Harlots Helps Explain Why the Alpha Women of TV Risk Becoming Boring

TV Features Harlots
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<i>Harlots</i> Helps Explain Why the Alpha Women of TV Risk Becoming Boring

- “Women will always be at the mercy of men’s power.”
- “It’s not your power we’re at the mercy of. It’s your weakness.”Harlots, Season Two


OK, Hulu: Let’s talk about power and weakness, shall we? Like many, I gave Season One of Harlots a very positive review. Has it changed? Have I changed? Do I have Gilead Fatigue Syndrome? Which specialist do you even call for that test? I’ve been in an immersive relationship with The Handmaid’s Tale for months now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the shadow of Ye Olde Patriarchy (or is it?): Namely, the tendency, in oppressive patriarchal systems, for the truly hideous violence to be by women against other, competing women. Causal? Coincidental? I could probably make an argument either way, and I don’t intend to bother. It’s there. The major game in Gilead is not men versus women, it’s the conniving, undermining, psychologically brutal and often enough physically violent clashes between and among women. In Georgian-era London’s richly populated sex-worker scene, it is apparently the same. The shadowy specter of violence against women by men is almost pathetic compared to the stuff Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) are up to.

Women are, to use an admittedly broad but not statistically inaccurate generalization, more social than men, in the sense that we largely develop our sense of self through our relationships with other women (Google “self in relation theory” if this is not ringing your bells). Our mothers, our sisters, our friends, our frenemies, our rivals, our mentors—we’re socially complicated as a rule and we tend to test boundaries on psychological battlefields more than young boys. This could be biology, socialization or (most likely) both, and teasing those apart is often a fruitless endeavor, but if you grew up in a female body you have almost certainly experienced psychological violence and manipulation at the hands of another female. So I suppose it’s not surprising that the Warring Alpha Dames trope is so ubiquitous in storytelling (Bette and Joan. Attia and Servilia. Offred and Serena. Every daytime soap ever).

So, am I just tired of it? I don’t know. I can say that Harlots gets off to a slow, clunky start in Season Two: I didn’t really feel reeled in by it until probably the fourth episode. But by the end I was back in the saddle, sure. Its lavish visual sensibility and general sauciness are great, and many of the characters are terrific fun. Nancy, played by Kate Fleetwood, with her Jack Sparrow costumes, massive cheekbones and equally massive cheek, is a delight every second she’s on screen. Margaret Wells is a madam you can’t help liking. And Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam—hey there, Liv Tyler!—is a fascinating addition. Does the dialogue distract with some belligerently unedited anachronism? Yeah. Does the exposed-pipe plot-setting feel mannered? Yes. Are there a hell of a lot of predictable turns? Yes, and yet it’s still totally watchable. Especially if you have an indulgent attitude toward a slightly slovenly disregard for complexity. Or share the showrunners’ yearning to help make Hulu the official #MeToo network.

But I cannot help looking askance at a self-indulgent, wish-fulfillment-driven universe in which rich white men must be demonstrably and catastrophically evil, the poor are nearly always virtuous, every woman is smarter and craftier than every man, everyone is a victim of sexual abuse (like, everyone), anyone pious is either a hypocrite or a simpleton, and anyone from a downtrodden or marginalized demographic is unflaggingly noble (unless they are also wealthy, in which case they go directly to evil, unless they are the sex abuse victim of someone even wealthier). In short, I find myself in the same spot I landed in after watching Netflix’s Anne With an E: The failure to slap a corset on this script and not just on the actors is getting in my way. Harlots is undisciplined. It positions itself as a historical drama, then refuses to rein in its need to give it of-the-now sensibilities. Is it historically inaccurate? The first season didn’t seem to be, and I am sure the basics were vetted here, too. (Yes, women owned brothels. Yes, the rich neighborhoods were the rich neighborhoods and the grubby ones were the grubby ones.) But the writing seems to have gotten much more slack, or glib, or predictable. I didn’t find Season One boring. Season Two flirts with it quite a lot.

Men who experience any form of arc or development in this season? One. Seriously, one: A plain, working-class justice named Josiah Hunt (Sebastian Armesto), with eyeglasses, a stutter, and Puritan leanings. And he’s so lowly and emasculated by his social “betters” that he almost qualifies as a gal in this world (Nancy could kick his ass). Man-woman relationships, sexual or otherwise, that experience significant development? Few, and basically all connected to the one male character who is allowed to grow. Throw in Wells’ partner, Will (Danny Sapani), and there’s at least one other man who is consistently something other than conniving, inbred and sadistic, but arc-wise, all that happens to him happens in reaction to Margaret, and he moves out and moves in, but not that much really changes; he’s very sturdy furniture, but he’s still just furniture.

Don’t get me wrong, I like scrappy ladies one-upping each other just fine. And there is plenty in the second season of Harlots to enjoy, even if Lydia Quigley is becoming more and more two-dimensional and even if you can predict every single move of every piece on this chessboard. But, for the record: You can predict every single move of every piece on this chessboard. And I’m beginning to find it underwhelming. I’m concerned, guys. I’m pretty sure that in 18th century London it was possible, as it is today, to be a good person who does a bad thing, or a bad person who does a good thing. I’m pretty sure you could be a man without being singularly abusive, or white without being impotent or a sadist, or an ethical person without being desperately downtrodden. I’m pretty sure sex workers had a broad range of feelings about their profession and that not all rapists were from the upper classes. And I’m pretty sure it was, and remains, possible to change.

New episodes of Harlots Season Two are available Wednesdays on Hulu.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.