Harlots - Season 2
“British history is much more diverse than TV would have us think. Thankfully, the writers of Harlots seem happy to rectify this.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 2
Creators: Moira Buffini 👩🏼🇬🇧 and Alison Newman 👩🏼🇬🇧
Writers: Moira Buffini 👩🏼🇬🇧 (3 eps), Cat Jones 👩🏼🇬🇧 (2 eps), Jane English 👩🏼🇬🇧 (2 eps), and Emer Kenny 👩🏼🇬🇧 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Read the Season 1 review here.
Last year, Season 1 of Harlots drunkenly careened onto Hulu, resplendent in Georgian finery that hid dark and feminist subject matter beneath its layered skirts. It had something to prove—and succeeded admirably, if unevenly. Meanwhile, Season 2 sleeps off the party and wakes up more focused than ever. The show’s claim to fame is the frank tackling of sex work in 1700s London, glammed up through beautiful costume and made doubly enticing through wily political drama. Within this luscious world, showrunners Moira Buffini and Alison Newman draw clear parallels between to the atrocities that faced women then and that continue to face women now. Specifically, they examine the war that men wage on womens’ bodies.
With its tighter storyline, more cohesive soundtrack, and extra time spent on character development, Harlots settles into itself. The result is a dazzling new stretch of 8 episodes that had me hooked from start to finish, and I was particularly happy with the show's pivot away from human tragedies—like the sale of a daughter’s virginity to the highest bidder—towards intricate plots that start to tackle systemic misogyny from a deeper standpoint.
However, as cathartic as it is to enjoy the fantasy of reclaiming our bodies from power-mad men and enablers such as this season’s prime villainess, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), it's precisely the feeling of giddy wish-fulfillment that keeps Harlots relegated to entertainment and social commentary more than art. Not that I think a show has to take itself too seriously—but as the saying goes, less is more. The show does pare back from its boisterous beginnings, but even more nuance could transform Harlots into a show that marches to a feminist heartbeat rather than one that wears its agenda on its satin sleeves.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Harlots is one of the most overtly feminist shows on television right now, and it certainly walks the walk. Better yet, it’s grown more intersectional in its second foray as casting ranges between women of different income levels, ages, ethnicities, and sexualities.
Since women dominate the cast, female relationships are truly at the fore. We’re treated to deliciously combative vitriol between women like the lead characters of Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley. In fact, the vast majority of women in Season 2 have personal vendettas against Quigley. Still, their theatrical animosities are balanced by the plethora of loving and supportive relationships, such as those that bind Margaret’s daughters together; the fire-forged understanding between fellow sex workers; or the self-sacrificing love by mothers for their daughters.
Between the two extremes, writers happily paint in female relationships of all stripes. Alliances form and switch with breathless speed. Loyalties to different brothel houses change just as quickly. The sheer amount of spying or double-crossing is a joyous riot to keep track of, and above all: Harlots spoils us for sheer breadth of complex women.
Season 1 already began as one of the few programs on television to remember that black people existed in London before the 21st century. Last year, our reviewer wrote: “If we’re treated to a second season of Harlots, I hope the writers go even further with developing these narrative threads.” I'm glad to report that they have!
Season 1 characters included Margaret’s love interest William North (Danny Sapani), their biracial son Jacob Wells North (Jordan A. Nash), Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner) who was brought over from America as an ex-slave, and local sex worker Violet Cross (Rosalind Eleazar) who was inspired by a real black woman. All of them thankfully remain on scene, and new additions to the cast boast a refreshing diversity of backstories and, importantly, skin tones. Noah (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) plays an ex-soldier who fought the French, and he enjoys a small story arc that transforms him from a belligerent tavern fixture into a helpful ally of the newly-minted madam, Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey).
Another addition to the Lacey house is Nell, previously a “tavern whore” (as Lacey puts it) and someone who is happy to do what's in her best interests. It’s wonderful to see the writers recognize how race can play into identity. Neither Nell nor Harriet are particularly caught up in personal vendettas against Quigley or the other houses. As different as the two black women are in country of origin, education levels, and life experiences, they both exhibit the stone-cold pragmatism of women who know they must play the longer game—who know that white women may be temporary allies but can never be fully trusted. They live by their own moral code, and while they may sometimes throw their weight behind unsavory sorts, they do so in order to survive.
Overall, racial diversity feels truly prioritized and considered in Season 2, but at its heart the show focuses on the powder keg of power dynamics between white women and white men—or between white women, as they vie for scraps the patriarchy leaves them. But the effort (and payoff) is clear: in the Lacey house alone, three of her four employees are black. They called themselves the “House of Exotics”, a moniker that the moronic son of Quigley coins, but one that the black characters adopt and use to their advantage. Late in the season, we see hints that Nell, Harriet, and the ex-soldier Noah might break off on their own as one of the rare black- and woman-owned businesses of the era. If the show is serious about following this thread, I'll be there to watch their journey with rapt attention in Season 3.
Similar to the category of race, Harlots remains centered on straight and cis characters but does improve on LGBTQ representation, adding Liv Tyler as the trapped gentlewoman Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam who finds herself enamored with Charlotte Wells.
The show deepens its existing LGBTQ characters as well. The gay sex worker Prince Rasselas (Josef Altin) grows from someone who was merely Quigley's lackey into a man who starts to think for himself, even endangering his own life in order to do what’s right. He never becomes a major player, but his character does become more complex and sympathetic. This is helped by interactions with a variety of characters: not only is he a pawn to use by either Margaret Wells or Lydia Quigley, he's also an unlikely friend of innocent lamb Amelia Scanwell (Jordon Stevens).
Speaking of Amelia, it's her relationship with Violet that garners more narrative space in Season 2. Their romance began as embers last year but heated up into a season-long smolder. The star-crossed lovers engage viewers with their seemingly doomed romance, but rather than becoming another trite example of torturing LGBTQ characters on TV, their relationship feels as hopeful as any of the others on the show. Their arc ends on a cliffhanger, implying that Amelia and Violet will continue to see screentime next year.
In a third if smaller example, the dominatrix friend of the Wells, Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood), strongly hints that she has always been in love with Margaret Wells. That particular thread doesn't go anywhere beyond adding another layer of complexity to the deep and lifelong friendship between Nancy and Margaret, but rather than coming off as flippant, it’s merely one more aspect to the already fabulous character of Nancy. She’s integral to the show as a tough bitch in androgynous clothing, and the fact of her apparent queerness only adds yet more layers to the show.
Bonus for Disability: +0.50
Two characters with disabilities are worked seamlessly into the cast of Harlots. Amelia's mother Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson) is blind but her disability is never the sum of her characterization—instead, it takes a second seat to her more encompassing identity as a vigilant espouser of God. I particularly love the way Season 2 turns her from a fairly flat evangelist into someone who has learned to see the good in “sinners” like Margaret Wells, without having to renounce her faith.
Meanwhile, Cherry Dorrington (Francesca Mills) gets introduced this season as a prostitute hired by the Lacey house in order to diversify their offerings at the “House of Exotics”. As a little person, Cherry does have to suffer ignorant asides thrown at her. But the show treats this injustice the same way it handles invectives thrown at the sex workers, or its black characters—it digs its heels into portraying said subjects with nuance and empathy, rendering such slurs powerless.
Notably, Cherry is based on a mix of real life women. As Decider explains, “Cherry is a combination of two real historical sex workers who also happened to be little people: Jenny Dorrington and Cherry Cole.” It just goes to show that real life is more diverse than TV would have us think. Thankfully, the writers of Harlots are aware of this and seem happy to present an alternative—but no less veritable—portrait of 18th century London.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.56/5
The finale ties up a wonderful season and tees up Season 3, but the ugly resonance of seeing powerful men get away with rape and murder left me wishing the revenge fantasy of Harlots concluded in full. Still, as in reality, the fight goes on.