Harlots season 2 review: Episode 3


At its heart, Harlots’ second season is about the fraught, formative relationships between women.

The ongoing rivalry between Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley is ostensibly the main plot point of Harlots season 2, but the story at its heart is one about mothers, daughters, and the fraught, formative relationships between women. One of the biggest plot hooks this season is the idea that Charlotte Wells is a Trojan horse of sorts, infiltrating Lydia’s house and life in order to punish the woman for a lifetime of slights against her family. There’s probably also that thing where she was kidnapping young girls for her decidedly creepier clients. Charlotte, however, is struggling with this task.

Life hasn’t been easy for the eldest Wells girl. Growing up as the prized jewel of her mother’s bawdy house, it doesn’t seem as though she ever got much in the way of maternal affection. Instead, her virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder as soon as she was 12 years old.

Sure, Charlotte has wit, beauty, and a level of popularity, but she’s also lonely and has continually felt overlooked in favor of her younger sister. Even now, Margaret sees Charlotte as a tool as much as her daughter.

Despite everything that’s passed between them — arguments, a virtual disowning, and a public break in which Charlotte moved out — all Margaret wants to talk about is her daughter’s relationship with Lydia. (And whether or not she’ll manage to take down her rival.) It’s no wonder that Charlotte seems to have several moments in which her desire to punish Lydia wavers.

After all, Lydia is one of the few people who chooses Charlotte when given the opportunity and reason to do otherwise. Her affection — as much as we can believe someone like Lydia feels affection — certainly feels genuine enough. She values Charlotte’s presence and perspective and appears to trust her in a way that her own mother does not. And she tells her so, repeatedly. Surely for someone like Charlotte, who craves any outward sign of care or preference, this is hard to ignore. One can only harden one’s heart so far.

However, at least for this week, Charlotte still insists that Lydia’s ruin is her ultimate end game. She tells her mother and Lady Fitz as much, in spite of the fact that she has a couple of almost charming heart to hearts with Lydia and her apparent BFF Lady May. (Though the latter actually threatens to harm her if she manages to hurt Lydia, so that’s new.) Despite Charlotte’s harsh promises, it’s far from certain that she’ll actually go through with any of these plans. That’s not only because she herself seems to waver in her convictions on this score, but because it’s also unclear whether her new alliance with Lady Fitz will help or hinder her.

For her part, the noblewoman seems as trapped in her life of privilege as Charlotte is in hers without. As much as any of Margaret or Lydia’s girls, she has a role to play, with expected duties to perform and lines to recite. Her power is almost fully at the mercy of her distinctly creepy brother. And he apparently not only controls Isabella, but wants to control Charlotte as well. Lady Fitz, it would seem, views Charlotte as less of a friend and more something she can keep. (Or possibly prevent her brother from keeping.)

Season 2’s third episode is particularly full of creepy men, as Lord Fallon officially becomes Lucy’s keeper for the fairly extravagant fee of five hundred pounds a year. (That’s not a joke, by the way. It’s a lot of money for the time period.) Harlots doesn’t delve very deeply into Lucy’s motivations here. We know she doesn’t particularly like Lord Fallon. (And we, the audience, know he’s a murderer on top of everything else.) But in the three episodes so far, we haven’t spent a ton of time with Lucy. Therefore we don’t know exactly where her head is at the moment.

Does she just want to be wealthy in own right? Out from under her mother’s thumb? More famous or popular than Charlotte? All we’ve seen her do thus far this season is pretty much whine, pout and otherwise flounce around. It’s not clear how we got from last season’s Lucy — who didn’t even necessarily want to be a harlot in the first place — to this one, a woman suddenly willing to negotiate with a man via public sex act. And that’s the kind of seismic shift that is worth unpacking, at least a bit.

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We’re probably meant to be afraid for Lucy as, despite all her bravado, she’s clearly in well over her head. Lord Fallon is a monster. And no matter how much he enjoys the idea of corrupting Lucy, that’s not the same as caring about her.

However, it’s also not clear whether Harlots wants us to root for Lucy to successfully strike out on her own or stay with her mother. Her blasé attitude with Amelia — that money is the most important thing there is — is certainly depressing, but also not entirely wrong. For a woman in this time period? Money is freedom. Will Lucy get hers? Or will she find herself tempted by the darkness of Lord Fallon’s world?