‘Harlots’ Season 2 Throws Scoundrels Behind Bars as Vendettas Heat Up

The second season of Hulu’s “Harlots” returns to the grime and corruption of 1700s London, as the aristocrats purchase flesh for fun and women find themselves crushed under the boot of the law. When last we saw our band of brothel ladies they were thrown into a chaotic situation following the murder of a rich man by Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton). As the new season begins the brothel creaks under the pressure of guilty consciences and the arrival of a new lawman, determined not to be corrupt for once. It sounds deliciously scandalous, but what makes “Harlots” a standout is its combination of costume drama with relevant, contemporary themes. It is really about women in any era, struggling to survive within imposed systems of control.

Picking up where the last season left off, Margaret is slowly being abandoned by some of her workers because of the murder of an aristocrat (who Margaret killed with her bare hands). It was all a part of a drive to start fighting back against the upper class men who treat sex workers like objects they can abuse, kill and torture at will. Margaret is also paranoid that her amore, William North (Danny Sapani), is being unfaithful although he furiously denies it. Meanwhile Margaret’s great rival, the acidic Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) finds herself behind bars when a new justice arrives in town, Judge Hunt (Sebastian Armesto). Hunt cannot be bought off with promises of women at Lydia’s own, high-end establishment and arrests her. While behind bars she reaches out to her wealthy clientele, seeking help. But this is also Margaret’s chance to finally smash her nemesis.

“Harlots” season one was a risqué, intelligent take on period piece melodrama fused with a special depth. It took viewers back in time to a specific section of 18th century history no one ever teaches in high school. The sex worker trade in 1760s London becomes a blistering analogy for the plight and oppression of women. If murder was a key running theme in the first season, the second one begins as a cutting look at the way the laws and government all conspire against the main characters. Lydia is thrown in jail, but Margaret and her ladies are hesitant to take full advantage because they know she will most likely get out easy. With the right connections and money your bail is more than set. The class differences are another key theme of “Harlots,” remember this is still 20 years before the French Revolution would shake all of Europe. However, we finally see Lydia cut down to size, spending the night in a damp prison, trying to get through to Hunt, who is a stutterer but has an iron will.

The personal stories in “Harlots” have always been as intriguing as the murders and sex. At the beginning of this season it is not clear if William North can come to terms with Margaret’s murder of George Howard, and he clearly states to Margaret that “a rich man’s corpse” is what has truly come between them. Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay), has a tenser, even shakier relationship with her mother Margaret in the first two episodes of the season, especially since has settled into Lydia’s abode. Yet the establishment is soon shaken up by the arrival of Lydia’s own son to start picking at her estate. A new character is also introduced, Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam, played by a very elegant Liv Tyler, who finds herself in Lydia’s ultimate trick to get out of jail: Blackmailing the rich with what she knows.

Yet by the end of the second episode, “Harlots” starts going into high gear with new murders and threats, as the rich essentially warn Margaret that if she moves against Lydia it will be war. There is something so sinister and vicious about this show’s opulent style, as the power dine and cavort in their wigs and dresses, while easily walking up to Margaret and dumping a human heart at her doorstep. The women become caught in a system of male power where they must learn to survive, even by predatory means if necessary. This was an era devoid of social movements or marches, when women had to play a truly fierce game to make it out alive.

“Harlots” is a lavish period piece where the dirt and scum of the streets come to great life, but it asks us to look slightly into the mirror and see our reflection in another century.

Harlots” season two premieres July 11 on Hulu with new episodes premiering every Wednesday.