I wasn’t planning to write about Harlots. But then I ended up watching two episodes in a row and found myself thinking things like, “I’d rather work in the rowdy cathouse than the stuffy gold-leaf brothel,” and, “I could definitely run a smoother virginity auction than that fiasco at the opera,” so here we are.
Hulu’s new 18th-century period drama — produced in conjunction with the UK’s ITV — tells the story of the ongoing turf war between two London brothels. Madam of the people Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is constantly battling powdered bawd to the stars Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) for power and prestige, and each is armed with her own stable of teen girls corseted within an inch of their lives to please the drooling men who pass through their doors.
Margaret’s “boarding house” is the aforementioned rowdy cathouse, set up in a colorful but crumbling Covent Garden building filled with girls whose greatest asset just might be their quick-witted sass. Her elder daughter Charlotte (Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay) is reluctantly parlaying her lifelong expertise into a permanent mistress position for a sniveling aristocrat (Fleabag’s Hugh Skinner, perfectly cast). Her younger daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is the reluctant subject of the aforementioned virginity auction, a Hail Mary attempt to save Margaret’s house from a devastating fine.
Over at Lydia Quigley’s stately Soho home, wan girls entertain the upper crust with tea and refined conversation before luring them into frantic sex, sneaking secrets all the while. When Margaret’s spunkiest girl, Emily Lacey (a very game Holli Dempsey), defects to Quigley’s, it becomes especially obvious that it’s not nearly as much fun to spend time in Soho as in Covent Garden. (For the viewers, anyway — I obviously can’t speak to the men who frequent it; they seem pretty happy either way).
The series was inspired in part by Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a real 18th-century document that was, essentially, an indexed burn book for the London prostitutes of the day. No one’s sure exactly who wrote it, but most agree it was probably a gossipy dude.
Several times while watching Harlots, though, I realized with a little thrill how obvious it was that this series was created and produced by women. Even when Moira Buffini and Alison Newman’s series trips on its own aspirations, it’s always making a point to explore the complex politics inherent in buying and selling women’s bodies to get ahead.
Harlots has more ambitions than it has room to explore, but what it does well is undeniably entertaining
I assumed when I started the first episode of Harlots that I was in for a largely forgettable hour, as the show’s been largely packaged and sold as a soapy exploration of catfights set to a cheekily modern soundtrack (a once-novel approach that’s become staler with every pale imitation since Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette).
But to my surprise, Harlots appears determined to delve into thornier issues of consent, sexual slavery, and the desperate measures women had (and have) to take in order to advance in the world — or even just to sidestep the sporadic demands of powerful men.
Both Quigley and Margaret are, in their own ways, hard-line pragmatists. They both know that having money is just about the only way a woman can guarantee her own independence, and both are willing to do whatever it takes to secure it. But there’s one crucial difference festering between them, namely the nature of how Margaret first came to be under Quigley’s employ years and years ago — when Margaret was just 10 years old. Quigley insists she “took her in” from a mother who sold Margaret for a pair of shoes; Margaret insists that she, a child at the time, was kidnapped.
So, yeah, Quigley tends to get more of a villain edit. But as becomes obvious by the end of the second episode, Margaret learned some of her most effective tricks from Quigley, and has a messy legacy all her own. Their back-and-forth mind games make for some of Harlots’ most gripping scenes, not least because Morton and Manville give their roles their defiant, eyebrow-arching all.
Outside the two brothels, however, Harlots finds itself on much less stable (and less interesting) ground. Brown Findlay and Skinner are both fantastic actors for their parts, but they get lost in a repetitive subplot that sees Charlotte getting drunk and bored while her clingy master screams about fidelity. The series’ tentative jabs at exploring race relations in Georgian England are unfortunately surface-level, at best. And in the grand tradition of sharply funny sidekicks passed over for blander heroines like Lucy, every moment Emily Lacey’s onscreen is another moment I remembered that she isn’t onscreen all the other moments, and what a damn shame that is.
But in spite of its flaws, Harlots is far more addictive and even thoughtful than I initially gave it credit for. It doesn’t shy away from its characters’ more morally horrifying choices, nor the devastating circumstances that led them there. If Harlots keeps this momentum going, it could be a wickedly fun take on the usual macho battle of wills that plagues the TV drama genre. If it doesn’t, it could deflate quicker than the puffed-up male egos begging for validation under Margaret and Quigley’s hard-won roofs.
The series premiere of Harlots is now available to stream on Hulu, with new episodes to be released every Wednesday.