Review: Harlots — Episode 2

Jessica Brown Findlay as Charlotte Wells in Episode 2 of ‘Harlots’

Last week we glimpsed the freedom in harlotry, where this week we faced its perils (the foulest of which being death). Margaret’s words ring true throughout the episode: narrow is the path they tread; grave are the dangers.

And the path of Ms. Wells this week involves the old flame and former client, Nathaniel Lennox. In desperate need of seed money, she invites him to consider her business as a potential investment, however he makes it clear that his greatest interest is in Margaret herself.

Quigley faces a far more heinous proposition from her own patron across town. Cunliffe, who is both a judge and a customer in Golden Square, visits Quigley and requests that she kidnap a virgin. Quigley shows some modicum of conscience (or perhaps only a sense of self-preservation) by asking what happens to the victim after being raped. Though Cunliffe attempts to persuade her, the request rapidly becomes a directive. Ever so creepily, he inserts an uninvited finger into her cleavage, daring her to deny him.

The oppressive nature of male presence and power continues in Charlotte’s story, by way of Haxby and his assignment to follow her. George has set his servant upon Charlotte to serve as warden and spy. However, there’s precious little hanky panky for Haxby to report, as their primary activity is keeping a dying woman company.

Deathly ill with syphilis is Mary Cooper, former employee of Lydia Quigley. With the help of Nancy Birch, Margaret intends to use Mary and her disease to tarnish Quigley’s reputation. But alas, Mary is anything but cooperative. She refuses to be used without compensation. The pleasure of Mary Cooper’s company doesn’t come free. Not to Margaret, not to anyone. She’s a hustler ‘til the bitter end.

And this fact brings us to the point. Throughout the episode, we are reminded of a sad truth: power, authority, and freedom are granted to a woman by– and only if it so pleases– a man. And yet, these women are undeterred. We don’t feel that Margaret has debased herself in having sex with Lennox, and why is that? We don’t feel that Lydia honestly believes she’s without the “superior force of male reason” (as she tells Cunliffe), and why is that? It’s for the same reason that the word “hustler” means both prostitute and go-getter. ‘Cause hustlers get shit done.

A few predictions and asides:

  • Haxby channels Mrs. Scanwell and declares all harlots are damned. Heaven help us if such an unholy alliance between these two characters should occur.
  • Haxby and Charlotte are Mary’s companions as she departs this world for the next. The profundity of this moment, and the intimacy of knowing Charlotte’s childhood home, surely must affect the future relationship of these two (for better or worse).
  • The one bright spot in an otherwise darker episode is that of Lucy’s subplot. Since you never forget your first time, Lucy decides she wants a do-over of sorts. She seeks out the stableboy, and recites (as she’s likely done over and over again in her fantasies), “I am Lucy Wells, famed courtesan. Give me your money, and I’ll make you a man.” She emerges later with lightness and pride. She enters this business of prostitution on her own terms.
  • However, given her appearance at the stables and the geese waddling through the frame, I couldn’t help but think of the Grimms’ fairy tale—the Goose Girl. In it, a young maiden discovers that she cannot rely on her mother’s protection to save her, but rather must face the trials of adulthood on her own. It also includes the refrain, “if only your mother knew, her heart would break in two.” Since Lucy was told to save herself once more for Lord Repton, do we think Margaret will be much displeased with Lucy’s rogue romp in the hay?
  • The closing scene is a bit overambitious. Margaret places Mary in candlelit glory in Golden Square, quite literally bringing death to Quigley’s doorstep. The final frame echoes many we’ve seen before in Peaky Blinders. However, Harlots may have a ways yet before they earn the right play anachronistic music in the background as the anti-hero stands ready for a rumble and stares menacingly into the night.

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