There is a new drama this year that explores the subject of ownership of the female body. These women are desperate and some don’t think their circumstances will ever change. If you think I’m referring to The Handmaid’s Tale, you’d be wrong. Even though the Margaret Atwood adaptation is a stunner, it’s the period drama Harlots that also deserves to be in the Emmy conversation. Consider it for Outstanding Drama Series.
Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and Harlots zeroes in on two warring houses of ill repute. Samantha Morton plays Margaret Wells, a madam looking to transfer to a more luxurious house in Soho. Her girls are not the most glamorous, but she has a healthy and faithful clientele. Her main competition comes from Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), a woman who prides herself in having girls who speak different languages and play musical instruments before seducing noblemen.
Harlots could have been a sudsy hooker drama, but it has more on its mind than torn bodices and catfights. Yes, Margaret and Lydia go toe-to-toe with one another, and it’s grand. This drama surprises its audience with how it tackles the subject of the ownership of women’s bodies. Margaret spends a majority of her time trying to find a keeper for her youngest daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth), a quiet, thoughtful girl who has to sell her virginity to pay off charges brought against her mother’s house. Lydia is sneaky and will stop at nothing from the competition from opening doors on her street.
Even though it’s fiction, it’s a terrifying time capsule. All the men have their way with these girls one way or another. Women have little choice if they find themselves in this world. Charlotte, Margaret’s other daughter, is a kept mistress, but her keeper has a short fuse and demands to be serviced like an immature teenager with condescending whims.The girls in Lydia’s house are basically prisoners kept in locked rooms. In one scene, a married woman (who gleefully encourages her husband to sleep with others) gets slapped across the face at a dinner table when she giggles at a joke about her husband’s manhood. Not every man is a bastard, however. Margaret’s lover, William (Danny Sapani), is a stable and confident presence throughout these 8 episodes.
The cast is uniformly strong. Morton has an unshakable strength that you can see deep in her eyes, and Manville is a worthy adversary. Her Lydia Quigley is a snake who will not take kindly when she’s double crossed or betrayed. Don’t let that smile and gentle laugh fool you. Holli Dempsey is a spitfire harlot who tries to make her life better at a different boarding house, and Hugh Skinner, so good on Amazon’s gem Fleabag as lovable doormat Harry, flips our expectations as the abusive Sir George Howard. The girls from both boarding houses offer wonderful characterizations.
Even though it’s set in London, you cannot shake the gross feeling you get when you see how these women are treated. They are constantly called whores and harlots and sluts, and they are treated as if they are nothing by almost everyone they encounter. It will make you think of how women are portrayed in the media and how women have to continually fight to be equal and to be taken seriously. It doesn’t beat you over the head with these themes, but mask them cleverly with the naughty fun being had on screen. While its message is serious, Harlots can be jolly good fun.
Hulu has managed to step up its game in terms of original dramatic television. The comedies have been strong from the get-go, thank you very much. It deserves to give Amazon and Netflix a run for their money. It’s interesting to see the network debut Harlots and The Handmaid’s Tale in the same season. It’s a strong one-two punch–one from the past and one from the future. Let’s hope and pray that we can learn from Harlots how to treat women before we get to a chilling Handmaid’s Tale dystopia.
Harlots may lure you in to titillate, but it astonishes with how it manages to ratchet up the drama. It’s handsomely crafted, skillfully directed, and balances the ugly and the beautiful with ease. This drama lures you down the dark alley and delivers a good time. You’ll want even more after you smell the stench on your clothes the next day. It’s one of the best new dramas on television.