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Harlots goes for broke (again) in a breathless finale

Image: Liam Daniel (Hulu)
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If Harlots has a prevailing aesthetic, it’s chaos.

It’s a show obsessed with the workings of power—how it behooves those who have the most of it to keep everyone else fighting for the scraps, and what that battle royale looks like. With no real protections, you’re only as powerful as your biggest patron, and you’re only as safe as your secrets. That’s a setup for relentless stakes, and the show’s initial mob-drama architecture gave way to a frantic intensity that’s churned through so much plot one is honestly at a loss to comb through it. (The debtors’-prison switcheroo that leads to a drugged tag-team stabbing of the show’s biggest villain was somehow only the second or third most compelling subplot of the finale. Just the finale.)

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The result can be staggeringly fun. The show teems with actors having the time of their lives roaring out one another’s full names, city streets with a triple-cross around every corner, a gleefully anachronistic score, and poisonously vibrant costumes. Though the show glosses over plenty about sex work, none of that veneer is romance; there’s love to be had elsewhere, but overall the sex work on Harlots carries the same emotional investment and rush-hour toil as an opening shift at Starbucks. And though the primary relationships are familial, the show includes any and all definitions of the word. You don’t stand a chance without a little found family at your back, and seeing chaos turn into triumph, even for a moment, makes the scramble worth watching.

Still, even a show that feels like a narrative free-for-all can deliver a shocker. This season, it was Charlotte Wells.

It’s hardly the first time a character has vanished from Harlots; this is a London from which people routinely disappear. Some die: farewell, Kitty. Some make sense: Marie-Louise was a delight but hardly pivotal. Some have reason, up to a point: Prince Rasselas is wisely hiding from the Marquess of Blayne, though with a major molly-house plot his absence seems pointed. Other absences, regardless of offscreen logistics, leave a gap. (The Scanwells, Violet, and Josiah Hunt vanished from Harlots so wholesale they were apparently erased from the entire space-time continuum. Not a soul in this London remembers them now.)

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Charlotte was a central character, clinging to a moral compass long after Margaret Wells had given it up in trade for the promise of a future, and able to inspire loyalty in everyone around her. But she was also doomed; according to producer and co-creator Moira Buffini, Jessica Brown Findlay had signed another project before a third season was greenlit. Planning an exit for a character like that is tricky, even before Margaret Wells (shuttled off to America in secret last season) took up the Miraculous Disappearance/Reappearance square of Narrative Funhouse Bingo and narrowed the remaining options. And enough time was given to Charlotte’s growing connections and obligations in London–the house in Greek Street, Isabella, Lucy–that she could outmaneuver the Pincher brothers just by going through her Rolodex. Her dream of America seemed very far away, even when she spoke of it at the boxing match; it makes a certain sense that the only way she’d leave her girls now was in a coffin.

However, that looming farewell made for a wobbly front half of the season. Buffini may have said “We didn’t want a malicious murder at the hands of some two-dimensional psycho,” but pimp and inexplicable hookup Isaac Pincher couldn’t be any better described. It didn’t help that Charlotte and Isabella were touted in promo posts as a fully-fledged romantic couple; though their actual scenes suggested something harder to define, by killing off Charlotte, Harlots was approaching a bury-your-gays horizon that can be tough to navigate. (Nudging a grieving Nancy toward Isabella as if to secure some lesbian attraction onscreen...did not help.)

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But in the same episode where Isabella held a touching sendoff for Charlotte Wells—and those near and dear to her buckled under their grief—Lydia Quigley placidly watched Mrs. May choke to death on a fish bone. It was a grim beat that foregrounded how easy death is, a nihilistic twist of the knife to underscore the show’s darkest impulses; if a loss left you feeling that nothing mattered any more, then you might as well kill your stepmom and start over.

And sure enough, in the wake of Charlotte’s death, the show went for broke.

In the end, the setup for her death may have been more painful than her actual departure. Charlotte’s relationship with Isaac Pincher seemed so out of character it feels like we lost her before we actually lost her. And some of the new arrivals never quite came into focus. Kate, even with her rise under the tutelage of Lydia Quigley, isn’t as interesting as she could be. (Her place in the season improves after her moral compass and work skills align, and she wrings a little oblige out of her new noblesse.) And the molly-house crew don’t really get enough time to be interesting amid the quota of plot they have to move.

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But Charlotte’s death (and Margaret’s farewell after a truly wretched visit home) left some room. William North—the only reliable man in England—may have benefited most from the extra space, but in the vacuum left behind by The Vanishing Wellses, Nancy Birch got to grieve what she’d lost, and tertiary characters like Anne Pettifer and Cherry got a bit to do. Even Fanny, so reliable as to be overlooked, got some beats in Greek Street while everyone else in London raced back and forth threatening to kill each other.

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And those small moments are all to the good; the thing that prevents the over-the-top moments from dragging the show off the rails is the relationships that feel lived-in. By now Will North is as much a partner to Nancy Birch as Margaret Wells, not because of any romance, but because of the shorthand that comes from long acquaintance. (Ditto Will North and Harriet, whose crush on him has mellowed into a more nuanced understanding.) There’s even a certain intimacy with one’s enemies, enough that when Mrs. Harvey blithely notes Lydia Quigley doesn’t worry her, it’s startling to realize someone in London doesn’t know how Lydia Quigley works.

This familiarity does some particularly heavy lifting for characters whose pragmatism makes them hard to predict. Lydia Quigley, of course; though she has the occasional agonizing pang of conscience, she’s under no illusions about what it takes to hold on to your fishbone inheritance. One powerful man is enough to ruin you. (The glorious bitterness of Lesley Manville perking out “I help men. That is my calling in life” through clenched teeth feels as close to a thesis statement as Harlots can get.) But Emily Lacey has always been one of the most consistently precarious characters, and watching her struggle into legitimate business only to get mired in an abusive relationship made for genuine suspense. No one ever knows if Emily Lacey’s going to show up until the chips are down, including Emily Lacey.

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But the least suspenseful pairing of the season might be the most fun. Lucy Wells has been adrift since the beginning, and her liaison last season with London’s biggest edgelord cemented her separation from the girls. She still found affection in the family circlet, but she wasn’t one of them—not a bawd, and trying not to be a harlot, either. Mythologically speaking, she was pretty much fated to end up parallel with Lydia Quigley somehow, purely as the Last Surviving Wells. But there’s a tragic camaraderie in their mutual burnout disdain: for men, for the order of things, for Kate, for each other. Lucy Wells might be the only person Lydia Quigley can trust; after everyone who ever professed to love her has left, someone who will help her stab a man and doesn’t much care about all the drugging beforehand is the best she can do. She’s a pragmatist; this is close enough to redemption for her.

The finale has all the trappings of a series wrap; enemies dead, Fanny running the house, a sympathetic lawman or two, Nancy Birch and Will North trying to move on, Emily Lacey wriggling out of another impossibly tight spot, and Lucy and Lydia toasting each other from what might be the drugged carafe, because why not.

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Some moments that were meant to feel triumphant didn’t quite. (I enjoy a case study of a powerful man punishing a scapegoat to avoid systemic change as much as the next person, but Blayne’s royal comeuppance reads a bit like Stuart Knox’s unwavering support—better than the alternative, but not really earned, either.) And it’s an almost aggressively upbeat ending, as if to make up for the death in its center. But Charlotte didn’t feel forgotten (certainly her memory burned more brightly than any other characters who vanished this season). And the grim glee with which the show powered on with old friends, new alliances, strange bedfellows, and second chances is the most Harlots thing it could do.


Stray observations

  • It’s impossible to say enough good things about the costumes, in terms of historical accuracy and storytelling. Charlotte’s wardrobe went positively queenly once she was in charge of Greek Street, Emily Lacey spent the season in a cacophony of nouveau-respectable gowns, and Fanny got a power-suit equivalent of her sunny yellow in time for her promotion. They’re a visual glossary—women rent their dresses from their bawds, and the economics of beauty are everywhere. Lucy’s menswear carries such an erotic charge to the men who see it because of what’s missing as much as what’s there; Harriet and her girls deliberately trade in “exotic” details to highlight their brand. And none of this sacrifices the practicalities of clothing-as-wardrobe. (Two great examples here and here.)
  • This show’s great at surprising you with minor characters realizing that a little help at the right time counts as heroism. In the first season, the brand-new Widow Howard keep’s Charlotte’s head on her shoulders; this season, Lady Letson finds Will North at a crucial moment with information about Harriet’s kidnapping. Turns out even the furniture can do something about injustice.
  • Most phonetically satisfying line of the season, based on the relish with which it was delivered: a tie between “You’re like a powdered wasp” and “Before you come at me like a cat in a sack”.
  • Honestly, the whole cast attacks the dialogue on this show with gusto. Harlots simultaneously demands grounded characterization and total over-the-top bullshit, and nearly everyone has threaded that needle, which seems worthy of note.
  • Given some “series wrap” posts from actors, we’ll assume this is it. That might be just as well—as much as I’d love to find out where Will North’s burgeoning career as a statesman/vigilante could go, another season without the two Wells women might just highlight how much they’d be missed. But when this show was firing, it was hilarious, stressful, impeccably dressed, and full of the righteous anger of fighting alongside the people you love against seemingly-impossible odds. And every time you say someone’s full name unnecessarily, you’re keeping the spirit alive.
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