When I watched the first two episodes last week, I wasn’t sure to expect. At the end of episode 2, I was sure that this show was going to handle the female experience with great nuance and sex-positivity, but I was worried about issues of race. Interracial couples were brought into the main cast and the difficulties are acknowledged but not investigated. Episode 3 ended that. We get to see the way William must navigate the world outside the brothel and we see what can happen to a woman who receives her Freedom Papers. Now I can’t talk about it without spoiling. So here is your moment to stop reading, go to HULU and watch this amazing period piece with awesome costumes and even better storytelling.
Quickly, I want to just mention the Wells’ daughters first because they were in episode 3 with mini-arcs but they weren’t the most engaging, which seems purposeful due to the drama going on with Margaret and William. Their small parts weren’t bad, by any means. Lucy has been given Lord Wonky (a nickname was given to him by the harlots of the Wells Boarding house because his bent member) and goes off into the country. Here it’s revealed that Wonky is a wife-beater and in some ways, his wife is as excited to have his new harlot there as well. This was a good starting point in what is sure to be a crazy ride, as her sister has was lucky enough to have a patron that is completely smitten with her. Speaking of her sister, Charlotte is having to deal with the wife of her patron coming to the estate and posing a threat to her spending habits. It’s a nice little story but who can pay attention to the Wells’ girls when Mama Wells is continuing her fight with Lydia Quigley.
It’s moving day for the Wells’ boarding house as they move to a larger house in the same area as Mama Wells’ arc nemesis Lady Quigley. The latter of the women has been plotting to keep her position in the area by sending law enforcement to raid the Wells’ house and befriending a religious woman who has made it her goal to stop all “peddling of flesh.” Episode 2 ends with Wells sending the Lady a big f-you by leaving the body of Mary Cooper (a harlot who died from an STD and former Quigley girl) on the front doorstep of the Quigley estate. With this exchange, William, their son, and the women of the boarding house are stopped en route to the new home on Greek Street by racist street thugs. This is important okay.
As they are packing up to leave, William shows concern for his son because he is aware that by moving from the poor-side, they will not have the freedom to talk on the street unnoticed. The tension is immediately shown when the cart turns the corner to Greek street and all eyes are on Willaim, the only man of color in the area. He’s brutally attacked and they are forced to retreat. When he tells Margaret, she says he didn’t fight hard enough and he was jeopardizing her dream. He tells her she doesn’t understand that he did what he could do, that he is always fighting. The scene ends and Margaret is meeting with her friend and fellow madame, Nancy. During the women’s conversation, you find out that William is the only man that has never paid Margaret at some point in their relationship for sex. It’s small but significant. Her attachment to William was and is never about support, it is about love. She apologizes and when they return to claim the house ALL of them fight of Quigley’s thugs (including the harlots and it’s awesome).
However, this is when you get the second most heartbreaking moments in episode 3. Mary Cooper turns up again. Prior to Wells moving in, Quigley placed the decomposing body of Mary Cooper in the entertainment room. She discovers it and begins to break down. She scrubs and scrubs and the smell remains. She confides in William that she brought this on them and because of her nothing will be good again. As a reason why I love the character writing in this show, William doesn’t just say no dear it’s not you. Instead, he tells her, yes, you did. You brought it in here because of Quigley but the blame for Mary Cooper and the escalation is on Quigley. Although they do not bring customers into the house, it looks bright for the Wells house, even though Lucy, returned from Lord Wonky, points out the stench is still there.
In episode 3, while the moving is happening we have another story happening, that of the death of Margaret’s former love Mr. Lennox and his wife Harriet. Lennox is dying in the opening of the episode and Harriet comes to bring Margaret back to the estate to say her goodbyes. But, it’s too late. As they arrive, Lennox dies. This could have been it, but instead, the writers acknowledged, that although Harriet introduced herself as the lady of the house and Mrs. Lennox, she was never recognized as his wife. With this, well aware of the boundaries of interracial love, Margaret advises Harriet to ensure that she is taken care of and if she isn’t, to make it so. She points out that it is not fraud, as it is simply the life that her husband would have wanted to ensure her. As they search for proof, Harriet finds her Freedom Papers, only to see that he never got around to signing them. Margaret encourages her to sign them herself when Mr. Lennox’s son (from another woman) comes in and tells Margaret to leave. This kid is terrible, he’s shown in episode 2 to be horribly racist and resentful that his father was in love and had children with Harriet.
In the audience, we expect Harriet to be relegated to slavery once more, but that doesn’t happen. The signs and presents her with her papers and she is overjoyed as are we. But then it happens. She is free, her children are not. The new Mr. Lennox has her removed from the state as he talks about sending her children to a plantation to make him money. Harriet comes to Margaret’s door. She recounts everything and Margaret points out that if her children are slaves, then they will have to buy them. She explains that she can only pay Harriet as much as she pats any other girl and Harriet refuses to be a harlot. To this, Margaret says she wouldn’t expect her to, the job would be as a kitchen maid. The episode ends with William singing a lullaby and clips of the different women in the story so far, with Harriet working. This is the gut-punch of the episode and it has me hanging onto the show and the characters.
Once again, I implore you to watch this show. It’s so good and the characters are beautifully developed and I need to know more about them beyond just episode 3.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.