Hulu’s new Harlots, starring Samantha Morton, shows significant promise as an important and character-driven female drama.
The term ‘harlot’ seems to carry a very specific and negative connotation. When used as an insult, the word makes it difficult to bounce back. Hulu’s handsome period drama Harlots takes the word to a different level completely. Sure, the new series sometimes threatens to veer towards sudsy melodrama. Yet, the core of this new female-driven saga feels drenched with relevant and unavoidable themes.
Set in 1763, Harlots focuses on two very different madames running boarding houses aimed to satisfy any London gent who wishes to sneak off for a quickie. Samantha Morton plays Margaret Wells, an ambitious mother who sets her sights on a more prestigious location in Soho. Her eldest daughter, Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) learned seduction at a preteen age, but Margaret doesn’t think younger Lucy (Eloise Smyth) feels ready. Margaret will soon accept “sealed bids for her virginity” but only when the time comes. Or when Margaret requires it.
Think Mama Rose, but the transaction doesn’t stop with an innocent striptease.
Lesley Manville, in a smaller role in this premiere, plays Margaret’s eventual adversary, Lydia Quigley. Quigley prides herself on having a more sophisticated brothel of her own. Her girls earn money for more than a common poke and tickle. They play the harp and walk around like extras in an adult version of Dangerous Liaisons. Gentlemen seem to pay for a more, shall we say, all around experience with Mrs. Quigley’s ladies.
After Harlots shows us its prowess in the adult content department, it settles in for some serious drama. Halfway through the first episode, there is a raid on an entire section of boarding houses. Margaret finds a lot of her girls arrested, beaten, and facing impressive financial charges. As she scrambles to pay the fines, one of her best girls, Emily (Holli Dempsey), goes to work for the competition.
Harlots struts a fine line being tawdry and entertaining, but the tragic themes of women being not in total control of their own bodies are eerily relevant. Early on, Margaret urges Charlotte to settle for her suitor because she won’t have to worry about money: “You need to be his property. Men don’t respect whores–they respect property.” The physical abuse these girls endure comes at the hands of the religious zealots who want nothing more than cleanse the streets of London. The customers look at the girls with an almost hollow desperation to get their rocks off.
It offers a world where candy colored dresses hide the filth and dirt underneath. These women are desperate to survive and the men around them only see a dollar sign on their heads. If Harlots can untangle the many scenarios it introduces and allows these characters to be portrayed with intelligence, strength, and honesty, it (along with the upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale) could elevate the network to a new level. This could be the dawn of another great female-driven drama.