Harlots season 2 premiere review: Episodes 1 and 2

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HARLOTS — Episode 1 — 201 – When an unyielding new Justice makes a surprise arrest, Margaret and Nancy must race to find witnesses to give evidence against Lydia Quigley. Could this finally be their chance to get Lydia to pay for her crimes? Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) shown. (Photo by: Liam Daniel/Hulu)

Hulu’s feisty, feminist period drama Harlots returns for a second season — with consequences galore for everyone.

Harlots returns for a second season full of the same grit, bravery, and swing for the fences bravado that characterized its first. It pulls no punches in its premiere episode, picking right back up where we left off in last year’s finale. And there are plenty of consequences for everyone.

If you were worried that a time jump might gloss over some of season 1’s final twists, fear not. The second season begins almost immediately where the first ended. Charlotte settles into life at Lydia Quigley’s house. Margaret and William’s marriage continues to crumble in the wake of their murder of George Howard. She and Nancy are barely on speaking terms. Quigley’s blasé arrangement of Justice Cunliffe’s ouster (read: death) last season leads to an even worse replacement in the form of the by-the-book puritanical Judge Hunt. And Charlotte continues plotting to bring Lydia down from within her very home, exuding charm and skill all the while.

So, you know, there’s a lot going on.

One of the greatest things about Harlots is its unrelenting honesty. Not necessarily about the period trappings it decks itself out in — it seems unlikely that Charlotte Wells would look quite so much like a walking candy cane in real life. No, Harlots is unflinchingly truthful in its tone and presentation, in a way that few modern series are capable of matching. (Let alone costume dramas!)

There are no hero(ine)s here. Perhaps there are some characters you enjoy more than others. Or those you dislike more strongly. Maybe Margaret’s selfishness rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps you find her determination admirable. Lydia’s performative nastiness can be deeply entertaining to watch. But the show never lets you forget the monster that lurks underneath. Even innocent Lucy isn’t perfect: Her constant whining can be as annoying as her quiet determination is admirable.

These women are all extremely complicated and deeply flawed. And that’s precisely what makes their story such compelling television.

Despite its subject matter, which might lend itself to a certain degree of moralizing in a weaker show, Harlots never draws clear lines between good and evil. Everyone’s morals are messy things, on the best of days. And pretty much everyone has some kind of dark skeleton in their closet. Each character, if you asked them, would probably claim they had the noblest of motivations. Lydia’s a murderer, you say? Well, so are Margaret and Lucy. They’ve all lied to or betrayed or cheated one another. Sometimes all three! In this London, those things are simply a means to survive They’re not necessarily character flaws. And Harlots never lets us forget that, even as each of these women must face some degree of consequence for their actions, be it in money, social status or relationships.

Lydia is perhaps the closest thing the show has to a real villain. And even she sports some fascinating shades of grey from time to time. Watching her get her comeuppance in the season’s first episode is cathartic, as she’s jeered in court, humiliated in prison and slapped with a backbreaking fine. In truth, she deserves all of it, and more. But it’s still hard not to feel some empathy for her experience, as everyone she once counted on abandons her. (Even and including her own son, who seems all too eager to pick over her proverbial corpse.)

For her part, Margaret is actively pushing  away anyone in her life that might care about her, accusing her husband of infidelity, treating her girls like prisoners, and obsessively focusing on her feud with Lydia. Much of her emotional spiral is clearly driven by her murder of George Howard, as well as her subsequent decision to let her older daughter take the fall for it in order to protect her younger one.

Her determined insistence to punish Lydia seems to be as much about cleansing herself as it does finally vanquishing her old enemy. (At this point, I wonder what either of these women would be without the other to hate and/or strive against.) When Kitty turns up dead at Margaret’s front door — poor thing, she had no idea what a freak Lord Fallon actually was — there’s certainly a sense that this game now goes well beyond her understanding. Are Margaret, or any of her girls, ready for that?

The season 2 premiere also introduces Liv Tyler as wealthy Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam. Her more stoic aristocratic lifestyle presents a marked contrast to the bright colors and loud voices of the bawdy houses. But her secrets — and Lydia’s blackmail threat — hint at a much darker and more interesting past. Yet, despite her status, Lady Fitz remains under the thumb of the same system that oppresses the harlots themselves: Men. Her brother uses her gender to keep control of her inheritance, basically arguing her little lady brain can’t handle it. In her way, Lady Fitz is as trapped as the other women in this story — just with a slightly more opaque veneer of respectability. Will she too figure out a way to assert her independence? Time will tell.