The 18th-century London of Harlots offers the American dream: No matter where you come from, you can have anything you want — as long as you’ve got something to sell. Ignoble aristocrats still peacock around, flaunting their power and wealth, but on the same muddy, piss-soaked streets as everyone else. Below the patricians, a hive of strivers and grabbers buzzes. Coins spill over from the colonies, up for grabs by the sharp-eyed and quick-fingered. Among them are the one-fifth of London women who peddle sex — their own and others’. “This city is made of our flesh,” observes madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), staring out at a restless metropolis kept awake by commerce and lust. “We’ll have our piece of it,” she vows.
Premiering today on Hulu, Harlots is interested in what freedom and opportunity look like to young women scrambling for status and stability through sex, not marriage. Jane Austen wouldn’t have sullied herself writing about Margaret and her two grown daughters — the novelist was too busy preaching the dangers of bad husbands. Harlots, on the other hand, is a fizzy fantasy of female independence — and a beguiling one at that. The rare period drama about women that doesn’t give a whit about tying the knot — unless it’s to secure a pair of wrists to a bedpost — movingly and confidently reimagines female ambition in an era when most people thought witches were real.
Only two episodes were made available to critics, but a lot gets done in those couple of hours. Margaret barely finishes uttering her intent to buy a house in posh Soho before her brothel is raided by police, her livelihood endangered, and the next chapter of her life made to evaporate before her eyes. As Margaret's mother swapped her virginity for a pair of shoes when she was 10, Margaret isn’t all that sentimental about imminently auctioning off her docile younger daughter Lucy’s (Eloise Smyth) maidenhead. (She did the same to her older daughter, Charlotte, played by Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay.) The sale makes Margaret seem monstrous to modern sensibilities, but, growing up amid sex work, her daughters never expected anything else. Willful Charlotte doesn’t begrudge her mother that first auction, but does bristle when Margaret insists that she go through with a monogamous arrangement with a controlling aristo (Hugh Skinner), whom I can’t describe any better than this British review that calls him a “gormless toff.”
The only husbands around seem to be the johns. Margaret has a child with her black partner (Danny Sapani) — a kindly presence who gently urges her in vain not to be so impetuous — but it seems unlikely that the madam would yoke herself to him in marriage, an institution she wouldn’t “wish on a dog.” Her ruthless rival, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), is similarly spouseless. And yet Margaret counsels Charlotte “to be a property” by signing a contract that’d oblige her to be a faithful mistress, with all the restrictions — and none of the privileges — of a wife. Margaret is a tad too practical to be the parent that her daughters need. Protected and educated by a mother who enjoyed neither, Charlotte and Lucy are perhaps a touch naive for the world they grew up in.
More jaded than either is the entrepreneurial Emily (Holli Dempsey), whom we glimpse sleeping with an exposed breast. If this were a male gaze–oriented show like Game of Thrones, the display of her boobs would be gratuitous — and perhaps the character would be mortally maimed a few scenes after. In contrast, part of Harlots’s feminist mission is a matter-of-factness about the female body: Emily’s nipple is sunk into the areola, as nipples sometimes are, and one of her colleagues leans over this pretty, defenseless woman to flick her on the forehead. (Save for Emily and the cross-dressing dominatrix Nancy, played by Kate Fleetwood, the working girls aren’t yet distinguished from one another.) There are multiple scenes of cunnilingus, but none of blow jobs. The customers may be cowards who prove as unreliable as an erection, but they’re a happily transactional lot as a whole. I hope the series eventually abandons its blithe indifference to the rampant possibilities of pregnancy and STIs in future episodes. But for now, it’s tempting to simply indulge in the show’s impish winks toward old-timey sex puns and blithering male horniness.
Harlots is smart and empathetic enough to care about blithering female horniness too, and this is hopefully the area it will contribute to the most in terms of well-rounded portrayals of sex work. The drama is part of a pop-culture tradition that goes back at least to The Mary Tyler Moore Show — stories about women who work and fuck in a city full of possibilities — but this time it’s told from an angle we’ve seldom heard from before: poor, bitter, maternal. (Another rarity: a businesswoman in 1763 screaming at a judge about being a “taxpayer” while her half-bared breasts quiver with self-righteous rage.) That uniqueness is thrillingly suggested by hues, fabrics, and fashions we don’t usually see in depictions of this era: chartreuse heels, violet jackets, pumpkin-orange skirts, heart-shaped beauty marks, and, in Charlotte’s puffy wig, a streak of Barbie pink, like a Lisa Frank lightning bolt. The prostitutes’ sherbert-swirl outfits prove they dream in color. Thanks to Harlots, we desperately hope they can make those dreams a reality.