Brothel owner Margaret Wells struggles to raise her daughters in London during the 18th century.
Margaret Wells is a bawd—a brothel owner and madam—in London. It’s hard out there for a pimp, as you might have heard. Whether it’s doing battle with the supremely creepy Lydia Quigley and her still-attached-at-the-umbilical cord son, selling her daughters’ virginities to the highest bidder, or guarding her girls against the pox, Harlots seamlessly alternates between serious drama and pure camp.
Samantha Morton as Margaret Wells
Samantha Morton has been on The Walking Dead, in a U2 music video (Electrical Storm), and played Jane Eyre, among many other roles.
Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley
Lesley Manville is one of those character actresses that I immediately recognize but had no idea of her name until I started writing this review. She’s in North & South (as Margaret Hale’s mother) along with a billion other things.
Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells
You’d know Jessica from Downton Abbey and Misfits. She adds multi-layered depth to Charlotte: on the surface, like her mother, she is a steely sex worker, but she’s at her best when she is getting drunk and railing against her situation.
Liv Tyler as Lady Isabella Fitzgerald
I can’t quite get past Liv Tyler’s accent, but I love watching her (and those dresses).
Couch-Sharing Capability: Not Necessarily
This isn’t a show you need to watch with someone, although it’s always good to have someone to discuss the moral complexities and salacious backstabbing. It might be a show about prostitutes, but the sex shown is not rooted in the male gaze—it’s a means to an end, a way to get ahead in a system that disenfranchises women. Especially poor women.
The characters reflect that ambiguity. Margaret is a quasi-heroine as opposed to the icy-veined Lydia, who has no problem sending her girls to their deaths if it means she gets paid. On the other hand, Margaret—eminently practical if not a paragon of virtue—sells her daughters’ virginity. There are complicated histories and simmering resentments. Like actual friends, you can fall in love with a character one day and be horrified by their actions the next. The people you start out adoring are not the ones who stick with you through the hard times. And real intimacy comes not from the sexual acts these women perform, but surviving—together—the men that pay for them.
Somehow, it’s not depressing in the least!
Recommended Level of Inebriation: Lady in the Streets
I see nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned tipple or three, but it’s a socially-driven period drama with a lot of backstabbing, so try not to lose all of your inhibitions (as Charlotte does in my favorite dinner scene, what a queen).
Use of Your Streaming Subscription: Harlot in the Sheets
Go ahead, binge. The third season has just arrived on Hulu, so you’ve got plenty of wild and wanton material to carry you through the rest of the summer. Or the weekend. Whichever. Like Margaret, I don’t judge what you do behind closed doors, as long as everyone’s getting paid.