wasn’t back home, and it’s not something he’s shared with Margaret, but he and Mrs. Lennox know exactly the potential pitfalls on that score.
  • That handclasp between Samantha Morton and Danny Sapani was more romantic than half the makeout scenes in other shows.
  • Haxby is either going to implode from Beleaguered Butler Syndrome or snap and murder everyone in that house.
  • I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying the costumes. Lucy’s in her Mrs. Quigley Lite pastels; Lady Caroline’s all modest elegance from her bonnet to her shoes; Fanny’s new dress is in better repair but is still as flashy as Margaret’s usual taste for her girls. And all of it’s done in visible layers handled with an eye for detail; Margaret’s bodice is partially unfastened in her first frazzled morning in the new house, when she’d need a little room to breathe as she tries to mop up the blood.
  • There’s no way Margaret should have assumed anything about the setup in Greek Street except that Mrs. Quigley was behind it. Not only because it makes the most sense (especially given how much other trouble Mrs. Quigley’s already masterminded), but because the luxury of having a nemesis is that they get to be your go-to blamee for everything.