This Harlots review contains spoilers.
Harlots Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2
Harlots, the Hulu drama about cunning businesswomen in 18th century London, is back for a second season, and it wasted absolutely no time throwing us all back into the angst, hardship, and tough decisions of period working class life—this time with 100% more Liv Tyler.
When we last saw our favorite (and, in some cases, not-favorite) harlots, they were reeling from the consequences of George Howard’s death, Justice Cunliffe’s death (there is a lot of untimely death on this show), and Charlotte Wells’ decision to join forces with Lydia Quigley. Much of this first hour back is moving the narrative pieces into place for a second season. It’s a bit clunky, the strings showing a bit, but Harlots is nothing if not the queen of beautiful distraction. Who cares if you see the narrative strings sometimes when you’re having so much fun watching these women plot, perform, pester, and—most importantly—get angry about the injustices of the world? Besides, the show more than makes up for it in the second episode.
If there were a theme to Episode 1, it would be the potential inherent tragedy of Margaret Wells. Margaret hasn’t burned all of her bridges yet, but she does an impressive job of continuing to damage her relationships in this first hour. When she throws Harriet out because she fears she has designs on Will, Will follows, unwilling to be part of a relationship in which his partner doesn’t trust him. (This doesn’t sit well with any of Margaret’s children—Jacob, Lucy, or Charlotte—who all tend to take their Pa’s side.)
Things aren’t much better with Margaret’s relationships within the house. The girls are starting to doubt Margaret’s commitment to them. The way she turned Emily away when she needed help, Margaret’s estrangement with Charlotte, and her exile of Harriet weigh heavily on them. Margaret has always offered them security and even a home, but her actions have begun to contradict her words, the further she gets into this mess with Lydia Quigley.
You can see the potential for Margaret to make decisions that actually gets her what she wants rather than what she thinks she wants—she goes to make amends with both Will and Charlotte at different points in this premiere, but, upon seeing them in their contexts of their relationships with Harriet and Lydia Quigley, respectively, blows up and backs out on her presumed reconciliations.
It’s understandably hard for Margaret to let go of her feud—or his quest for justice—when Lydia Quigley’s downfall is so close at hand. You see, there’s a new justice in town named Josiah Hunt, and he’s nothing like his predecessor. He issues a warrant for Lydia Quigley’s arrest, throwing her into jail for running a brothel and setting her fine at a massive 500 pounds—an amount that surely would have been hard to pull together even before Emily Lacey started milking her for money.
Surprisingly, it is Charlotte who manages to secure the funds for Lydia’s release. While Margaret and Nancy see this as the opportunity they’ve been waiting for to put Lydia Quigley away for good, Charlotte is playing a longer game. With no one else, not even Lydia’s son (the only person she actually seems to love) shedding so much as a tear at Lydia’s fate, this is the perfect opportunity for Charlotte to earn Lydia’s trust.
Enter Liv Tyler’s Lady Fitz, a mysterious, super rich woman who has a massive secret that Lydia Quigley happens to know. Like Caroline Howard before her, Lady Fitz is a woman whose fortune has been left in the hands of a man—in this case, her pompous brother. She manages to secure 500 pounds of it for Lydia Quigley’s release, catching the curious eye of Charlotte Wells in the mean time. Will these two grow to become allies? After all, they both seem to want Lydia Quigley to fall. However, trusting Lady Fitz, an artistocrat who thinks herself better than most, would be a dangerous risk for Charlotte, should she choose to do so.
While Charlotte works to get Lydia out of jail, Margaret and Nancy work to secure witnesses who will speak against Lydia, indicting her in the murder of Justice Cunliffe and the kidnapping and abuse of countless girls. They’re doing pretty well, too, getting both Emily Lacey and Prince Rasselas to agree to testify… until Lord Fallon gets wind that his cabal of women kidnappers, rapists, and murderers might be at risk. When a threat in the form of a bloody heart doesn’t scare Margaret Wells away, Lord Fallon gets ruthless, killing Kitty and leaving her corpse on the brothel’s doorstep. Sufficed to say, this scares both Emily and Rasselas away (though does nothing to quench the rivers of righteous fury that run through both Nancy and Maraget’s hearts).
It’s a shame, too, because Justice Hunt may have been one to listen. Yes, he poses a new kind of threat for the brothels of Covent Garden, one not unlike the element the Scanwells provided before they started making nice with Margaret Wells & co. While Justice Cunliffe was corrupt and easily swayed for the right (terrible) price, Justice Hunt believes in justice wholeheartedly—at least his brand of justice. There is a naivete to him‚ he doesn’t seem to understand much about this community, but has been given immense power of it—and, in some ways, that is harder to deal with than Cunliffe.
In other ways, he is a much more predictable element and the type to risk everything to bring someone he believes to be guilty—such as Lydia Quigley or Lord Fallon, should he see evidence against him—to justice. In these first two episodes, we see how seriously he takes his responsibility to upholding the law. That idealism extends beyond the law, too. When Violet is arrested for pickpocketing and sentenced to transportation and seven years of labor in America, Amelia Scanwell appeals to Justice Hunt’s sense of compassion (and maybe, based on how Josiah responds to Amelia clutching his hands in thank you, something else).
Josiah agrees to take Violet on as his own servant, a position Florence Scanwell points out would have made a good source of income for the homeless and destitute Amelia. For Amelia, though, the sacrifice is more than worth it. She loves Violet. For her part, Violet is less than enthusiastic to take the position. She may not be in America, but she is still working for no pay. She has no chance of finding economic freedom in the next seven years, should she be forced to stay with Josiah.
Violet’s new position also separate her from the community that has supported her and been her solace when nothing else did. So much of this show, and this second episode of Season 2 in particular, is about who is a part of this poor, tight-knit, working class community and who is not. When Kitty is left dead on the doorstep of Margaret Wells’ brothel, the neighborhood organizes a funereal walk and wake not unlike the one they did for Mary Cooper in Season 1.
Like Mary Cooper’s wake in Season 1, Kitty’s funeral spurs the community into action. Furious at the law’s unwillingness to even look into Kitty’s murder, they riot in the streets, ending at Josiah Hunt’s home. At first, Josiah cowers inside, hoping for the moment to pass. Eventually, he faces the crowd, arresting Nancy for sedition, totally missing the point. He is not part of this community. He doesn’t understand.
Emily Lacey is. She gets it; after all, that could have been her corpse being carried through the streets. She comes to pay her respects to Kitty and, when Nancy is whipped in the square for her rebellion, she, too, turns her back with the rest of the crowd. It is a sign of respect for Nancy and a sign of disrespect for Josiah’s interpretation of the law. This isn’t justice. Josiah is punishing the wrong person. He may believe himself to be a tool of justice, but he is entirely confined by the classist discriminations of the law. Nancy Birch is whipped in the streets for demanding justice for a dead woman who can longer speak for herself, while Lydia Quigley and Lord Fallon especially remain protected by the wealth they possess or have access to.
Men don’t respect women; they respect property, Margaret said in Season 1. If this community needed any reminder of that (which they never, ever do—their daily lives are the reminder), then this would be it. Nancy was only arrested after someone threw a rock through the window of Josiah Hunt’s house. Here, and in our real world, it is often a more serious crime (or at least one with harsher consequences) to damage property than it is to hurt or kill people… at least people who “don’t matter.” Josiah Hunt has the faculties and heart to eventually see this injustice, but he is part of a system that is constructed to blind him from the realities of humanity.
Speaking of who gets to be part of the community and who doesn’t, Charlotte’s inclusion continues to be threatened by her perceived allegiance to Lydia Quigley and her falling out with her mother. However, unlike her mother, Charlotte continues to nurture her most important relationships. She tells Lucy of her plan to take down Lydia Quigley. She visits Will and mops at his bloody face following his bar fight. She gathers Jacob into her arms and comes to Nancy’s side after she has been whipped. She is still very much a part of this neighborhood and community.
With Kitty dead, however, will Charlotte’s position in her community be further threatened? Many blame Lydia Quigley for Kitty’s death and she is, in part, to blame. When Charlotte shows up at the wake, Will waves her away and she is denied her chance to grieve and celebrate Kitty’s life along with her friends and family. Likely, at least for now, this has more to do with how Margaret feels than it does the community.
Margaret sees Charlotte’s decision to side with Lydia Quigley as a rejection of all she has ever done for Charlotte, while Charlotte wants her mother to understand the maternal patterns Margaret learned from Lydia that she used on Charlotte. Margaret is a million times better mother than Lydia Quigley, but she still sold her daughters and forced them into this life. From Margaret’s perspective, she gave them a trade, a way to earn their financial independence. From Charlotte’s perspective, Margaret chose her business over her daughters. Both perspectives have truth in them.
It all came to a head at the end of Season 1, when Margaret protected Lucy and left Charlotte to hang, at least from Charlotte’s perspective. Of course Margaret loves Charlotte, but she also sees her—whether it’s fair or not—as able to take care of herself in a way that she perceives Lucy cannot. What Charlotte doesn’t seem to see is that the choices Margaret has made in bringing up Lucy and introducing her to the world of sex work have been so informed by regret she has from the choices she made with Charlotte.
Margaret and Charlotte’s slow reconciliation will, hopefully, be one of the major plot arcs of what is shaping up to be another incredible season of Harlots.
Poor Kitty. 🙁 She deserved so much better, which is kind of the point of this show, isn’t it?
Both episodes were directed by the incredible Coky Giedroyc. I want to live inside of some of these shots.
Nancy’s musing about pain and rage as potent motivators is a thing of beauty. Nancy as a revolutionary is one of my favorite parts of this show.
“Women aren’t at the mercy of men’s power; we’re at the mercy of your weakness.” Bronwyn James as Fanny did some wonderful work in this second episode, in particular, grieving for her best friend. She represents a counterpoint to Nancy and Margaret’s rage. She doesn’t see the point in breaking windows, but rather wants to honor Kitty by naming her baby after her.
“Kitty was guilty… guilty of being poor.”
“If I could read, do you think I’d be a thieving harlot?” I cannot wait for more of Violet’s exasperated quips to Josiah.
Harriet has her kids back! All is right in the world… um, except for the things that aren’t. Also, Harriet has teamed up with Emily Lacey, which is a team-up I didn’t realize I needed until it happened.
Where’s the cute Irish man?
Marie-Louise has run off. It doesn’t seem like she’s coming back?
What is Lady Fitz’s secret? I feel like we’re meant to assume it is something very scandalous and, while I am sure it is scandalous for the period, I wonder if it is not something contemporary audiences will look on more benevolently.
The button! Does Lucy already realize it belongs to Lord Fallon? Probably not. When she does, will she go undercover as Lord Fallon’s mistress to gather evidence. Probably. After all, she is her mother’s daughter.
Amelia is going to teach Violet to read, and I am 1000% here for this subplot.