REVIEW: ‘Harlots’ Season 2 Starts Strong

Harlots ended its thrilling first season with a lot of balls in the air, so to speak, all of which are juggled with remarkable ease in the first few episodes of Season 2. The premiere especially doesn’t skip a beat, launching audiences without warning into the consequences of Margaret (Samantha Morton) and Lydia’s (Lesley Manville) war for control of the Georgian London bawdy house scene.

Lydia isn’t ready for Chrlotte’s master plan – and neither is Margaret.

The show never draws a clear line between good and evil, which is one of its greatest strengths, but it’s still a strong and damning statement to witness the backlash Margaret Wells is facing in the wake of Kitty’s death. The season opener makes clear just how much ground she’ll have to cover to regain the favor of her love ones, and her now estranged relationships with Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) and William (Danny Sapani) make for the most heart-wrenching moments of all. Family struggles also leave Lucy (Eloise Smyth) torn between all her protectors, and her surprising choices in the midst of that confusion will surely drive a good deal of the drama in the back half of the season. In the meantime, however, it is Charlotte’s burgeoning friendship with Lydia Quigley that drives the biggest stake through her mother’s heart – even if she’s a double agent for vengeance in the end.

That’s not to say that Lydia gets off easy at the start, either, thanks to the work of the new Justice in town and Margaret’s own campaign against her. As depraved as Lydia has shown herself to be, there are scenes in the second season that will inspire pity for her rather than revulsion – though she never loses her nasty edge, of course. Despite one woman being materially worse off than the other at the moment, the parallel between Margaret and Lydia is hard to ignore. Both have alienated their loved ones to the point that they have almost no one they can count on. The estrangement between parent and child is brought further into relief when comparing Margaret and her daughters to Lydia and Charles (Douggie McMeekin), who has firmly chosen his beloved Emily (Holli Dempsey) over his crooked mother. In fact, the happy-ish couples’ scenes provide some of the lightest moments early on as they struggle to open a brothel of their own without an inkling of business between them. Watch out for their eventual team-up with Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner), as it leads to hearty chuckles throughout the first part of the season.

Violet and Amelia keep hope alive.

While Justice Cunliffe (Richard McCabe) helped establish just how corrupt the system of supposed law and order often is, his replacement reflects how even well-meaning men can err when following the letter of the law. This dichotomy is particularly prevalent when it comes to dealing with Violet’s (Rosalind Eleazar), who provides an interesting and painful exploration of race and gender  fair warning that at least one of her scenes deals with visceral reminders of slavery and abuse in the 18th century. Countering the heaviness of the material, her romance with Amelia (Jordon Stevens) remains one of the sweetest elements in the show even as everything around them falls apart. Speaking of race, while Harlots is very willing to tackle intersectional issues in its feminism, there’s still room for some South Asian characters considering the migration patterns of the 18th century and the lascars who came to work for the British East India Company.

Finally, Harlots introduces the character of Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, played by Liv Tyler with a veneer of poise that belies murky waters. Her mysterious past with Lydia leads to a future full of dark promise by Charlotte’s side, but it will be something of a wait before her history and therefore the depth of her effect on the show is revealed. In the meantime, her life of repressed luxury makes for an interesting visual contrast against the glamorous but gaudy looks of the Covent Garden Ladies. It’s a juxtaposition that’s nearly as successful as that of the modern soundtrack that floats through every scene, forcing the audience to reconcile the morals and manners of the eighteenth with the lens of the twenty-first.

Season 2 has as much grit as it does glitz, and those who were hooked by the first eight episodes will not be let down by what comes next. The first two episodes of Harlots premiere Wednesday, July 11th on Hulu and will be followed by weekly episode releases for the rest of the season.

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