Harlots, the Hulu Original period drama that focuses on the experience of the women from the margins of society, is in its third episode of the season. In the last episode, we saw the Greek Street women, and more specifically Charlotte Wells (Jessica Brown Findlay), win against the Pinchers, two brothers set to control all of the bawdy houses in the city. We also saw Quigley (Lesley Manville) and Kate (Daisy Head) escape Bedlam, exposing the “doctor” as an abuser to a room full of aristocrats in the process.
Episode three moves the story forward as Quigley is back on the chessboard. She is still holding every grudge she went into Bedlam with, only now she has Kate by her side. That being said, she isn’t the only woman making her way back into the narrative, as Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) finally appears this season. At the end of Harlots season two, almost everyone though the Wells Matriarch had been hanged – paying for the murder of a nobleman in order to save her daughter Lucy (Eloise Smyth). Now, back from America, the two women who led the drama and strife last season are both in the same place.
While the set up is there for their continued grudge, the story still revolves around the daughters. Lucy is now in Golden Square and in business with the mysterious and powerful Elizabeth Harvey (Angela Griffin). And then there is Charlotte’s story. Taken by love with her Irishman in season one, we see Charlotte go back to who she was: driven by her passion. Also, conveniently choosing to forget that Isaac Pincher attempted to burn down Greek Street.
Charlotte won in this episode. She got her money back, and with Lucy and Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner) providing assistance, her girls have a place to take their culls. And yet, the first time we see her this episode is in the park having sex with Pincher. Charlotte has always done what she pleases and the series has worked hard to show the commonplace of sex in the harlots’ world. Specifically, Harlots has strived to impart the importance of the difference between sex for survival and sex for intimacy.
While her relationships have never defined her and the writers seem to be showing her sexual relationship with Pincher as a power play as much as a pleasure play, it is frustrating to see her falling for a man who was out for her head and will gladly take it still.
Episode three also features beautiful moments between Charlotte and William (Danny Sapani), her Pa. They play fight, she says she’ll make him money so he can rest, and the audience gets a glimpse at the relationship and happiness that the Wells girls can have. Even deeper, the episode demonstrates the love they can experience, as we see an expansion of Charlotte’s bisexuality and her love for Lady Fitzwilliam (Liv Tyler) blossom it’s refreshing.
Harlots has had queer characters before. One of the plots in season two revolved around the love between Amelia Scanwell, the preacher’s daughter, and Violet, a harlot. We see their love but ultimately, their relationship, while beautiful to explore, was under a shroud of shame and their ending would never be happy.
In the same vein, the only gay male character in the series, Rasselas, is a spy in danger who has to watch the love of his life die. While Harlots has been revolutionary in showcasing both men and women of color in its narrative, it has unfortunately not been perfect in exploring same-sex love and intimacy.
In episode three, that setback for the show seems to change. Since the start of the season, we get to see Lady Fitzwilliam and Charlotte in love. They’re friends, they’re lovers, and ultimately, they get each other when no one else does. This is extended into this episode. Yes, even with the sex and dance we see between Pincher and Charlotte.
In addition to Charlotte and her Lady, we also get to see the sparks of love between Frado (Aidan Cheng) and Lord Croft. While it seems that Croft is a cull, we get to see an emotional exchange between the two in which Croft explains that the money is for the house’s silence, not for Frado’s servitude. Frado is smitten, while Lucy has learned love isn’t what it seems. Those above their station, regardless of their words, don’t have their best interest in mind.
Overall, episode three is dramatic and, for the sake of spoilers, I’ve kept one of the larger returns out of this review. Harlots is still a brilliant dramatic period piece, but sadly, it seems like the men in the show are moving into a more prominent focus at the sacrifice of our women’s story.
Spoilers for Harlots, Season 3, Episode 3 below the image.
With all the positive narrative movement this episode and the beautiful costume design – which is to be expected now – episode three also has the most shocking decisions of the series. They seemingly kill Charlotte. Knocked over a railing when Pincher’s angry brother attempts to beat him, she is pushed back and with a wet thud, she hit the floor and my heart sunk.
She isn’t killed fighting back against the men who have hurt her, used her, or threatened her. She dies defending one. Not only does this episode take away the most detailed and dynamic character, but they do so when she finally has her life back. Her happiness leaves her bleeding on the floor.
The fact that this happens in the episode where Charlotte’s love of Lady Fitzwilliam is on display, it worries me that show is on the edge of “burying their gays” given the clear focus that she is bisexual in this episode. This is especially worrying given Harlots’ history with its queer characters.
While I’m unhappy with the ending of the episode is still immersive, and the other characters remain interesting. Emily Lacey is pushing to become a legitimate businesswoman, Harriet is succeeding, and Quigley is moving to strike her enemies one more time now that she’s out of Bedlam. But the final image of episode three sticks with me the hardest. I worry that Harlots has jumped the shark and moved towards a narrative that doesn’t focus on the women’s survival nor their growth.
New episodes of Harlots go up every Wednesday on Hulu.
Harlots, Season 3 - Episode 3
While I’m unhappy with the ending of the episode is still immersive, and the other characters remain interesting. Emily Lacey is pushing to become a legitimate businesswoman, Harriet is succeeding, and Quigley is moving to strike her enemies one more time now that she’s out of Bedlam
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.