The Mutineer & I binge-watched the entirety of Hulu’s Harlots last weekend. I mean, I knew I was going to enjoy it because 18th century London is my thing, but I didn’t know how friggin much I was going to become obsessed with it.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Harlots, here’s a short synopsis: Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is the bawd of a brothel in Covent Garden, with her eye on a house in Greek Street so that she can get a higher class of clientele. Margaret’s former bawd, Mrs. Quigley, isn’t fond of her competition moving closer to her, and, well, have you ever seen Drop Dead Gorgeous? It’s viciously catty like that, but with a lot more sex and blood.
Here are three quick reasons why you should give the show a chance if you haven’t already.
In the middle of the first episode, the Mutineer said, “Wow, this is just like a telenovela.” She wasn’t wrong. There’s torrid affairs (because duh it’s set in a brothel), there’s murder, and plenty of drama between the bawds. The cast of characters are from from being the melodramatic stereotypes, however, and are presented with problems in very realistic ways. For example, one of the girls in Margaret Wells’ brothel becomes pregnant, and struggles to tell her bawd about the pregnancy for fear that she will be evicted from the brothel. Another girl, Lucy, who is new to the ‘business’, struggles with the very act of physical intimacy and being appealing to the clientele.
There are also some very dark themes and *trigger warning* the show does deal with abduction, rape, physical and sexual abuse, and child molestation. It does so, however, without making these storylines feel as if they’re only there to sell ratings, but rather the writers go to lengths to make the world of Harlots, extreme as it is at times, seem like a real brothel in 18th century London, which brings me to my next point.
This isn’t a white-washed period piece.
We all know that the film and television industry has a tendency to misconstrue “the past” with “Caucasian only”, which is one of my biggest problems with period pieces. Harlots, however, doesn’t ignore England’s history of slavery and immigrants and it does not ignore the spectrum of sexuality either. There are no less than three interracial couples shown through the first season (one of which involving Margaret Wells, who is arguably the main character), and one of those interracial couples is a same-sex couple. Harlots also does not shy away from discussing slavery in both England and America, and there’s a rather emotional confrontation between Mr. North (Danny Sapani), who was born a free man in London, and an American slaveowner. It is important to note that none of these relationships feel forced, and that only one ‘develops’ in the course of the series. The other two relationships are established, and naturally diversify the world which Harlots paints for the viewer.
Additionally, the brothels shown do employ prostitutes which “cater” to certain special clientele (read: fetishes). Nancy (Kate Fleetwood), Margaret’s best friend, is what we nowadays would call a dominatrix.
Those Costumes, Tho
As I once heard a self-righteous and pompous writer say, “Women only watch period pieces for the frocks.” While this writer’s claim is more-than-slightly ridiculous and sexist–the frocks are like the third or fourth reason I’ll watch a period piece–the costuming in this series is exquisite.
The amount of money and time and detail that went into these designs…
So did I watch Harlots for the costumes, as this former writer professor of mine so priggishly suggested? Nope, I watched it for a look at 18th century London from the viewpoint of someone who wasn’t a upper class white male.
However, the show is very easy on the eyes and aesthetically appealing, and I loved it. I’ve taken to calling it the “pineapple of Hulu.” (Ten points to Gryffindor if you tell me what that means.)
I highly recommend watching Harlots if you enjoy melodramatic tales of lecherous house of ill-reputes and, of course, gorgeous frocks.