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Harlots throws the biggest moral-quagmire orgy in town

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Harlots

"Episode 4"

Season 1 , Episode 4

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“[S]he is rather above mediocrity in height and size, with fine dark hair, and a pair of bewitching hazel eyes; very agreeable and loving, but she is not so unreasonable as to expect constancy; it is a weak unprofitable quality in a woman, and if she can persuade her husband or keeper that she has it, it is just the same as though she really possessed it.”

Harris’ Guide to Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

For a show as fun as Harlots is, it’s not sugarcoating much. Sure, this episode includes a party at Margaret’s new house—themed like Hell to match Mrs. Scanwell’s preaching (good marketing, you know), and featuring velvet swags, masks, and a goat—at which Margaret’s girls have so much fun that one of Mrs. Quigley’s girls defects to Margaret in the middle of it. But Harlots is also, as always, concerned with rapid-cycle imbalances of power, moral quagmires, and the ongoing tyranny of men.

Lucy isn’t quite at the center of this episode (there’s too much else happening), but the gravity wake of her misery subtly directs everyone else toward the things she’s grappling with. In particular, Emily Lacey hears, “You get these disagreeable experiences because –”. It’s a reminder that Lucy’s ordeal is both a very human reaction to sexual trauma, and a real-time example of the assumed backstory of any given harlot. Being brutalized at the hands of high-class clients too powerful to blacklist is a wretched business, and it’s no wonder she’s having trouble. But was it kinder for Emily? For Kitty? For Charlotte? For Margaret Wells? For Harriet Lennox? And how does a woman grapple with those inevitable traumas without sinking under?

Harriet tries her own bid for control this episode, taking up the life and even getting the better of Lord Repton. That could be seen as subtly blaming Lucy for not being a better actress; certainly Harriet plays along the way Lucy couldn’t bring herself to do, though (the barest suggestion) it’s likely not far removed from the performance of interest Harriet must have given Mr. Lennox. But I suspect this scene’s more likely meant to spotlight the framework that allows Harriet to take this chance; Harlots knows all about safety in numbers. Harriet’s surrounded by people at least marginally concerned with her well-being. Margaret’s bustling house with William standing guard downstairs is distinctly different from that isolated country estate where Lucy was so powerless.

Lucy tries to fight back against that powerlessness, and even scrapes out the brief semblance of a win (even if, for the first ten seconds, I was terrified we were in for a repeat of one of the most excruciating scenes in all of television, Mary Bennet performing at the Netherfield ball). Given that her song’s about opting out of this entire endeavor, it should be freeing. Given that it actually just attracts the attention of the man we know has been raping the women Mrs. Quigley procures, Lucy’s getting perilously close to a lady-supervillain origin story. It’s especially fascinating to watch Margaret handle Lucy with kid gloves amid all this, staunchly refusing to have a conversation that needs having and robbing Lucy of someone to confide in.

That mother-daughter tension is going to have some messy fallout, but of course it is; this is a show well aware of how complex power games can be. Dynamics outside the harlot trade come to bear against it, and dynamics within the trade are on a knife’s edge. Director China Moo-Young frames several scenes with someone in bed while someone else explains brass tacks to them; the vast majority are non-sexual, but the implication is clear: Nothing’s ever free of power, so nothing’s free of sex. But while sex is power, it’s never as simple as that.

In that one moment, Harriet wins. The larger concern is who wins the next moment, and the next: Lord Repton for having the social leeway to do as he pleases? His wife, having a husband whose cruelty doesn’t include jealousy? Harriet for setting herself up to make money doing something she’d already been coerced into with Lennox? Margaret for making a generous cut off a new harlot? The show isn’t here to answer these questions, just to explore them—one of Harlots’ smartest ongoing choices—but it means we never feel certain of anything, and every choice is a potential disaster.

Just look at Charlotte. Her hold on George Howard slips even more this episode; either she’s unconsciously sabotaging things in an attempt to avoid bearing his child, or she’s consciously sabotaging things because she wants out before he takes a permanent turn for the cruel. Either way, it’s telling to watch her resist the urge to apologize until the moment she finally snaps; her building resentment of Howard is a weight she’s been dragging behind her. But Howard’s angry enough to take his frustrations out on Lucy, and for Charlotte, the blunt force of that isn’t his infidelity, or even that Lucy begs her to leave; it’s the shock that Howard’s managed to outmaneuver her. (You can turn the tables for a moment, but after that, who wins?)

All of this feels uneasy, and it’s meant to; the stakes are higher for anyone on their own. (I guess the fact that the Hell-themed orgy is the pleasantly workaday aspect of your episode is as good an encapsulation of Harlots as anything.) When Charlotte and Haxby’s own war of attrition spills over in the episode’s final moments, it’s her last-ditch attempt to end up in charge of something, anything.

We know Charlotte’s well-versed in using sex to gain the upper hand, and it seems even Haxby—previously so beleaguered it was impossible to tell if he yearned for anything but death—isn’t immune. But even here, the tables turn. Their tenuous connection at Mary Cooper’s deathbed was a bitter thing, based on the power struggle between two people with a lot to lose. The sex is much less an outburst of repressed passion than it is an extension of their sniping arguments, each of them trying to prove they’re less vulnerable. The outcome is deliberately unsettling. Jessica Brown-Findlay’s ambiguous breakdown in the hallway’s murky half-light evokes nothing so much as a Gothic thriller; because the balance of power is so delicate, we know what kind of monsters are waiting in the dark.


Stray observations

  • All this jockeying for power could begin to seem a little soulless, and certainly we’re meant to get that impression sometimes; George Howard continues to be the hilarious worst, and Charlotte’s brief respite with Marney gets turned into his harlot business with Lady Repton right there on the table. But Debbie O’Malley sneaks in some affection at the edges. Charlotte offers Lucy some blithe advice (and is the only person Lucy seems comfortable with), and though Charlotte and Marney are still more an idea of two people who like each other than an example of two people who like each other, we’ll take anyone who doesn’t make Charlotte feel like she’s walking on eggshells.
  • Amelia Scanwell, slowly imploding from the ambient stress of being alive, gets probably the most needed burst of affection, with a night off from being caught in her mother and Mrs. Quigley’s power games. Her kiss with Violet is no surprise, and neither is her panic afterward, but her need for connection is palpable. (And the most overtly affectionate thing about that scene isn’t even the kiss—it’s Violet gazing at Amelia as Amelia gently muses that you could solve Hell with a little kindness.)
  • Margaret and William are almost distractingly in synch, exchanging some of the most old-married expressions I’ve ever seen. Honestly, just cast Samantha Morton and Danny Sapani as a married couple in everything. Shakespeare. Ibsen. The Man from UNCLE sequel.
  • Definitely also keep them in Harlots, though. Margaret swinging open the door with hell in her eyes to snap at Mrs. Scanwell is why you cast Samantha Morton for these things.
  • Even supporting players this episode are note-perfect. Hugh Skinner continues the thankless tightrope between laughable and terrifying; Alexa Davies’ Betsey is the world’s sweetest, drowsiest person; Holli Dempsey makes Emily Lacey equally infuriating and sympathetic; Dorothy Atkinson trembles as her convictions are faced with immovable objects; Rosalind Eleazar believably goes from interest to love in twenty seconds flat.
  • Though the show does a fairly good job of redrawing sexual norms to fit the times, it doesn’t skimp on political undertones, from the gleefully bigoted Lennox Esquire to the deliberately anti-abortion-protest feel of Mrs. Scanwell’s preaching outside the den of vice.
  • The show hopes to keep you from drawing facile lines between who’s good and bad—Marie-Louise declining to help Emily because she has her own plans to get out, for example. However, that also highlights a fundamental difference between Margaret and Mrs. Quigley, coincidentally the difference between a church and a cult—one of them lets you leave. (It doesn’t help that Mrs. Quigley is reaching tie-the-damsel-to-the-tracks levels of evil with all this procuring of unsuspecting virgins. Lesley Manville is incredible at giving Mrs. Quigley glimmers of humanity and humor, but she’s on a downward spiral to Disney villain at this rate.)
  • Very interesting beat about Mrs. Quigley’s past—not that she gave up a child (this show knows that children are sometimes beloved offspring and sometimes just an occupational hazard of being a woman in 1763), but that we get the slightly unusual Ye Olde Opinion that a daughter’s of more value than a son. There’s also, if we’re reading into it, a glimmer of fear that what she’s doing to other women may have already happened to her daughter—which itself begs more comparison with Margaret, who knows exactly what’s happened to her daughters, which...well.
  • There’s actually quite a bit of background work here about mothers and children. George Howard pitches the motherhood idea to Charlotte; Kitty has a daughter being raised by her sister; Margaret’s at odds with Lucy in a quiet, regretful way; Mrs. Scanwell fears for her daughter’s future.
  • Lucy’s drop-dead face about Lord Repton was perfect, though so unsubtle it seems surprising neither her mother nor her sister caught it.
  • Come on, Mr. Oswald, this is why you go inside.
  • There’s a difference between frankness and flatness; the show is often very frank, but Ratface the suspiciously-effeminate opportunist saying “I do what I must to survive” felt like overkill. (I am glad to see him getting something else to do, though; his preaching was perfectly pitched to be the most seductive condemnation ever, and though we’re no closer to trusting him, it was nice to see a glimmer of personality.)
  • “Her house sits like a crusting scab over the suppurating boil of hell.” Could be a pullquote from the Le Cinq review, honestly.