The Madames Fight for Independence in ‘Harlots’ Season 3

Harlots,” the British series about Georgian-era London brothels and the women in that world, returns to Hulu for a third season, picking up one year after the explosive second season finale. With the previously indefatigable Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) having been shipped off to the Americas and her nemesis Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) tucked away in the infamous mental asylum Bedlam, the younger generation of women makes steps to come into their own in season three.

“Harlots” does an excellent job of portraying madames, or “bawds,” as they’re called here, as the savvy businesswomen of their day. With her mother gone, Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay) has taken over the family business. “If your position was ordained from birth, then so was mine,” she says to the noble Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam (Liv Tyler). Her new position means she no longer has to have sex for money, and she seems content to be celibate. This changes, however, upon the arrival on the scene of one Isaac Pincher (Alfie Allen, fresh out of “Game of Thrones”). Her intellectual equal, he seduces her with his wit. But their bliss is short-lived, because mere moments after he climaxes, Isaac blackmails Charlotte into handing over a cut of her business. 

Lucy Wells (Eloise Smyth), meanwhile, has come a long way from the shy virgin we first met in season one. Taking some power into her own hands, she appears to be having a blast as she has men compete for her favors on the open street. However, a lady can only take so many “cockstands” (eighteenth century lingo for erection, one of the many fun historical terms sprinkled into the episode) flying her way, and she makes plans to get her own cut of the pie. She makes an unlikely alliance with two intriguing new characters, Elizabeth Harvey (Angela Griffin), an experienced bawd and a woman of color, and Fredo (Aidan Cheng), her androgynous son. Lucy goes in with the pair to purchase Lydia’s former house, only to afterwards discover that they plan to turn the place into a “molly house,” a meeting place for gay men. This is quite a dangerous venture, as the gay sex business is a “hanging offense,” but if anyone is up for the challenge it would be our girl Lucy. But if we’ve learned nothing from two seasons of backstabbing and plotting, it’s that no one can be trusted, and Elizabeth may soon prove to be her undoing. 

They may all have some competition from Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner), a character who has made the most startling transformation of all. A once virtuous former slave who turned to the brothel life initially out of necessity, she’s now running her own house, filling in the void left behind by Lydia with her cultured bevy of beauties, who perform Shakespeare for the gents. However, as they are mostly women of color, they have to deal with racism from their clients on top of the usual abuse and misogyny. 

Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey) also makes moves towards financial independence. Discontent with her new gig acting as girl Friday of sorts for Isaac Pincher’s equally unscrupulous brother, pimp/tavern owner Hal (Ash Turner), she makes the shrewd decision to trade her sexual favors for lessons in commerce. 

As for Lydia, one shouldn’t count her out just yet. Now a guinea pig for eighteenth century doctors, a fate just as ghastly as it sounds, her spirit hasn’t been completely broken. She forms a friendship with Catherine Bottomley (Daisy Head), a country girl who’s disowned by her family and tossed into the looney bin after she commits the unforgivable sin of having premarital sex. Through this relationship, Lydia finds strength, although Lady Isabella is determined to keep her humbled, as we see after she forces her former rival to take her charity. The predicament of Isabella, an aristocratic woman who faces ostracism when it’s discovered she had a child out of wedlock, illustrates how wealthy women have it almost as bad as the prostitutes and bawds in this world. In many ways, the lives of the “privileged” women are even more restricted, a truth that will hopefully be explored further this season.

All in all, “Harlots” does a superb job of laying out the key power players as it kicks of this season. Just when the viewer seems certain that the beautiful and intelligent Charlotte will come out the winner of it all, a literal fire comes and destroys what she has built. But knowing Charlotte and what she’s capable of, it seems highly unlikely that she wouldn’t be able to rise from the ashes.

Harlots” season three begins streaming July 10 on Hulu with new episodes available every Wednesday.