Narratives exploring the lives of sex workers are typically rife with tropes and provide audiences with superficial characters written to either inspire lust or sympathy. The perspectives of these characters are muted in despair, their world devoid of joy, and their humanity defined by gratuitous sex scenes. There is no substance to these characters, and they serve as either hyper sexual peripheral caricatures or poor shrinking violets caught up in a bad situation in need of saving.
Harlots could have been that show. It could have been a show with women lacking agency. It could have been all about beautiful bodies and over the top sex scenes. Fortunately, Harlots avoids these tropes and manages to deliver a narrative filled with real life characters who find joy, sorrow, and ambition in their daily lives. This isn’t a show about sex per se, but more about the realities of women and their families trying to survive in 18th century London. Trigger Warning before you read further, the show does feature sexual violence.
Harlots stars Samantha Morton (Minority Report) as the tough-minded madam, Margaret Wells who wants nothing more than to run her rival, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), out of town. Quigley is the series’ main antagonist with powerful ties to the higher echelons of society and a moral compass that is, well, non-existent. The series follows the two women as they battle it out in the streets and bedrooms of London. While their motivations and dislike of each other are as layered and complex as a petticoat, Wells and Quigley’s desire to survive in a society where women were beholden to their husbands and social standing, serves as the narrative bedrock for the series.
While Wells and Quigley’s tumultuous relationship serves as one of the main driving forces of the series, Harlots is largely about Wells’ desire to ensure her family’s financial future. As she strives for financial stability, Wells tries her best to protect the women in her employ from a world that is just as likely to hang them as it is to pay for their services. Wells recognizes the precarious line she and her family must walk to survive and is hell bent on making it. In her words, “This city is made of our flesh – every beam, every brick. We’ll get our share.”
A savvy business woman with a strong sense of family, Wells is especially protective of her daughters who happen to take part in the family business. Her daughters, played by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findley (Charlotte Wells) and Elois Smyth (Lucy Wells), work as high-end prostitutes and are fiercely loyal to their mother. They support Margaret and understand the hard decisions she’s had to make over the years to ensure their success. This doesn’t mean their relationship with the business and their mother isn’t problematic. Between having one sister’s virginity auctioned off to the highest bidder to finance the relocation of their brothel to the other daughter’s struggle to navigate life as a kept woman, the Wells sisters’ lives are the very definition of complicated.
Regarding representation in 18th century London, Harlots does an ok good job (Asian representation is lacking, as is Middle Eastern). The series features several Black characters, an LGBTQ supporting protagonist, and tackles issues pertaining to sexuality, religion, American Slavery, and physical abuse. This inclusive show happens to be diverse while other period pieces seem devoid of PoC. While this is refreshing, one can’t help but think this inclusion happened because the show is about prostitution. Hopefully, this is not the case and the writers were simply trying to accurately portray the diversity of 18th Century London.
Though this is a show about women, it is important that the character of William North (Danny Sapani) be mentioned. At first, it seemed rather stereotypical to have a Black man as the lover of Margaret Wells as this depiction could have played into the “black pimp” trope. However, North is the farthest thing from being a pimp, and Sapani delivers a character that provides a perspective that is much needed regarding Black people in period pieces. His character North is a free man, and though the circumstances of his life have yet to be fleshed out in the show, it is refreshing that he does not function in a “magical negro” capacity. For the most part, he is his own person, and though there are some moments where his relationship with Wells is hard to watch, Sapani does an excellent job playing a father, lover, and confidant.
The other characters on the show consist of strong women (both black and white, queer and straight) that challenge the social hierarchy of a society that is ruled by cis, heteronormative white males. Though some of these characters require further development as the series progresses, it seems promising that their perspectives and experiences as citizens of 18th Century London will partially be explored in future seasons (Harlots was renewed for a second season).
For all those folks that live for historical period dramas, Harlots is sprinkled with all the trappings that fans of the genre live for. From the costumes and makeup to the set designs; Harlots does an excellent job of portraying the time period. (Despite the high quality of the show, it does have a modern sound track that can break immersion.)
All in all, Harlots is fascinating to watch and the development of its characters, especially that of Margaret Wells, provides an addictive and binge worthy television experience. Harlots is definitely worth a watch.
The entire first season is available on Hulu with a second season set to premiere in 2018.
Jahkotta Lewis is a professional archaeologist, an amateur astronomer, and a part-time writer. When she is not documenting Pacific Island archaeology, she spends her days hiking through native forests, spelunking within the depths of an active volcano, and watching/reading all things fantasy and science fiction. Follow her on Twitter @jahkotta