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Harlots — the best erotic workplace drama you’re not watching — lives and dies by one hard rule: Sex isn’t sexy without a good backstory. In the first episode of the so-far fantastic third season, a striking blond man called Isaac Pincher (Alfie Allen, reclaiming his swagger after Game of Thrones) saunters into the brothel that Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay) inherited from her hanged mother. They banter in rhyme and innuendo. “I earn money with my artful tongue,” the poet purrs. “We’re the same in that,” she retorts.
The chemistry between Allen and Brown Findlay is electric. Moments later, they’re slamming into each other on her bed and the typically pragmatic Charlotte, long celibate from the touch of a man, is instantly smitten. But Pincher is not all he seems, thus beginning a war that will lay the foundation for the rest of the season.
Georgian-era Harlots has consistently been one of TV’s top dramas of the last few years, a thrilling, brainy bodice-ripper that combines the epic wordplay of Shakespeare, the ruthless political survivalism of Machiavelli and the gutting sentimentality of Mario Puzo. Rivaling The Deuce, my other favorite drama of 2018, Harlots is an intellectual lens into the sprawling business of sex work that also deeply empathizes with people who commodify their bodies. Both shows are invested in exploring the systemic limitations of class, race, gender and sexual orientation. But Hulu’s Harlots, in particular, is deliciously wanton, offering a formidable vision of marginalized women claiming their sexual autonomy — and economic freedom — from their controllers. (The carnal voyeurism helps, too.)
Over the previous two seasons, viewers were introduced to the vast underbelly of 18th century London and the bellicose madams vying for control of the sexual marketplace and the coin of England’s wealthiest elite. The third season begins with those madams thoroughly neutered: scrappy Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton), smuggled against her will to America after being rescued from state execution, and supercilious Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), now decrepit and abused at the notorious Bedlam psychiatric asylum. (For as ruthless and calloused as these women are, even to their own children, both have long histories of childhood sexual exploitation that gives even heavier weight to their choices/fates.)
The new season time-jumps one year from the previous finale, a smart decision that effectively resets the board with new champions, villains and disputes. With scheming but lovable Margaret out of the picture, her daughter Charlotte (Brown Findlay, perfection) becomes a new folk hero in Soho, protector to harlot and aristocrat alike. She maintains a sexual friendship with vulnerable Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam (Liv Tyler in one of her best-ever roles), whom she is helping heal from her brother’s sexual abuse, and leads the charge to defend her girls and other neighborhood prostitutes when a violent pimp threatens to overpower the local bawdy houses. Charlotte is both our head and our heart.
Elsewhere, her younger sister Lucy (Eloise Smyth) has evolved from reluctant innocent to sadistic charmer, the new talk of London with her wild, public antics. Bored with the lifestyle, however, she finds new passion when she teams up with a shady mother-and-son pair to buy Lydia Quigley’s abandoned mansion and turn it into an illicit molly-house disguised as a tailoring business. “You’re a molly?” Lucy probes her new business partner, Fredo (Aidan Cheng.) “I’m a genius with a needle,” the queer man snipes back.
In the meantime, perpetually driven Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey), Margaret’s former prodigy turned Lydia’s prisoner, has left Quigley’s schlubby son for an ambitious tavern keeper, Hal (Ash Hunter.) Yet she has her eyes set on even bigger empires, and soon becomes the mistress of a self-made old codger in exchange for lessons in commerce. Emily, Lucy and Charlotte are a fascinating triumvirate, each woman hungry to break free from the destiny of their low-born origins. As one lost-soul tells Charlotte, “The role I was assigned at birth was poverty, hell on earth as you know.” Oh, she knows.
I could go on, the plot more intricate (and enthralling) than filigree. Yet, the storylines — involving heist, blackmail and arson in just the first three episodes — merely pay homage to the heart-wrenching themes of weaponized sexuality and the shackles of status. As proto-dominatrix Nancy (Kate Fleetwood, secret MVP) shares with a distraught Lady Isabella, “Your reputation is a burden. I have none and I’m free as a crow.” Harlots constantly reminds us that even high-born women can have their liberty torn from them at any time. At Bedlam, Lydia finds hope again when she encounters a pretty young noblewoman (Daisy Head) committed by her family for fornication. She’s a down-and-out agent who has discovered a new star.
Despite Harlots being set three centuries in the past, it’s hard not to observe the parallels to modern cases of underage trafficking. It may be easy to dismiss the social politics of a costume drama due to its period mores, but it seems that affluent, protected men still have free rein over girls’ bodies.
Starring: Jessica Brown Findlay, Eloise Smyth, Lesley Manville, Samantha Morton, Holli Dempsey, Kate Fleetwood, Bronwyn James, Liv Tyler, Alfie Allen, Daisy Head, Danny Sapani, Angela Griffin, Aidan Cheng, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ash Hunter, Francesca Mills
Executive producers: Moira Buffini, Alison Carpenter, Debra Hayward, Alison Newman, Alison Owen
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)