The importance of Emily Lacey’s island of misfit toys on Harlots


There’s at least one vaguely light-hearted storyline in Harlots’ second season.

There’s not a lot of fun thus far in the world of Harlots this time around.

Sure, it’s entertaining to watch. But the stories are pretty grim. At just three episodes in, we’ve already seen a murder, a public flogging, a riot, prison house humiliation and more. Given the world in which these women lived and worked, it isn’t that surprising. Life in this time period was difficult and was even more so for women.

It’s why Harlots touts that statistic of one in five women in Georgian London are sex workers so often. Power — and choice — is limited here. But it is certainly lacking in joy. Or even humor.

Enter Emily Lacey.

The wayward harlot turned new madam is a consistent bright spot in season 2’s storylines. Not because she or her circumstances have changed much since the end of the first season. No, it’s simply because Emily is one of the few characters whose presence doesn’t immediately imply that something grim and dire is about to happen. She’s bright, entertaining, and simply fun to watch.

Even after everything she’s been through, there’s something of an inherent optimist in Emily. This is likely because she’s Harlots ultimate survivor, having made it through an attempted murder, survived two different bawd houses and direct face-offs with both Margaret Wells and Lydia Quigley. (She also has enough sense not to run directly toward danger, as evidenced by her decision not to testify against Lydia. You could learn something, Wells women.)

At the end of the day, Emily’s desires are simple: She wants to live to see another one. Yet, she also craves popularity and a certain kind of respectability that’s unlikely to ever befall a harlot. She’s shallow and vain, but she’s also extremely determined, willing to roll the dice and take some risks. In the world of Harlots, she’s an eternal loose cannon, which means that she could ostensibly pop up in any sort of storyline.

Even a romance. It seems unexpected that one of Harlots most strident realists seems to have fallen in love. And with Lydia Quigley’s son of all people! While this may have all began as an affair of convenience and/or manipulation, depending on how you look at it, it now certainly seems real.

Sure, Emily and Quigley’s son isn’t exactly a romance for the ages. Their relationship is not as charmingly sweet as Amelia and Violet, or as solidly complicated as Margaret and Will. But their feelings for one another seem surprisingly genuine for the world of Harlots, in which real affection is consistently scarce. The two are ridiculous together, but you can’t deny they have a certain charm.

Emily’s ambition is such that it’s difficult to believe she won’t find success with her new bawd house, a cabinet of curiosities that brings together all sorts of purposefully different women. This twist not only offers characters like Harriet and Cherry something to do, it reminds us that the world of London sex work is bigger than Margaret, Lydia and their endless feuding. It will also surely offer more entertainment than either of those places.

Furthermore, Emily’s story offers an interesting counterpoint to Lucy’s. The youngest Wells girl has accepted an offer from the horrible Lord Fallon. He’ll be her keeper, he’ll pay her an exorbitant amount of money, and Lucy will wrest control of her future by simply becoming rich enough to control her own destiny. But until that day comes, she’ll be constantly in service to a man’s whims and desires. Emily, it seems, has chosen a different path. One where she makes the rules for herself.

There’s room for both of these stories in Harlots, but you have to wonder which of them will wind up happier in the end.

Next: Harlots season 2: Episode 3 review

New episodes of Harlots stream every Wednesday on Hulu.