In the bawdy yet thoughtful Hulu series “Harlots,” selling sex is not just a means to make a living; it’s one of the few paths to upward mobility for an 18th-century Englishwoman.
Marriage in this day meant forfeiting one’s wages and property to one’s husband. Single life as a scullery maid rarely led to prosperity.
“Harlots” – an eight-part series with new episodes arriving each Wednesday – presents the world’s saddest profession with a pragmatism that allows for moments of humor and hopefulness while never forgetting the sex trade’s base in degradation. Series creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman lead a primarily female creative team that does not stint on realism in sex scenes. But since that realism involves revealing the women’s perceived enthusiasm as false, the scenes are not sexy.
Genuine frisson exists, outside the bedroom, between London courtesan Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay – Lady Sybil from “Downton Abbey”) and a man she meets on the street, and between Charlotte’s mother, hooker-turned-madam Margaret (Samantha Morton), and an ex-client who went to America and struck it rich but never forgot Margaret.
But any honest affection Margaret harbors is tempered by a survival instinct borne from being sold into prostitution at age 10. She likes her old client but also sees him as a mark who can help her move her brothel to a nicer spot, to compete with top madam Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville).
Though one can appreciate the application of the female gaze to subject matter often played for male titillation, this series’ writers likely would not have pulled things off as well (in the two episodes availed to critics) without the innately sympathetic Morton (“In America,” “Sweet and Lowdown”) as Margaret. Residual fondness for Morton helps viewers absorb Margaret’s hideous acts, like selling her daughter’s (Eloise Smyth) virginity to the highest bidder.
This act so violates the maternal instinct that it makes Margaret physically ill. But Morton lets regret play on her face only briefly before hardness settles in. Margaret learned to be hard from Quigley, to whom she was sold by her own mother. While continuing an awful cycle of selling children, Margaret veers from her mother by keeping her daughters in her life.
Elder daughter Charlotte has made it as far as she can in the sex trade, into an exclusive arrangement with an aristocrat. The lively Brown Findlay shows what a skilled seductress Charlotte is while also indicating how little Charlotte really thinks of the aristocrat. Charlotte learned her mother’s tricks, and more, having climbed higher in the ranks than Margaret did. High enough to glimpse a world outside the game.
Episode 2 (of eight) of the Hulu series premieres Wednesday, April 5