Harlots season 2 review: Episode 5


The women of Harlots must face some hard truths in the face of betrayals, mistakes, and double-dealing.

While perpetually fascinating, the world of Harlots is a pretty grim one. After all, it’s the story of a group of women selling their bodies for survival and whose only path to any kind of power or influence usually involves sex. This situation often leads many — usually all — of these women to make some difficult, occasionally dangerous compromises.

Margaret Wells seems to be ruining most of her relationships as a result of her never-ending rivalry with fellow madam Lydia Quigley. Her daughter Lucy’s dabbling with some serious darkness thanks to her new status as Lord Fallon’s pet. And her older girl, Charlotte, is playing a very dangerous game as a spy in her enemy Quigley’s house.

For much of this season, Charlotte has seemed openly conflicted about her relationship with Lydia and her unspoken status as her heir. She and her mother Margaret have had a tempestuous connection at the best of times, and Lydia has always appeared to love Charlotte best. So Charlotte’s sudden decision to turn completely against Lydia here feels a bit as though it came out of nowhere, or at least as though it could have used an episode or so of further build-up. Harlots really goes all out in its attempt to convince Charlotte of Lydia’s evil, however, as she’s forced to tag along on one of Quigley’s trips to find a poor virgin girl to kidnap, force into prostitution, and sell to the highest bidder.

Charlotte’s realization of her own personal culpability here — she is involved with every step of Lydia’s entrapment and imprisonment plot — is apparently a bright line moment for her. Jessica Brown Findlay does an impressive job convincing us all of Charlotte’s revulsion over everything she’s suddenly an accessory to. However, one has to wonder about this, because it’s not as though she didn’t know exactly who Lydia was and the things she’s been accused of.

Perhaps we’re meant to read this as Charlotte coming to her senses once confronted in person with horrors she’d only previously heard about second-hand. She’s been living and lounging with Lydia for some time now, after all. Is that long enough to make her guilty by association? Did she condone her existence and behavior — on some level — prior to this point?

Harlots is a good enough show to be content in its own messiness, so it doesn’t tell us which of these reads is true. It’s possible that it’s both. Charlotte contains multitudes herself, so it makes sense that she could both be drawn to Lydia and repulsed by the awful things she’s done. To be a woman with Lydia’s power and influence obviously requires making some sacrifices and dark choices along the way. Maybe Charlotte didn’t realize just how dark those choices could become. (This seems unlikely for someone who was literally sold into sex work by her own mother at the age of 12, but who knows. We forgive our parents for a lot.) Perhaps Charlotte finally found the line she couldn’t cross. Maybe the idea of kidnapping girls was different when it was an abstract thing and not a young woman with a face and a name.

Charlotte’s active involvement in Lydia’s latest virgin kidnap plot puts her in a precarious position, however, as she’s at least somewhat legally responsible for what went down. It’s not a shock that Lydia manages to weasel out of trouble once more. (It’s kind of her thing after all.) But for Charlotte, this is the first time that her ability to sweet talk others lets her down so badly. She’s now literally trapped in her room, Lydia’s more than a little suspicious of her motives, and the girl she worked so hard to save was sold and deflowered anyway by the same man who offered to be Charlotte’s keeper last week. It’s unlikely Charlotte’s weeping too much over the loss of the affections of Lady Isabella’s creepy brother. But, on top of everything else, his choice is an extra blow.

Elsewhere, Amelia is facing her own difficult choices, as more people discover the secret of her relationship with Violet and Justice Hinds realizes she would make him the perfect wife. It’s hard to overstate how dangerous this all is for Amelia, particularly because she so aggressively presents herself as a moral and upright figure. Amelia and Violet are probably Harlots’ most charming romance, but their relationship comes with some complications that none of the others must face, particularly given the fact that Amelia doesn’t have the slight protection offered by being part of an already marginalized and publicly ostracized group such as the harlots.

Violet insists that Amelia and Hinds should marry, even though her unhappiness about the situation is palpable. Amelia is torn, since she clearly cares for Violet, but also fears her mother’s wrath now that she’s aware of her sexuality. And, not for nothing, but as husbands you don’t really want go, Hinds isn’t the worst option for her. He’s kind to her, clearly respects her opinion, and doesn’t seem likely to beat or otherwise abuse her.

Sure, he’d probably throw her in prison if he found out about her less than platonic feelings for Violet. But it’s also not something he’d ever suspect her of. Amelia’s likely as safe as she can be with a man like him, which is not insignificant for a woman in these times. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she says yes to his proposal. But what it will mean for her relationship with Violet going forward is anyone’s guess.

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As we head into the back third of the season, almost every character on Harlots is in a difficult spot, with no easy solutions to their problems. Emily’s pregnant. (Maybe.) Charlotte’s a prisoner. (Definitely.) Lucy is equally trapped, whether you consider her real problem her overbearing keeper or her newfound addition to darkness. (Yikes.) And Amelia’s engaged to a man she doesn’t love. (Whew.) Where do we go from here?