“Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.” – Lord Varys, Game of Thrones
It must seem bizarre to start a recap of an episode of Harlots with a quote from Game of Thrones. But, surprisingly,these two series share more similarities than you might think. Harlots might not have flying dragons and magic swords, but its world has proven as patriarchal and as brutal as the one created by George R.R. Martin, especially for its women and the ‘common’ people. The ‘high lords’ play their games and make their moves on the board, while the people struggle to survive beneath the crushing weight of their boots. Harlots is very much populated by these characters – survivors and grafters who are clawing their way out from the mud.
In episode three, we begin to see them finally getting their hands on a semblance of control and power: Margaret (Samantha Morton) moves her girls and her family into the new house on Greek Street; Lucy (Eloise Smyth) is ‘moving up in the world’ after she is bought by the Reptons, an aristocratic couple who are all sorts of creepy; and Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay) is exerting more control than ever over her Sir George (Hugh Skinner). But as the story progresses, we begin to realise that this is the darkest episode of Harlots thus far. That the power these women think they have gained is not really power at all. Like Varys says, it is merely “a shadow on the wall”, a “trick” that comes at an incredibly steep price.
Ever since I started watching Harlots, I am struck by the themes of control and power the series is exploring. In the world of Harlots, gaining control and power – either in wealth or class status – is the only way these women can hope to survive or thrive in life. But from the series’ pilot, we can’t help but wonder how much control and power these women actually have, even when they think they have it. Take Lucy in this third episode, for example. Lucy has always been presented as a ‘higher grade’ harlot than the other girls in Maggie’s house. Like her elder sister, Charlotte, her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder. She has a demure air, shy and innocent, plunking away elegantly on the piano while other girls swagger unabashedly in front of their clients. The episode begins with Lucy revelling in her status as the prized harlot and looking forward to climbing up the social ladder with a visit to the Reptons. She calls Fanny “a proper whore” and when chastised by her mother – who cautions her for putting herself “above” the other girls – she retorts with an almost rhetorical question of, “Am I not above them?” Even when she is crudely approached by a man on her way to the Reptons, Lucy still thinks she is in power. She rejects the man’s dangerous advances not only with justified anger, but with a false sense of security in her own position.
“You have not been born rich or fortunate enough to enjoy congress with the likes of me.”
Things, of course, take a turn for the worse once Lucy arrives at the Repton’s country estate. Yes, she is bathed and feted in luxurious fashion, but at the end of the day, she is nothing but a plaything for them. Lady Repton even gifts her a porcelain doll – “A little doll for our little doll” . Lucy’s illusion that she is a “guest” of the Reptons quickly disappears as she is literally hunted through the woods by them and is then raped by Lord Repton, who is further incensed by Lucy’s playful jibe about his manhood. The scene of the rape itself is not shown, but we do see the aftermaths of the event. We see Lucy with claw-marks on her back, of her traumatised face as she travels back to London, of her curled up on the floor of her bedroom like a bird whose wings had been cut. Even Lady Repton herself, who first comes across as equally giddy about the whole situation as her husband, is not in control at all. No matter how hard she tries to join in in her husband’s based desires, her power comes to naught when he lifts a hand and slaps her across the face at their dinner table.
Likewise, in London, Charlotte is coming to the same realisation as Lady Repton: the power she has over the man in her life can only get her so far. Charlotte is trying to use her control over Sir George to hit back at Haxby (Edward Hogg) and Sir George’s wife, Caroline (Eleanor Yates). But there is no mistaking the tiny glimpses of sadness in her expression as she moves from scene to scene, switching her charm off and on as the situation dictates. (“It’s harlotting we do with our clothes on that matters most.”) Despite her moves on her enemies, she knows that her position as Sir George’s mistress and property is not that different from Haxby’s. In this third episode, she and Sir George humiliate Haxby by making him hold the piss pot while Sir George urinates. Charlotte seems to revel in her triumph in front of Haxby, but in a sex scene she later shares with Sir George, we see the tragic expression on her face very clearly. She knows the truth in that moment: she is, albeit in a different way, also someone who is holding the piss pot for her master while he relieves himself. Because, at the end of the day, like Sir George tells Haxby while he toys with him, “a servant is just a servant.”
“We’ll never be free of the stench.” / “What if the stench is me?”
I’ve mentioned before how encouraged I am by Harlots’ depiction of London; it is rare to see a period drama that is not populated by only white people. In this episode, Harlots brings one of its characters of colour to the forefront – Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner), the African-American ‘wife’ of Margaret’s old lover and client, Nathaniel. Having promised to help Maggie with her move to Greek street in the last episode, Nathaniel inconveniently drops dead in this one, leaving Harriet and their two mixed-race children in the hands of his cruel son, Benjamin. While watching Harriet’s scenes, I was immediately reminded of Underground, a hugely underrated series about runaway slaves in 1850s America. The story Harlots is trying to tell with Harriet is reminiscent of the one Underground has told with one of its main characters, Ernestine (played by the incredible Amirah Vann). Like Ernestine, Harriet is a mistress to her master, a white plantation owner in the American South. Like Ernestine, Harriet has had children by him. And like Ernestine, Harriet appears to have more power than the other slaves in Nathaniel’s household. She refers to herself as Nathaniel’s “wife”, she tells Maggie that she is “mistress” of his house, and she even takes tea with Maggie and Nathaniel while they discuss their business dealings.
However, just like with Ernestine, we begin to see that this power she has is no power at all. Harriet discovers that her husband, contrary to what he has told her, has not signed her freedom papers. Her children is taken away from her (Ernestine also suffers the loss of her children, but under more horrific circumstances) and she ends the episode at Maggie’s, taking on a job as a kitchen maid in the hopes of buying back her children’s freedom. Make no mistake – Ernestine’s story in Underground is explored more thoroughly and with more time; after all, Underground is in its second season. But the similarities these two women share are enough to raise one fascinating, but truly heartbreaking question. What does true power look like for women of colour who are owned by another human being? And does true power actually exist?
Watching these women grappling up the ladder can, therefore, be exhausting. In many ways, the climb feels like such a futile endeavour. Our characters are fighting tooth and nail to get to the top, but sometimes, you feel as though you can’t see the finish line, let alone what it looks like. Even in her brand new house, Maggie finds Mary Cooper’s rotting corpse, the price she pays for thwarting Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville). And no matter how hard Maggie scrubs and cleans, the corpse’s “rotten smell” won’t go away.
Will is right. Power comes at a price. And considering that this power might be just an illusion, you can’t help but wonder how high our characters can reach before they fall.
- It is great to finally meet Sir George’s wife, Caroline. The dynamic between her and Charlotte is intriguing to watch, as well as the reveal that Sir George’s fortune is actually hers. Caroline definitely throws the best shade at Sir George in the series thus far: “My husband is a man child. A fop doodle who’s frittering away my fortune.” More Caroline, please!
- When Maggie offers Harriet the kitchen maid job, she does so by carelessly saying, “Work for me and you’ll go to bed every night knowing you have worked.” Harriet snaps back with one of the episode’s most satisfying comebacks: “You forget I was a slave, Miss Wells.” Also, I couldn’t help but smirk when Nancy reminds Maggie that Nathaniel, despite his ‘niceness’, is still a slave owner. As always, it is great to see a series which addresses the privileges and hypocrisy of its white characters.
- Will continues to be the shining beacon in this sea of rotten men. He is the only one who grasps the full danger of them moving their business to Greek Street. (He tells his son, “Our faces will not always fit as well as they have done [in Covent Garden].”) He stands his ground with Maggie, but is still staunchly by her side, accepting both her strength and her missteps. Danny Sapani is simply brilliant in this role. So more Will, please!
- Not much happening in the Quigley’s house of horrors this week, but groundwork is being laid with the appearance of the mysterious Mister Osbourne and Lydia’s card game with the judge. Who is Mister Osbourne? Is he a character we have already met? And is the King of Spades an indication that Harlots is going royal? So many questions!
- Haxby-watch – The poor guy is close to blowing everyone’s brains out in that house. The expression on his face when Sir George asks for the piss pot is priceless. By the way, I’m still holding out hope for a team-up between him and Charlotte. Yes, it is looking less and less likely, but please just let me dream!