Harlots season 2 review: Episode 7


The penultimate episode of Harlots season 2 may be the series’ darkest episode yet. But what does that mean for the show as a whole?

Harlots has a lot of nerve. Most of its regular viewers already know that, since the period drama regularly tackles dark and thorny issues on a variety of topics related to women’s oppression and survival. But season 2’s penultimate episode escalates things even further, sending Margaret to the gallows and setting up a complicated endgame that may ultimately pit the Wells sisters against one another before it’s all over.

This episode comes this close to killing Margaret, going so far as to show her dangling from the hangman’s noose for several extremely long moments before Justice Hunt comes to himself and saves her. In the end, however, it’s not clear how much a mercy allowing Margaret to live actually is. Hunt has decided to commute her sentence to transportation, which basically means she’s being shipped to America to work off her crimes in what basically amounts to indentured servitude.

Given Margaret’s age, the length of transportation sentence a murder would likely carry and the dangers of a journey across the Atlantic, she’ll never see her children or family again. And, worst of all, they all think her dead already, and seem to have already started the process of mourning her. She’ll be truly alone, which is probably a punishment worse than death for her.

Even though Margaret is technically still alive as the episode ends, the ramifications of her “death” will likely be felt by almost every character. If, of course, her banishment to America is permanent, which we have no guarantee that it will be. It’s hard to see how Harlots would let one of their leading actresses leave, but one could make the argument that the show might benefit in season 3 from both Wells girls having to fend for themselves for a time. (Much as we all love the Margaret vs Lydia feud, it’s not entirely clear how much longer it can go on when both women have tried to have the other hanged.)

Furthermore, the absence of Margaret has triggered something akin to an almost total board reset when it comes to Harlots’ story. Charlotte and Nancy are determined to bring down Lydia for her involvement in scuttling Margaret’s pardon. (And eventually, they’re going to go after Lord Fallon too, one has to assume.) Lucy has chosen a side more definitively than ever, lying to give her keeper an alibi for murder and rejecting her mother’s warnings about him. Emily Lacey is the new spy in the Quigley house, attempting to rescue a kidnapped girl and trap Lydia before everyone realizes she’s not as pregnant as she claims to be. Amelia is both conscious and miraculously not dead, presumably about to name Lord Fallon as the man who stabbed her.

Even Lydia — who has a strange moment of what appears to almost be sadness before she puts her foot on the proverbial gas with the Lord Chief Justice to ensure Margaret’s hanging — can’t possibly escape unscathed. For all that Quigley has managed to slip out of pretty much every scrape imaginable this season, it seems particularly reckless that she should rub her involvement in Margaret’s death in Charlotte’s face like this. Perhaps this is her way of lashing out at the girl she considered a daughter for spying on her in her own house, but even for Lydia, it’s pretty wild.

In short: With or without Margaret, it’s hard to guess what’s coming next.

The thing is, however, Harlots season 2 has gotten so dark over the course of the season that it’s also hard to know how the series comes back from this. Sure, it’s always been a pretty gritty show, especially for a period drama.

It looks unflinchingly at issues like female power, oppression, sexuality, and pleasure. Its depiction of the nature of sex work is surprisingly realistic. Yet, it also had moments of lightness and levity. Or at least something less than the relentless grimness that characterizes much of season 2.

After all the murders and stabbings and rapes and near hangings and kidnappings and betrayals and incest babies… can Harlots ever go back to being a show about the competition between rival bawd houses? Doesn’t that seem like something we saw long ago in a much simpler time?

Harlots has certainly taken everything up to eleven in its second season. But if we want it to have a third — and, hopefully, a fourth or fifth — shouldn’t the show maybe tone it down just a little bit?

It seems as though the Emily Lacy storyline is meant to inject some humor and lighthearted moments into the show. But almost everything else has become so bleak that the scenes in Emily’s house now stand out awkwardly, rather than provide any sort of respite.

There’s a version of this season where watching Emily figure out how to be a madam on her own, and walking a line between the worlds of Margaret and Lydia, is a fascinating story. Here, however, it often feels like her scenes are merely meant to fill time until we can get back to the more meaningful storylines with Charlotte, Lydia or Margaret.

Will Harlots itself feel like that, when all this drama is said and done? Maybe not. After all, one of last season’s primary stories did turn on a cabal of aristocrats seeking to rape young virgins. There’s certainly a place for darkness in this show. But has it taken over? And if so, is that even a bad thing? What kind of show does Harlots really want to be? As the second season finale looms, it seems likely we’re about to find out.

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New episodes of Harlots stream Wednesdays on Hulu.