And Another Thing: The Camp Appeal of <i>Harlots</i> Is Through the Roof

Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about. 


Much like a bewigged, grubby little lordling drunkenly traipsing around the 18th century, I’ve spent the past while binging on Harlots. I’ve even made up a jaunty little theme tune for the three-season Hulu series: “We are the Harlots brave and true / Don’t screw us and we won’t screw you.” To be sure, there’s some whores in this house, and it was around the time one group of harlots dropped a poxy corpse on the doorstep of another as a warning that I realized, they do not fuck around.

According to Harlots, there are two ways to run a dirty business: The clean way and the evil way. A vivacious Samantha Morton stars as Margaret Wells, a notorious albeit principled brothel-keeper in 1760s London. She’ll take in willing girls off the (deadly dangerous) streets and keep 'em fed and safe, if on their backs, as long as they don’t steal and are crab-free. If you leave this article convinced of nothing else, let it be the beauty of Morton’s laugh: She gives Wells a tremendous cackle so gleeful, you just know this character must be the genesis for the phrase “bawdy laughter.” It’s a work of art.

And over in the “Dirty Bitch” corner, we have Lesley Manville as Lydia Quigley, who operates in the exact opposite direction: She’s a kidnapper who tricks young country virgins to her brothel, drugs them, locks them up, and sells them to the highest bidder. Kidnapping and rape are among the least of her crimes. As a longtime Man-fan, I’m used to seeing her play more wilting-violet-type characters from this time period, and it seems clear she’s having a bang with such a heel. Quigley generally engages in “diabolical fuckery,” per one of my favorite whores, Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey).

Crude and pleasingly anachronistic bile is one of the many delights of period pieces, as any Deadwood fan knows. The dialogue on Harlots isn’t nearly as grand as what you hear from Deadwood's Swearengen and the gang, but the camp appeal of the writing on Harlots is through the roof. Yes, there are the standards like “Stop vexing Kitty!” But we also have hits like, “You overreach yourself,” “You underestimate me.” Shivers!! Then there’s, “It’s a mortal sin to defraud a workman of his wages,” Irish accent version. No really, go read that sentence again in an Irish accent. It sounds so much better! And of course, “I should have had a girl, she wouldn’t have allowed herself to be duped by a whore!” (When you’re right, you’re right.) 

There’s more B-television appeal of Harlots in, broadly, the gang shit. Do you know what the difference is between crime bosses of then and now? Absolutely nothing! They go to parties and boxing matches, try to think up the next best hustle or investment, and spend a lot of time gambling with money and other people's lives. If you like Claws, you’ll like Harlots. If you like Queen of the South, you’ll like Harlots. If you like not-that-subtle “The law only applies to rich men!” talk coupled with lurid subplots, you’ll like Harlots. Liv Tyler appears at one point with hair so large (there are many times it doesn’t fit in frame) you know it must be full of dark, dark secrets. 

So, what’s a girl from the gutter with hopes of a better life to do? Running away to America, still a colony, is the dream — for the white characters, anyway. Margaret’s longtime partner (and the father to her youngest son) William North (Danny Sapani) is Black, and is very much “fuck that” when the family is wondering where they can hide out for a while. Harlot Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is from America, brought to Britain by her master/”lover” and father of her children. He dies, and because her children are property, they now belong to his eldest son. Harriet spends the next several episodes trying to purchase her kids back. I really appreciate this show for not being shy about the racial dynamics of commerce; there’s absolutely no point in being coy about buying and selling people whether we’re discussing it in the content of the 18th century or 21st. 

Unsurprisingly, a show about prostitution isn’t very romantic. But I deeply appreciate the “female gaze” of the sex scenes, aka business transactions: It’s best described as “copulation.” There’s very little nudity, mostly just flabby white asses humping. The most romantic bits are stolen kisses (the kind you don’t have to pay for) taken in alleys and hallways. They’re not subtle about varied human grotesqueries: condoms get rinsed out, piss pots get chucked into the street — moments later, a lady in a fine trailing dress walks through it. All that said, it’s still TV, and these are actors playing pretend, so everyone’s got great teeth. Literally every single one of these 18th-century harlots has better teeth than me — I question the verisimilitude.

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