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Harlots knows better than to answer its big questions

B+
B+

Harlots

"Episode 2"

Season 1 , Episode 2

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“Many of the post steeds of Venus have been so often hack’d, that they are broken winded, halt in their paces, and are well nigh founder’d, so as to be scarce fit for any thing but brood mares, if they are not too old. There will therefore be full room for Betsy to succeed some of the most eminent, as she is well worthy of the embraces of the first men in the kingdom.”

Harris’ List Of Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

A harlot’s business is precarious stuff. Plenty of the women this episode are able to gain the upper hand over men with a little sex: Charlotte and her baronet, Emily Lacey and young Mr. Quigley, Margaret Wells and Mr. Lennox. But Mrs. Quigley goes to horrible lengths to keep the favor of a judge who feels no compunction to help her; Charlotte’s every move is shadowed (and loudly judged) by Haxby; Mary Cooper’s wretched last days are a reminder to everyone around her that such an end could await any of them.

The episode’s tension comes largely from this immutable truth: The relationships between these women are the lion’s share of their lives, but men wield so much more social power that it can be impossible to slip out from under it. The central question it raises: How do you live under that hanging sword?

Wisely, there’s no immediate answer. It would be so easy to have Harlots be a story that fetishized tragedy, or one in which the women looked to men to lift them from their predicaments. (Lucy’s young stablehand would become her hero; Mr. Lennox would come back for the woman he left behind and throw her into turmoil with an offer to take her away from it all.) Instead, we get a much more satisfying narrative in which pragmatism becomes the operative word, and the women wading through the mess of feelings in the middle of it resist an easy reading. Even in her final hours, Mary Cooper’s sneering at anyone who would dare judge her, and demanding tuppence for the privilege of getting a last go; none of them are much interested in pity.

And for a show in which people are constantly using one another’s full names in a comic-book bid for dominance, that’s got some real weight. In the same way Harlots avoids making the business of sex look sexy (the closest we’ve gotten is a little old-time’s-sake kissing between Margaret and Mr. Lennox), it avoids exploiting tragedy. Throwing pee into the streets is one of those The Past Was Awful shortcuts that never quite loses its power, but this thread of pragmatism suggests the trauma of a woman’s life isn’t fundamentally different. It’s certainly awful—and eventually, somehow, one acclimates.

There’s still room for shock and tragedy: the abduction, rape, and sale of a young woman gets rightly played for horror in real time. But for Kitty, her rape at the hands of her father’s friend has faded, and is now unpleasant backstory (and, perhaps, the catalyst of her current circumstances) as she tries to make the most of things. Betsey, last episode, was the ill-used touchstone of minor tragedy; this episode, she laughingly refuses censure and condescending goodwill from the neighborhood shame squad.

It’s this sense of interior life that gives the show its center. The women, objectively speaking, are often out of control—having to entertain a potential investor’s wretched son, losing their earnings in paying for their keep, having to juggle the restriction of signing a contract with the dangers of lacking a long-term protector. But they never lose the narrative; even if they’re powerless, the sense of internal monologue makes all the difference.

That’s also likely why the show seems fairly patient about sowing seeds beneath the frenetic goings-on—we trust it to get where it’s going. (Those longing glances between Violet and the puritan’s daughter are going somewhere eventually; we don’t have to worry about it right now.) And things are so generally believably tangled that double-selling Lucy’s virginity feels like the first pitfall that’s avoidable. Though she doesn’t know things went poorly between him and Lucy, Margaret has to know that the situation with George Howard is precarious on other levels. One can only imagine the potential fallout if he thinks he’s been duped or insulted by Charlotte’s family.

After the pitch-perfect camp-to-drama ratio of the pilot, it’s clear things are being pitched a little more seriously as we settle in; given how this episode falls out, even the Dame Death beats feel more pointed than they do campy. Honestly, I don’t know if the show’s earned that Gangs Of New York-intensity standoff between the Quigley contingent and Team Margaret Wells yet. But there’s enough nuance elsewhere that the occasional splash page is refreshing; after an episode full of harsh truths, we get to sit back and enjoy everybody crowding around to stare aggressively. And given how far things have already gone, I have no idea what’s next—and that’s probably half the fun.

Stray observations

  • Well, those credits sure are a thing that exist.
  • On the other hand, it’s a more-than-fair trade for the improvement in the score, which is now about 80% less obtrusive.
  • Director Coky Giedroyc is very good at kinetic cameras for what could be tableaux; there’s a sense of inertia in the way the camera moves—a morbid curiosity that follows its characters through crowded streets or pans across a figure and forces us to consider the whole. However, one of the smartest choices this episode was how often we get a few frames at the end of a beat when a character is reacting in a way no one else sees. It does wonders to build characterization in a busy episode; quite a bit of Danny Sapani’s performance in this episode happens in these sidelong moments, but several others benefit from having a moment or two for things to hit them.
  • And though everybody in this whole cast is going for broke, none are going broker than Hugh Skinner, who skids into every scene like his life depends on it.
  • However, him absenting himself leaves room for a fascinating dynamic between Charlotte and Haxby, who dislike each other but find themselves sharing the sort of things that are hard to ignore, whether a deathbed vigil or Charlotte’s moment of connection with her forbidden fellow. Neither thing brings Charlotte and Haxby closer to friendship, but they also can’t pretend things aren’t different between them now; they’re both too pragmatic for that.
  • Feel like “Then it wasn’t an error until after” is going to be a theme of the season.
  • Mrs. Quigley’s standard practice has some parallels to contemporary modeling-agency methods.
  • Quigley’s girls have their own rooms, Margaret’s girls their own beds. Nancy’s girls share one.
  • Related: I’m curious about the logistics of inviting Betsey and Violet over as part of the sales-pitch presentation of the ladies who would be moving into the finer house. Are they one-time guest stars, or is Margaret planning to subcontract them?
  • In another of those touches that would suggest the show is run by women even if you didn’t know it going in, Mrs. Quigley’s Dickensian procurement of the young maid is ominous enough that we don’t need to see it to know how awful it is. Mrs. Quigley’s own fleeting moment of disgust in the aftermath is enough.
  • There’s always a particular energy to a wake when most of the attendees feel guilty and try to beat Death from the doorstep, and this episode did a great job with it.
  • Emily Lacey is really lucky that episode cut to black before anyone from her old digs could call her out, I guess.
  • I’m not entirely sure how I feel about what we’ve seen so far of Mrs. Lennox; given her situation, there’s a lot to unpack about race, class, and marriage, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of her.
  • I continue to enjoy these costumes deeply. The parade of terrified pastel women in Mrs. Quigley’s is a delight.
  • It’s early in the season yet, but I’m feeling fairly confident that I’d watch Danny Sapani and Samantha Morton do pretty much anything together.