Blood and Motherhood on Episode Six of “Harlots”

Read the recap for Episode Five here.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!—One, two. Why, then, ’tis time to do ’t. Hell is murky!
Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Harlots is getting bloody, y’all. Not Game of Thrones bloody, of course, but bloody enough that the stakes have risen considerably for our characters. From the beginning, there is blood everywhere on this show; virgin blood on the sheets, blood from the murdered girl kidnapped by Lydia, and, sometimes, blood that can’t even be seen, smeared on the hands of our striving heroes. Now, with episode six, there is blood from a main character whose his life is cut short under shocking circumstances. Yes, folks. The repugnant Sir George Howard is no more, stabbed first by Lucy when he tries to ‘get it on with her’ before being choked to death by Lucy’s mother, Margaret Wells.

The women of Harlots are bound together by many things, such as circumstances, determination, and a fabulous sense of style. But what binds them more – truly binds them – is blood. It is blood between kin, blood that is scrubbed off the floors, blood that sticks to their skin no matter how hard they wash. First, it is Mary Cooper, whose death is used by both Maggie and Lydia Quigley in their game to outdo each other. Now, it is Sir George. Spurned by Charlotte (and rightfully so), he storms into Maggie’s house, demanding to become Lucy’s keeper instead. Maggie, after learning of Lucy’s hesitation in becoming the creepy Lord Fallon’s, decides on the spot that she should be given to Sir George.

The pompous idiot decides to break the news to Lucy himself. When they are closeted in a bedroom together, Sir George becomes as possessive of Lucy as only Sir George can be. “I like your simplicity, your willingness to gratify and honour me,” he says. “You’re a girl I could form in the flame of my own will,” he says. “You belong to me,” he says, while forcing himself on her. And Lucy, who is still traumatised from her experience with the Reptons and Lord Fallon, grabs a knife and plunges it into his gut. Margaret, in a desperate attempt to save her daughter from the noose, stops anyone from going to the surgeon. Will cautions her against it, but in the end, Maggie does what she deems necessary. (Like Will says, “Go your own way, Margaret. You always will.”) She finishes the job on Sir George, and later, it is Will and Nancy who smuggle his body out of the house and dump it in the river.

As for Lydia, she is on a bloody spree of her own. Although she is initially shaken when she discovers the fate of the young girl she has kidnapped for Justice Cunliffe, her attitude seems to have now hardened. Maggie is steely in her resolve to protect Lucy and murder Sir George, but she obviously struggles with her conscious. Lydia, however, is harder to read, and, in many ways, harder to understand. She comes back around to Justice Cunliffe and excuses the vile act of those powerful man by delivering one chilling line: “Tis their murder. Not ours.” She also schemes to give them Emily Lacey, as payback for the girl having poisoned her son. “This girl deserves her fate,” says Lydia. In an attempt to drive Lydia away from her house while Will smuggles out Sir George’s corpse, Maggie gives away the location of Emily’s hiding place. Lydia, vengeful and unforgiving, has her men drag Emily out of Nancy’s place and into a carriage, presumably to her death.

It is fascinating to see these different responses Lydia and Maggie have toward the taking of a life. I wonder if this is an indication for the final battle that is to come. Is Lydia going to be more ruthless than Margaret? Will the Wells’ guilt be their saving grace? Or will Lydia’s (presumed) lack of it be her downfall? 

Lucy, look after your mother. She just killed a man for you.” / “It is my murder now. It’ll be me who’ll burn.”

Other than blood, another thing that binds all these women together is motherhood. Firstly, we have Fanny who is about to give birth; she has waited too long to get an abortion. For a harlot, having a baby means getting kicked out of the house, and as Fanny feels her baby kick for the first time, we can’t help but feel for her plight. Secondly, there is Lydia, who nearly lost her son and is now on a rampage to avenge him. Thirdly, there is the preacher, Mrs. Scadwell, and her daughter, Amelia. Mrs. Scadwell finally gathers up the courage to tell Amelia the truth: that she was once a harlot and has no idea who the father of her child is. Fourthly, there is Harriet, who is doing all she can to buy back her children’s freedom. And lastly, there is Maggie and her two daughters, Charlotte and Lucy, who are all at frightening crossroads in their lives.

It is interesting to see the way in which the show is portraying motherhood. From the very beginning, Harlots has been great at giving us women who are different, but equally as strong. (Think Maggie VS Lydia, Charlotte VS Lucy etc.) Now, the relationship between mother and daughter is being explored in the very same manner: through very contrasting lenses. Having a child can either be a curse or a blessing in this world. For Fanny, it is presented as the former. For Mrs. Scadwell, however, having Amelia definitely falls into the latter category. (“God sent me a daughter. You’ve saved me.”) And as for the daughters, we get the vulnerability of Lucy, who begs for her mother when Sir George is about to attack her. We also get Charlotte, who is more hesitant to approach her mother in times of trouble. “I’ll get nothing but tribulation from her,” Charlotte tells Nancy.

Make no mistake – a mother’s love is an all-encompassing thing. It reverberates through almost every scene in this episode.Even when Sir George is dying, it is almost a maternal act when Maggie caresses his face – like a mother giving her son comfort before she takes his life away from him. Nancy is right when she tells Charlotte that her mother, Maggie, will “do anything for you” and for Lucy. Yes, it is Lucy who plunges the knife into Sir George, but it is Maggie who makes him breathe his last. She is prepared to take on the weight of the act and the repercussions of it, all for the sake of her daughter. She keeps repeating the phrases, “I must save Lucy,” and “I did it for Lucy”. Therefore, it is only fitting that another one of the episode’s most shocking moments also has something to do with motherhood. It is revealed that, yes, Lydia was not just Maggie’s jailor, but her surrogate mother as well. After Maggie has revealed Emily’s hiding place, Lydia seductively calls her “little Maggie” and “my good girl”. “You always tell Mumma the truth in the end,” she says. But, surprisingly, it is Mrs. Scadwell who delivers the shocking revelation about Lydia: “You took Margaret Wells as a child. It is not hate that drives you. It is love.”

Granted, episode six is not one of Harlots’ stronger episodes, but I still give it huge props for exploring another aspect of womanhood. It shows that, for better or worse, a mother’s love has the power to create both greatness and destruction. And when it is destruction it creates, you better be prepared. For in the world of Harlots, this means blood will surely follow.

Out, damned spot, indeed.

Stray Observations

  • “I’m proud of you.” / “But you’re angry.” – This exchange between Will and Maggie after he has stood up to Benjamin might be a small moment, but it is a great one. Will continues to be Harlots’ ‘Man of The Year’, especially with how protective he is of Lucy. It is ’Will and Maggie forever’ for me, as the kids say these days.
  • I am a huge fan of the conversation between Maggie and Nancy about Emily Lacey. It is great to finally learn more about Nancy’s past, but the real meat of the scene is Nancy reminding Maggie of ‘girl-power’, so to speak. (“You said we should sustain and defend each other.”) Alas, there can only be trouble ahead for the two friends once Nancy finds out that it is Maggie who has revealed Emily’s hiding place to Lydia.
  • More scenes between Will and Harriet, please.
  • “I can see how it’s gone. One zealous Spartan squeezes too hard, feels a thrilling power and a girl dies.” – Another line by Lydia that deserves recognition for its chilling and vivid imagery.
  • Haxby-watch – There is not much action for my number one gentleman butler this episode, but he does stop Charlotte from retrieving her valuables at Sir George’s house. Charlotte, who is going to America with her Irish lad (whose name no one remembers), acts somewhat out-of-character by not ignoring Haxby’s threat and deciding to give up on the task much too readily. This is, of course, an opportunity for the Irish lad to deck Haxby and be the hero. Therefore, Haxby’s shining moment comes only when he is begging Sir George to forgive him for (still – gasp!) sleeping with Charlotte! “I contended daily with her lustful onslaughts,” Haxby wails. “She goaded me with wanton proposals whenever your back was turned. She was like a succubus upon my soul. It was not readily I fell.” Oh, Haxby. Harlots’ very own tortured anti-hero.

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