Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The devil’s in the details in a merciless Harlots

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Although Mrs. H—w—rd cannot be more than twenty-six, she has been a true sportswoman, at the cyprian games, for at least twelve years…At Brighton, this last season, she was the favourite girl at Mrs.John—n’s, and had she not, through a foolish fondness, gave the preference to her dear Mr. Sn—m, it is in general believed Mr. W——, the capital Brewer, would have taken her under his own protection…”

Harris’ List Of Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

Despite Harlots snapping back and forth between a handful of plots, the emphasis on character means it feels less like over-pacing and more like the show’s continually whetting our appetites. Take the confrontation between Margaret Wells and Mrs. Quigley, which goes very differently than the first time they crossed paths, when Margaret was shouting in the opera lobby. It begs questions about how Margaret ever broke free and just how badly that kidnap case went for Mrs. Quigley, given her violent reaction about it. But we don’t need to know now; honestly, Samantha Morton and Lesley Manville do such a good job talking around the aftermath of it that we might not ever need to know.


The whole cast operates under that principle, with everybody making the most of ninety seconds at a time. The winner this week might be Ben Lambert as Lord Fallon, whose hand-feeding of a horrified Lucy is one of the most hilariously repugnant scenes this show has ever given us. (There’s been plenty of groundwork laid for him being a monster thanks to Mrs. Quigley’s procurements, but honestly, given that scene alone you could tell me he’s killed fifty women and I’d believe you.)

But there’s always a margin for character work, either at the edge of the frame (Alexa Davies’ Betsey), or at the edge of the narrative, and it’s remarkable how much breathing room it gives these otherwise busy scenes. We knew Violet and Amelia would grow closer, but there’s unexpected satisfaction when Quigley’s spy assures Amelia of his secrecy—not because we believe it (that promise, like anything else, is up for grabs), but because that beat of secrecy deepens him, and underscores that despite London’s sprawl, this is a small community with odd connections. It whets our appetites.

And honestly, it’s nice to have these moments as contrast to the rest of the episode, in which Charlotte and Emily Lacey run up against the limits of mercy.

It’s a bit of a shock that Margaret turns Emily away, though to some degree, it’s understandable—Margaret just got the shouty preacher off her doorstep, and isn’t going to risk a fragile truce by taking back the girl who bailed. But the past few episodes have shown us a magnanimous Mrs. Wells who resents Mrs. Quigley’s cruelty and creates a much more welcoming atmosphere for her girls. (She doesn’t even put locks on the outside of the doors!) To have her so bluntly tell Emily “You made your choice” and send her back onto the street with a handful of coins feels more personally cruel than anything else we’ve seen from her.

It’s especially interesting considering that Emily Lacey is so much like Margaret. Sure, she can tip from desperate circumstances to being counter-intuitive for the sake of moving her plot forward. (It’s no surprise she clings to her pride, but calling Nancy Birch a “rancid troll” while turning down her charity seems like a bit of a stretch.) But beyond the momentary plot conveniences, Emily has several parallels with Margaret: intelligence, skill as a harlot, a short temper, ambition, and the ability to nurse a grudge. It will be interesting to see how Emily takes this snub; she’s not the sort to let that kind of thing go.

Charlotte has also inherited plenty from her mother; when she goes on the hunt for a new protector, we see her skipping over her more effusive efforts and taking a cue from Margaret about how to make a rich man feel enchanted. But in a show so perceptive about power, we understand the pressure of needing a safe haven before she can jump. Things are so bad she even tries to charm the Reptons—though, no surprise, she runs up against the limits of their mercy almost as soon as she walks in the door. (Charlotte’s queasy breathing as she steels herself to go inside their house is possibly the best beat from Jessica Brown Findlay so far.)


Her hunt for a keeper sinks into a gentle freefall that reminds us how little separates Charlotte from Emily Lacey; neither of them can survive alone. And though Charlotte can swan into the coffee house with more freedom than a genteel wife might, she’s as caught by ownership as any of the society women at that silent dinner party. George Howard is a shoe waiting to drop, and she was never going to get away clean.

Charlotte and Haxby’s sniping feels like the episode’s big contrivance—their first conversation since, while Charlotte’s trying to sneak away for good, and they instantly referenced The Event?—but it also has the sense of inevitability you get from a nightmare. Howard was always going to find out; he was always going to assert himself by forcing her. We saw that instinct to a lesser degree with Lucy, but this episode spares us nothing. Director China Moo-Young splits their perspectives to a disorienting degree: Howard stares down at Charlotte while he rapes her like she’s an empty dress on the bedspread; Charlotte’s perspective gives us a Howard who’s so horrifyingly present his face is the only thing in the frame.


It’s so horrible that when Charlotte describes it, even that society dinner party takes offense. But though Howard’s self-satisfaction is obscene (Hugh Skinner also spares us nothing—George is simultaneously pitiful and disgusting), and we’d like nothing more than for him to get comeuppance, we already doubt it. He might get scolded about “bad form” from his friends, but he also still has his social standing and his wife’s money. Charlotte’s getaway is a hollow victory. She has nothing but the clothes on her back; with no protector on deck, there’s nothing left to do but throw herself on her mother’s mercy. And right now, we don’t know what that means.

Stray observations

  • Honestly, if Lucy doesn’t murder someone by the end of the season I’ll be surprised.
  • It’s always great to watch the many faces of Margaret Wells; benevolent but pragmatic madam, loving partner, world’s most shameless stage mom, and some glimpses of the girl she must have been at Mrs. Quigley’s in order to survive it. (We see that one with Mrs. Quigley and Lord Fallon, both people who must be handled carefully.)
  • “You overreach yourself.” “You underestimate me. You always have.” Splitting the difference between mob drama and comic book down to the hair.
  • “And wasn’t it exhilarating? There’s no shame in coming back for more.” George Howard, the parsnip-emulsion smear on the dinner plate of life.
  • Jordon Stevens had a perfect, compressed downward spiral of gay panic during that Psalm, from “lips” right into perdition.
  • It’s very easy to dismiss Mrs. Quigley’s subplot right now, since it’s the show’s two campiest elements that work together poorly. The virgin-procurement has now slid into accessory to murder, which is dark stuff; Charles, in general, is a male-privilege punchline whose closeness with Mrs. Quigley has been vaguely queasy comic relief. Lesley Manville expertly navigates all this (she can dial from 8 to 11 and back in the space of a few sentences), but I didn’t realize until Charles woke up that I hadn’t even considered he might die. I love her building anger as she realizes her moral compromises have availed her nothing, but getting us invested in the Quigley family dynamics is going to be an uphill battle.
  • I love the colors of Margaret’s new establishment; the sea-blue hallway, the deep warm walls in the rooms that are closer to the heart of the house.
  • I can’t believe they let that goat hang around so long after the orgy.