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

The door-slamming intensifies on Harlots’ ambitiously stagey finale

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We must now bid adieu to our courteous reader, and wish him every success that youth, health, love, and wine can possibly inspire him with…and not to be displeas’d if they find the same ladies in this list that appear’d before in other names…and hope that the attention that is now paid to the procuring the best and most respectable, will wipe off every other blot.

We likewise take leave of the ladies, and are particularly happy to think that what was formerly seen in the eyes of our world a disgrace, is now considered pleasing, delightful, and honourable.

Harris’ List Of Covent Garden Ladies, 1788

Harlots began with Harris’ List Of Covent Garden Ladies to introduce its cast of dozens. But it also served as an introduction to the season itself. This is a show obsessed with the interplay between systems of power and how that power is exercised, whether climbing to the top of your profession, being commodified by a catalog, or getting a judge stabbed just because he made you mad.


Harlots has explored these ideas through a balance of character study and camp. And though things haven’t been perfect, they have been remarkably successful. It managed to be a show about sex workers that wasn’t about sex, and a mob drama that refuses to lionize male power. There’s been enough breathless plot turbulence that we forgive the near misses, and enough attention to character that we buy the grander gestures.

And turns out that’s just as well, since this episode has several; there are a lot of subplots that need wrapping up (and some stills that suggest even more of them got edged out). Emily Lacey finally learns from Margaret Wells and blackmails Lydia Quigley with kidnap—and she isn’t even the biggest leap. Harriet and William take back Harriet’s children with a single pub standoff; a single appeal to Widow Caroline is enough to neutralize Haxby and save Daniel Marney.

It would seem like too much, except that Harlots makes the most of its theatricality. The performances are perfectly pitched halfway between the camera lens and the cheap seats, and director Jill Robertson frames several scenes with nearly-static figures in close quarters, as if lifted out of 18th-century woodcuts about Sinful Life. And the door-slamming farce gets grounded because of the show’s focus on how small worlds work. A lot of shows give you the sense we’re following these characters because logistics don’t allow for anything wider. Half the point of Harlots is the double-edged sword of being insular: you can make fast friends, but you can never escape your enemies, either. That poisonous intimacy we saw between Charlotte and a dying George Howard is, in its own way, the same rot at the center of the enmity between Margaret and Mrs. Quigley—and that familiarity-hatred becomes the fulcrum Charlotte uses to break with her mother and lever herself into Quigley’s good graces.

This sort of intimacy has also proven the only way to really push back against systemic power. One corrupt Justice has more actionable power than every woman on the show combined; he can quash investigations, frame people for murder, and placate a group of murderous nobles with impunity. But the intimacy that exists between a consummate customer-service rep and a fastidious client can be greater still; Quigley sets up the Justice’s murder over a single hand of cards.

Margaret has no such access to power, and one of the biggest questions coming into this finale was whether power or family would matter to her more when the time came. That the Justice offers her both means that the stretch of time between Margaret getting Amelia alone and telling her not to drink the drugged tea stretches for approximately forty years. (Margaret Wells is a fantastically written antihero; it was entirely plausible she would cave and admit it all and force the Justice’s comeuppance, and it was entirely plausible she’d sell out Amelia to get a step closer to what she wants. Samantha Morton’s ability to make stillness dreadful is perfectly suited to this sort of ambivalence.)

The other biggest question: What on earth will Charlotte do? The answer for the first 80% of this episode is ‘Make everybody question her critical thinking skills’; in the last 20%, the answer is ‘Reminding us that generational violence is inherent to mob drama.’ That doesn’t make her anger at Margaret less genuine—Jessica Brown Findlay’s raw hurt leaves no room for mistake on that score. And watching Charlotte turn the full force of her power on Lydia Quigley (who lets herself be enchanted, because wouldn’t you?) illuminates exactly how much better equipped she is to exact revenge than Emily Lacey would have been, or even Margaret. She’s the queen of pretend, and when she says she has what it takes to bring Quigley down, we believe her.


But Charlotte’s rejection of Marney actually feels more pointed. It’s the subtext of several of the season’s more sinister threads: Under the pressure of necessity, lofty intentions get twisted into survival stakes. It’s how family loyalty turns into a mother protecting her weaker child at the expense of the stronger one. It’s how dreams of financial independence from a rich keeper turns into George Howard. It’s how “I am a widow, and I suffer no man’s guidance now” becomes “I am not to love or be loved.” It’s more ominous than the threat of revenge; Harlots doesn’t care much about sex, but it’s practically a treatise on how crucial love, of any kind, is to survival. Being with someone who sees her as a person and not a commodity was a luxury Charlotte can no longer risk; she’ll try to go without, but we can already guess how that will go.

We actually end up guessing how a lot of things will go; for an episode that rushes to wrap as many subplots as possible, it seeds a lot for next season. Beyond that mob-drama montage of Charlotte’s infiltration, Amelia and Violet’s barely-secret affair, and Emily Lacey as the new bawd in town (inevitably out to take a bite out of everyone else’s custom), we get hints of a jealous Harriet, a besotted Betsey, and an uneasy Kitty, all of which would provide plenty of plot-twist fodder. Whether we get another season is currently up in the air. Whether it deserves one is easy. TV still needs an old-fashioned door-slamming farce with newfangled approaches to power: pleasing, delightful, and honourable.


Stray observations

  • Few other shows could get away with characters routinely yelling one another’s full names as casually as this one does.
  • I recognize I have a bias about Margaret and William’s relationship, but if there is a second season, I hope they let these early sparks of a love triangle fizzle. Margaret and William can implode perfectly well on their own; making Harriet an envious outsider feels like kind of a loaded position.
  • Another thing a second season would have to sell me on: Lucy. She was always in danger of being the show’s default Victimization Macguffin, and Eloise Smyth has done her level best, but the arc has had mixed results. The show more or less sold the origin story of Lucy the Don’t-Touch-Me Stabber of Greek Street; it’s sold it so well, in fact, it seems weird a little dominatrix play has actually given her closure. (Season finale-itis strikes again!)
  • That beat when Amelia and Prince Rasselas have to pretend they didn’t notice Margaret leaning on a pillar right in front of them until Mrs. Scanwell does was one of the stagiest moments this show has given us, which is saying something.
  • This show is so deeply attuned to the politics of clothes. Lord Fallon gets to lounge in bed in exquisite dishabille, his stockings so translucent they seem somehow obscene, dictating terms to the tucked-and-buttoned Justice. Charlotte’s meringue sacque-back is so pointedly a copy of Quigley’s own look that it’s tactical camouflage.
  • It’s been a pleasure recapping this season. Thank you so much for reading!