Toward the end of the first episode of Harlots, something distinctly odd happens. Our primary protagonist, the soon-to-be prostitute Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), offers up her virginity as a quick way to make up the outstanding funds needed for her mother, brothel owner and proprietor Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), to buy a new place of business. In the mid-to-late 18th century, in which Harlots takes place, the immorality of this act was less, er, noteworthy, both for strangers and for Margaret herself. There are signs early on in Hulu’s latest period drama that Margaret is in the market for a rich man to buy the right to deflower her youngest daughter — her eldest, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), is under similar employment — and the decision to start the bidding, to put it politely, goes by with barely a flicker of registering what’s happening.
On one hand, there’s strength in such a disposition and such an action, both from Margaret’s point of view and the show’s creators, Byzantium writer Moira Buffini and actor-turned-scripter Alison Newman. As put to paper, Morton’s character knows the score for women in her day and age, to say nothing of her low station in terms of class in the more thoroughly sullied areas of London. Her presumed influence on her daughters to take up the same kind of work comes from a place of experience, knowledge, fear, and more than a little anger. And yet, for all these feelings, for all the economic, social, and familial issues at play, Lucy’s decision passes by without a glimmer of reflection in the performance or in the imagery. All the time, pressure, and thought that goes into her offer seems to dissipate like steam immediately.
This is a rather persistent problem with Harlots, at least from the two episodes that were screened for critics. There’s a hesitancy to confront the thicket of conflicting emotions that are being hinted at underneath the not-so-charmed life of the Wells girls and the women they work with (or against) but the origins and the precariousness of these feelings never quite explored with any daring or seriousness. Margaret’s primary nemesis, Lesley Manville‘s Lydia Quigley, is typified by little more than her wanting to destroy the Wells family, run her far more prettified brothel, and luxuriate in her wealth with her incestuous son. In fact, what seems to drive Harlots more than a tone or genuine insight is a give-no-shits attitude evoked by a cadre of women of all ages just trying to get out from under the thumb of the ruling class.
Considering the ghastly dearth of series, on streaming or otherwise, that feature a largely female cast that isn’t constantly talking about men and how much they mean to them, Harlots deserves points for simply rendering all this involving and sustainable. To have Morton and Manville, two of the greatest actresses on any continent, trading barbs and lending nuance to Newman and Buffini’s words is a treat that few shows can equal. Even as the creators heave exposition and the most familiar dramatic dynamics onto this cast, they ably spin much of the bad jokes and plot-laden dialogue into rhythmic duels of flimsy perspective. Would that the creators had shown their research a bit more and had utilized their cast to explore relevant advancements and processes of the day, whether in terms of property, money, fashion, drugs, or medicine, such as the sensational surgical nuance that colored Cinemax’s groundbreaking The Knick.
Instead, the show indulges a few nods toward its relevance to today’s world of women in some of the most pestering ways. There is the constant use of the titular term, which rips you out of the action without care whenever it’s hurled about, but that’s not half as annoying as the music. Much like the similarly promising Underground, Harlots is afflicted by a modern soundtrack that makes the show come off as woefully desperate to keep the audience’s attention. What is one meant to do with a blues-rock riff playing over scenes of poverty-strewn London and its sinful lot that seems more at home in a Black Keys demo that never became a song? How about trap percussion that undercuts a dramatic sequence for no tenable reason?
I can only presume that all of it is meant to communicate the toughness and nimble, clever nature of these women, which would have been evident to me about 10 seconds after first setting eyes on Morton. It’s a distinct disappointment that a show that has the possibility of exploring the vast array of female insights and reflections on sexuality, independence, and class seems to be hung up on reminding viewers how rebellious and revolutionary women like this could be. One does not need a throwaway Stevie Ray Vaughn lick to figure that out.
Harlots debuts on Hulu in its entirety on March 29th.