In episode three of “Harlots” (April 12), we witness a range of soul-destroying experiences — all boiled down to the sad and horrifying plight of any human being who is owned, directly or indirectly, by another.
There’s the tragic situation of Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner), after her husband Nathaniel (Con O’Neill) falls unexpectedly and gravely ill. It’s apparent how few allies Harriet must have, to be turning to Margaret (Samantha Morton) for help, given the weird undercurrents between Margaret and Nathaniel hinted at last week.
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Still, the scenario also reminds us of Margaret’s core goodness, and that she fights unabashedly for the underdog (which, make no mistake, includes herself first and foremost). The two women rush to Nathaniel’s bedside, but it’s too late: He’s dead.
When Harriet is overwhelmed by grief, it’s Margaret who prompts Harriet to secure her own position — to find Nathaniel’s will and determine exactly what position that is… And, as it turns out, that position is infinitely worse than originally presented to us, or to Margaret: Harriet and Nathaniel were not only not actually married, but she was owned by Nathaniel — and Harriet’s horrified to discover that her freedom papers were never signed, as he’d originally assured her. And now, of course, son Benjamin (Timothy Innes)’s true villainy reveals itself: He decides to sign Harriet’s papers… But retain ownership of her children.
With nowhere else to go, Harriet again turns to Margaret, who offers Harriet a position working as her maid. She offers what hope she can by pointing out that if Harriet’s children are slaves, they can be bought — and thus, Harriet can work to save her wages to buy them. Given Benjamin’s cold-hearted vibe, it’s obvious it won’t be that easy, but nonetheless, Harriet has something to hope for, and can put one foot in front of the other for now.
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While there’s clearly no comparison between the horrific lot of a slave like Harriet and the upper-crust wife of Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner), we’re nonetheless reminded how powerless wives were within their marriages as well. As Lady Howard remarks to Charlotte (Jessica Findlay Brown), it’s her fortune that George is squandering — on Charlotte, among other things.
And in another fascinatingly subtle scene between Charlotte, George, and Hacksby (Edward Hogg), Charlotte attempts to humiliate Hacksby… which goes a bit more awfully than she probably expected or intended. After she spurs George to demand that Hacksby hold his chamber pot while he pisses in it, George’s entitlement — moreover, his lack of humanity — rears its ugly head (no pun intended). He can’t resist showing his contempt — not just for Hacksby, but for his lineage and family, who have long served the Howards.
At that, a look of recognition seems to flitter across Charlotte’s face. Later, when we see George huffing and puffing away on top of her, she seems no more invested in her chore than Hacksby was — now, fully reminded that she and Hacksby have more in common than she’d like to admit.
And then there’s the truly crushing storyline of maiden daughter Lucy (Eloise Smith), whisked off to be the plaything of the vile Lord Repton. There’s an immediate sense of danger as Lucy discovers that she’s being taken outside of London, to a country estate. When she expresses fear, and a desire to be taken home, one of the coachman treats her with disdain, demanding his own sexual favors in return for his help.
Seeing no easy out here either way, Lucy proceeds onward — and the experience proves exactly as crushing and awful as we feared it would be. While Lady Repton (Fenella Woolgar) first seems gentle toward Lucy, we soon learn that she’s little more than her husband’s lackey, and is herself subjected to a solid backhanding once her husband’s in a drunken and foul mood. And while we’re mercifully spared the scene, the bruises left on her body reveal that poor Lucy was the one to bear the full brunt of Lord Repton’s rage that night. Upon her return to London, she’s soon lost in catatonic traumatization.
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One of the few sparks of light amid all this struggle for liberation has been the obvious love between Will (Danny Sapani) and Margaret. Which isn’t to say that he humors her — on the contrary, his is the ongoing voice of reason, begging her to stop (or at least de-escalate) the feud with Mrs. Quigley.
An angry mob, paid by Quigley and orchestrated by Mrs. Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson), descends upon Will and the girls as they attempt to move into the Soho house the first time. Margaret berates Will for retreating, and rather mercilessly given that he was protecting their son and their working girls. When she insists that she would have fought harder, however, we’re soon treated to glorious proof: Margaret at the height of her fury.
On their second attempt to take ownership of the house, Margaret leads a full-throttle riot against the very same thugs who’ve been paid to keep them away. She’s a banshee in the heat of battle, and it’s an awe-inspiring spectacle. But waves of doubt remain, crashing down not long after as she ponders the difficulty of her undertaking: She’s clearly bitten off at least a morsel more than she can comfortably chew). And of course, it is dear, sweet, steady Will comforting and encouraging her. (We should all be so lucky, to have a Will in our lives.)
Meanwhile, Mrs. Quigley (Lesley Manville) is tasked by Justice Cunliff (Richard McCabe) with procuring another unwilling virgin sacrifice. She tries to pry out some additional information as to the client — and while Cunliff won’t say directly, his laying a playing-card King down on the table means it’s reasonable to assume this as-yet-unknown monster must be a royal.
Quigley is so excited by the prospect, it’s clear what she’s being asked to do is not too vile as to dissuade her… Well. “Yuck” doesn’t begin to cover this. We’d imagined there might be a slightly more balanced battle between Quigley and Margaret, but Quigley seems unavoidably and wholly irredeemable at this point. Which is fine, too — doesn’t mean Margaret’s a saint, after all.
While Charles Quigley (Douggie McMeekin) seems to be developing a fondness for clever Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey), even he can’t shelter her from one of his mother’s more misogynistic clients, who darkens Emily’s door at episode’s end. Emily’s high-spirited rebellion has elicited some hope she’ll wile her way out of her situation somehow, but this episode reminded us over and over again that no woman’s (or man’s) spirit can endure — or at least escape unscathed — the ongoing struggle of powerlessness.
The show is doing an excellent job of comparing-without-equating, as we learn more and more about each of these women and their circumstances — and we’re grateful for it. It would be a much weaker story otherwise.
“Harlots” premieres new episodes early Wednesdays, on Hulu.
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