It’s a new day for the titular “Harlots” when the drama about warring brothels in 18th-century Georgian London returns to Hulu for its third season. The rivalry that had been fueling the first two seasons, however, has been eliminated. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) of Greek Street fled to America to escape a death sentence, while her chief competition, Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) of Golden Square, has been sent to the madhouse.
A year later, Margaret’s grown daughters Charlotte (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Lucy (Eloise Smyth) have established their own careers out from the shadow of their mother. It’s an exciting time for viewers who’ve stuck with the series. But before this refreshing, relaxed energy can fully take hold, the series ramps up the tension again with the introduction of new blood and the return of old enemies.
Created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini, the series presents the life of a harlot as an alternative to the societal drudgery and prison that the more respectable wives and daughters must endure. With an eye for freedom and commerce, both Wells daughters seek to expand their empires. Charlotte has taken over Greek Street and, with her lover and business partner Lady Fitz (Liv Tyler), is looking for an innovative way to increase clientele.
Fresh off of Alfie Allen’s epic finish as Theon Greyjoy on “Game of Thrones,” the actor joins the cast this season to play the hot-blooded yet charming and eloquent pimp Isaac Pincher. Naturally, he comes into Charlotte’s orbit, and the two share an electrifying and thoroughly entertaining chemistry. As with Tyler in Season 2, “Harlots” attracts heavyweight talent that enter into this bawdy world seamlessly and with gusto. He brings competition and a surprising new dynamic to the series.
As for Lucy, the younger Wells daughter has tired of her status as the in-demand freelance harlot, a role that exhausts her despite her popularity and success. She joins forces with newcomers Elizabeth Harvey (Angela Griffin) and her associate Fredo (Aidan Cheng) to open a molly house that caters to male homosexual appetites.
“Harlots” has rarely found the need to be preachy since the conditions of the characters’ existence and very survival are constantly threatened – living on the fringes of polite society will do that. And so when it comes to the molly house storyline, there’s danger built in since homosexuality was illegal and was often enforced as a capital offense. Running a house of ill repute to cater to gay men is the ultimate in flouting the law and risking one’s neck, literally.
The addition of the molly house and its clientele is yet one more way that “Harlots” has found to shine a light on underrepresented groups in history. The series presents sexuality – gay, straight, and bi at least – in a matter-of-fact manner, only commenting on how the outside world is intolerant. The series also doubles down on its already diverse cast, continuing to unwhitewash history. Season 3 introduces a few new characters of Asian descent, a major new black character, and even mixed-race folk. Meanwhile, the brothel run by black bawd Harriet Lennox (Pippa Bennett-Warner), is still going strong, while freeman Will North (Daniel Sapiani) is creating his own fortunes through a new associate.
These inclusive storylines revitalize the series, despite the reliance on the old storytelling formulas of rivalry and skirting the law. Also, it’s not terribly surprising (since it was spoiled in the trailer) that Margaret will find her back on that side of the pond and that Lydia Quigley will somehow find a way to exact revenge, even from Bedlam. After all, one would be a fool to waste the scenery-gnawing talents of Lesley Manville by sidelining her, and those at Hulu are no fools.
In its third season, “Harlots” maintains everything that has made it occasionally difficult to watch – the societal injustice, the violence towards women, the massive cast of characters – but those aspects are what makes this series worthwhile since they also pay off with insight, spirit, and cheeky humor. It has an unerring instinct for what matters to those who often have to struggle against mainstream society. And this season, “Harlots” is also savvy enough to add real stakes that lends authenticity to an already rousing story.
Watch the trailer for Season 3 below:
“Harlots” Season 3 premieres on Wednesday, July 10 and will release a new episode weekly.