18th Century Sex & Feminism: The Audacious ‘Harlots’ Returns For Season 3
Try as they might, a new generation of period dramas – The Borgias, The Crown, Versailles – will never quite convey the gravitas, or raw, visceral depths of any number of Merchant Ivory films – A Room With a View, Maurice, Howards End…or, for that matter, the original Brideshead Revisited.
Arguably, the pinnacle of said dramas is Milos Forman’s 1984 masterpiece Amadeus, in part due to its willingness to upend historical accuracy for dramatic wallop – but mostly for its clever contextualization within a knowingly contemporary point of view. Which is sort of the creative, nay ideological device driving the still somewhat-under-the-radar but cheekily brilliant British series Harlots – the third season of which premieres this Wednesday, July 10, on Hulu.
Set in 18th Century Georgian London, the production is entirely written and directed by women (Allison Newman and Moira Buffini, to be specific), and thus possesses the keen incisiveness necessary to emotionally elevate its already rather compelling storyline. Essentially, it’s about a pair of competing houses of ill repute; and at a time (meaning now) when women’s sexual liberty is under assault from Alabama to Saudi Arabia and beyond, it is exquisitely, relevantly feminist in its tone and narrative.
The ever commanding Samantha Morton stars as Margaret Wells, head of a successful brothel, who finds herself at “war” with rival Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) for the lion’s share of the motivatingly profitable sex industry. Like Amadeus, it manages to come off slightly campy, but never silly, scandalous but never merely gratuitously titillating. In the third season, both madams have been “sidelined,” with Quigley put away in the Bedlam mental facility, and Wells escaped to America, specifically New York. Margaret’s daughter Charlotte (well played by Jessica Brown-Findlay) takes over the business, in a mimic of typical patriarchal nepotism.
The excellent cast also includes Liv Tyler as Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, and her relationship to Charlotte gives the series an engagingly queer subplot. And it must be said that even the costuming is used as a mood setting device, eschewing flounciness for the business of character definition.
It’s interesting that Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy of (horrible) manners is being held up as the latest feminist television paradigm – when in truth it’s really just another tired collection of privileged characters treating one another hideously and feeling sorry for themselves. Harlots is arguably far more effective as a depiction of the essence of female resolve and determination because, obviously, the stakes are so much higher.
See for yourself.