Her want of pride (which is in this age a very rare perfection) sets off to superior advantage every feature; her goodness of temper and disposition acts as a security to her most valuable acquaintance, and her justness of principle gains her the esteem of all who have the happiness of knowing her.

Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

Sometimes a show just has to have an episode where everyone catches a case of Plot-itis. That day has come for Harlots, where the lead-up to the season finale has to set up so many subplots that at some point you accept it’s less an episode than it is a 47-minute montage.

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And as far as that goes, it works perfectly well; we lose some of the fun of the first part of the season, but we gain a French door-slamming bedroom farce where behind every door is more wretchedness. Marney, imperiled thanks to Lucy; Charlotte, imperiled and unable to answer why exactly she went home given that it fell out pretty much exactly as they feared; William missing; Margaret repeatedly trying to leave the house to look for him and getting sidetracked; Lucy attempting to dip her toe into the waters of intrigue and helping absolutely nothing. By the time Emily Lacey and Nancy are smacking Charles around for the audacity of freeing Emily from certain death, there’s more than a hint of farce about it all.

But it’s episodes like this that tend to ask the most of a cast, particularly an ensemble cast where many of the actors get their screen time in thirty-second bursts. If nothing else, this episode proves how canny the Harlots casting really is, and how the writers’ room has put faith in them to carry things at this pace. And if you can extricate yourself from the onward barreling of certain doom, it’s easy to just enjoy this episode as an example of how much work a few seconds can do in the hands of the right actors.

So much depends on in-passing beats. Poppy Corby-Tuech‘s “No Thanks” face on Marie-Louise as the camera pans across Fanny’s birthing room; Pippa Bennett-Warner’s struggling smile as Harriet swallows her terror about her children and plays pretend; Bronwyn James making Fanny funny but never the butt of the joke. Lottie Tolhurst’s work as Kitty, who’s getting painfully disillusioned with Margaret Wells recently, is almost entirely silent, but if she turned Margaret in tomorrow you wouldn’t be surprised.

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But in a show where sex means so little and love means so much, it’s no surprise the best moments give that tension some breathing room, however brief. Most directly, we get Amelia Scanwell and Prince Rasselas at his lover’s sickbed. The actual dialogue—”Do you fear death more because you are sinners?” “Love’s not a sin”—could easily have been a quick morality play meant to humanize the guy who’s about to spill the season’s big secret to Lydia Quigley. But Jordon Stevens and Josef Altin make the moment something deeper; Amelia’s question is stuck halfway between fear and hope, and Rasselas’ answer is a rebuke, a reassurance, and a rationalization of what he knows he’ll have to do.

We also get a visceral face-off between Margaret and Nancy, whose love is as powerful a sustaining force as any romantic relationship in the show; they got out from under Quigley together, and built their houses with mutual support, and now Margaret’s ruined it all. Nancy’s willingness to talk at all seemed odd to me at first—if anyone has the right to give Margaret the cut fucking direct, it’s Nancy—until Nancy lays into Margaret about what she’s becoming. Each measured insult, delivered by Kate Fleetwood as if spitting heated marbles, palpably strikes Samantha Morton; she can barely walk home under the weight of all that righteous judgment. And while lunging from one long shot to the next in an attempt to condemn the fewest number of people, Margaret seems to still be reeling from Nancy’s condemnation. (It’s that much more painful for Margaret because it’s laid bare the impossible stakes: Nancy forced her to question, even for a moment, if Lucy is worth giving up so many, and so much, and for a woman who’s built her self-worth on being a more loyal mother than her mother was, that’s a very palpable hit.)

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But the star of this episode is Jessica Brown Findlay, whose riveting performance in her interrogation embodies both why love is so vital in a world like this and why it’s so dangerous. Sacrificed by her mother and not quite able to rouse herself to care about saving her life in the moment, Charlotte positively glows with despair. (“I don’t think very much about love at all,” she says when Justice Cunliffe goads her about it, and even he seems taken aback at how true it rings, underneath it all.) We’ve seen her expertly playing the game; turns out she’s even better when she has nothing left to lose. Except her life, I guess—she’s definitely in line to lose that. She won’t of course; the tension is how she’ll get free and what fresh hell will await her because of it. Love, to Charlotte, is still worth enough that she’s trying not condemn Marley to save herself. Whether she’ll fold—or what she’ll do merely to prove she isn’t as ruthless as her mother is—is going to get pressing in a hurry.

Lydia Quigley is, apparently, happy to help Charlotte avoid all that. For reasons which I’m sure are completely aboveboard, she once again spends what feels like a power play with diminishing returns in trying to get Charlotte released—into her custody, it’s implied, which is a bold move that I hope the show does not expect me to buy from Charlotte later. Not least, the stakes don’t feel particularly long-term by now, especially since Cunliffe delivers an ultimatum to Lord Fallon, and if the diminishing returns of this blackmail weren’t a big enough signal, baiting the big dogs is probably enough to end his chances of surviving the season.

The power plays on Harlots are often intimate—not in terms of sexuality, but in terms of the ways that someone knowing you makes you vulnerable. (Amelia alone is caught in so many simultaneous potential power plays she might have to spontaneously fossilize in self-defense.) But this episode brings back some earlier threads about systems of power and how corruption harms exponentially depending on one’s position. So much grief comes from the fact that women are unable to say no to any man with more power; they can play and tease and flatter their way around it, but refusal has a staggering cost. We see this with potential keepers, and with young Mr. Lennox, and with Haxby, who abuses his half-ounce of power with a grim glee that highlights just how much damage can be done out of a little spite. And despite all the power being traded under the table among women, that power’s only as good as a man’s patience. Even Lydia Quigley, doubtlessly the most powerful woman in the systems of the wider world, can be silenced by a few words from a Justice.

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With only one episode left, this episode wants us to remember that underneath all this corner-peering and door-slamming and murder-dodging constable-smacking is the rotten flooring under it all. And while you can pretend for a while that you’re not standing on the same floor as those you consider beneath you (only letting rich men murder women you don’t like anyway, only asking for what was promised in exchange for helping find you girls to murder, only murdering girls no one’s going to miss), when that floor crumbles, it will take everyone down together.

Stray observations

  • This episode would not have been possible without all those corners for characters to peer around. Thanks, walls.
  • The clothes in this series are, taken together, probably the most satisfying historical costuming of the year. Charlotte’s short-sleeve shift and bright stockings that require garters; Lydia’s respectability drag, Charles’ ostentatious deshabille.
  • The cut from Charlotte’s bright pink stockings to Emily Lacey’s bound legs in the murder house was very neatly done.
  • “You may have grown an inch since you stuck a man, but you still do as you’re told.” This is such a casually brutal dismissal of a murder I rewound just to hear it again.

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