For those craving a period drama sprinkled with signature British wit, Hulu’s new original series Harlots is a must-watch.
It’s been a good year for female-led TV dramas. Between Big Little Lies, Feud and the recent debut of A Handmaid’s Tale, viewers have no shortage of femme-centered shows to choose from. For those craving a period drama sprinkled with signature British wit, Hulu’s new Original series Harlots is a must-watch.
The show takes place in 18th-century London and centers around two feuding whorehouses, one owned by Margaret Wells, played by Samantha Morton, and the other by Margaret’s former boss, the unforgiving Lydia Quigley, played by Lesley Manville. Margaret’s most prized possessions are her two daughters: her eldest, Charlotte, a coveted harlot and kept woman, and the younger Lucy, whose innocence is abruptly taken from her when her virginity is auctioned off in the series’ first episode.
The first episode of Harlots begins by showing a graphic that claims that one in five women worked in the sex industry in England at that time. It makes sense, as prostitution was one of the few careers in which a woman had the freedom to mingle in society, whereas married women were considered the property of their husbands and rarely allowed outside of the home. Instead of focusing on how women were oppressed, Harlots is a show about survival and how some women made a patriarchal society work for them.
If that’s not enough to send you on a series binge, we’ve got five more reasons why Harlots needs to be next up on your watch list:
1. The show is written and directed entirely by women.
Though the tides are changing, the majority of decision-makers within the film and TV industry are still old white men. Even film and television that seeks to empower women is often portrayed through a stifling male gaze. That’s why the producers of Harlots purposefully set out to assemble a female-dominated cast and crew. As Executive Producer Alison Owen told The Hollywood Reporter, they wanted to portray, “Everything from the whore’s eye view.”
Harlots neither glamorizes nor demonizes sex work, and though the working girls at Margaret Wells’ brothel have agency, the women at the rivaling brothel run by Lydia Quigley are not so lucky. They’re kept in opulence but treated like prisoners, pitted against each other as they pay off insurmountable debts to be granted their freedom. Harlots also shows the internal struggle of Lucy Wells, Margaret’s youngest daughter, who is still a teenager when she’s introduced to the family business. She spent her childhood being groomed to be a high-end harlot, learning languages and instruments to make her more well-rounded. Now she risks losing that life as her mother hopes to make her a kept mistress.
2. It’s the perfect substitute if you’re still mourning the end of Downton Abbey.
Who doesn’t love a well-done period drama? Downton Abbey fans will rejoice when they recognize Jessica Brown Findlay, who played sweet Lady Sybil on the show. In Harlots, Findlay’s tongue is much more striking as Charlotte Wells, Margaret’s rebellious eldest daughter and coveted courtesan.
Though Harlots’ score adds a modern flair, its Georgian-era Soho London set will transport you. The cobblestone streets are bustling, its occupants adorned in powdered wigs and leading horse-drawn carriages. Refusing to be shamed, Margaret Wells’ girls stand out amongst commoners in jewel-toned silks and extravagant pearls. Lydia Quigley’s abode contrasts in reminiscence of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, all pastels and overexposed shots.
3. It’s historically accurate.
Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but Harlots producers did make an effort to make the show as historically accurate as possible. The liberties they did take are rooted in inclusiveness, and provide unlikely characters with screen time. The show is based on The Covent Garden Ladies, a 2005 book by Hallee Rubenhold that was inspired by Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an annual directory published from 1757 to 1795 of prostitutes working in London. The pocketbook reviews the women in detailed erotic prose and it is these bawdy characters who are immortalized on screen.
4. Despite the show’s setting, it has a diverse cast.
It’s fitting that Harlots, which centers around women selling their bodies, would tackle the issue of human enslavement as well. The show opens in 1763 London, 70 years before slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom. One of the primary, and certainly the most tolerable, male characters in the show is a free Black man named William North, played by Danny Sapani, who acts as security at Margaret Wells’ brothel (and, privately, as her lover and most trusted confidant).
We’re also introduced to Harriet Lennox, a former slave who is married to her former owner Nathaniel Lennox, who happens to be one of Margaret’s former lovers. You’ll have to tune in to see how that unlikely love triangle unfolds.
5. It brings attention to female autonomy during a time when our rights and bodies are under attack.
Though the women portrayed in Harlots certainly face judgment from society, the overall attitude towards sex workers is much more progressive than what we encounter today. In contrast to Lydia Quigley’s predatory methods, the women working under Margaret Wells look out for one another and aren’t afraid to send johns packing if they disrespect one of their own.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that attitudes towards London’s sex trade shifted and conservatives succeeded in removing Harris’s List from shelves. Harlots celebrates a time before reform took hold and shows how the ladies of Covent Garden learned to swindle a system that was rigged against them.