Harlots: After and Before Handmaid’s

Hulu’s first season of The Handmaid’s Tale has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean your feminist TV has to come to an end. In fact, right on Hulu is another kick-ass show about women’s sexuality and autonomy. It’s also about men trying to exert power over them. Also based on a book. Hmm…

Harlots is Hulu’s other great feminist show. In fact, until the shit hit the fan, Harlots was our post-Handmaid unicorn chaser1. The show takes place in 18th century London, and follows two feuding brothels.

For the past few weeks, whenever I’ve spoken to anyone about The Handmaid’s Tale, I’ve asked whether they watch Harlots as well. The answer so far has been a unanimous “no”, which is a shame as not only is it fantastic, but they pair amazingly well. Before delving into what’s on-screen, you should all know what’s happening with Harlots behind the screen. The show was created by Moira Buffini and Alison Newman. The season’s episodes were written by Moira Buffini, Alison Newman, Hallie Rubenhold, Jane English, Cat Jones, and Debbie O’Malley. Episodes were directed by Coky Giedroyc, China Moo-Young, and Jill Robertson. That list is notable because those are all women. That fact alone is a pretty astounding feat, though it shouldn’t be. But beyond representation and employment, it comes out in the show itself. Not by making the series something geared explicitly to women, but by not being aimed specifically at men. For a show about sex workers, there is so much less nudity and sexual violence than on other HBO shows, like, for example, Game of Thrones. There’s no sexposition and other than in the first episode (and the highly stylized opening credits) I can’t recall much nudity at all.

Even more importantly, there’s a rich social network between all of these characters. Margaret Wells (played by Samantha Morton) has her feud with Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville), but damn near every character has some sort of power struggle that’s explored in the 8 episode season. We follow Margaret Wells bringing her youngest daughter, Lucy (Eloise Smyth), into the family business which, understandably, has all sorts of baggage. Lady Quigley is embroiled with corrupt members of legal and political circles. There are secret pregnancies, illicit affairs, religious protestations, and power struggles. Not all of the relationships are paid for, and some of the ones that are a part of sex work are the healthiest on the show. If this all sounds a bit soapy, it is, but the brilliant part is that there is weight to the soap opera-esque plots. Everything on the show has something to say because the characters are all given a chance to say it.

Beyond having an amazing cast of extraordinary women, the production is just flat out well done. Story lines are layered and woven to the extent that I was shocked, when I looked back and realized how much had happened in just 8 episodes. The writing, editing, and direction make this one of the tightest shows on air today. The music and costumes also fill the production with a verve that is missing from a lot of its contemporaries. In an age of prestige TV that uniformly feature muted colors, anxiety-inducing dramatic scores, and a self-seriousness than can border on preachy, Harlots has a brightness to it that is rare. Rael Jones scores the series and it is perfect. The music is a bit punk, a bit dub, and very anachronistic. What makes it work is that, the characters are essentially 18th century gutter punks. They are involved in (sometimes violent) fights over neighborhoods as well as their rights. The costume design and use of bright colors also works along with the score to give all these women a real edge. Their dresses make them larger than life and the music make them rock stars. The score is, like most television, mostly diegetic. The music that we hear often has no on-screen or in-world source. Infrequently there is a band or a group singing on-screen, and rarely there are moments when the music starts with the characters singing or playing instruments, and that bleeds out into the score, which takes the melody and adds electronic instruments. Those moments are so pure and sweet because they create this bridge between the emotion in the scene and the emotion of the viewer. That mixture ties together the experience of watching with the experience of being there. It’s a bit risky not only because it’s arty and can draw attention to itself, but also because so much prestige TV has such a dark and dour aesthetic2. Embracing the punk soundtrack and bright costumes sets this production apart. Have I mentioned how well made this show is?

So what makes it pair so well with The Handmaid’s Tale? The show is a perfect foil. First off, there’s the lighter tone. As I mentioned in the beginning, this can be your unicorn chaser and after-care to help get through Handmaid, which is great but intense. Even better, the themes still carry across. Issues of self-determination for women, control over their own bodies, how men seek to contain women, and how women can end up policing each other are all present.

Something fascinating is that the historical trend is that things have generally gotten better over time in most aspects of society. Yet we have a vision of the near-future as a misogynist dystopia and an 18th century period piece featuring some of the most sexually empowered women on TV. It’s not a perfect past, but it is different. Women are controlled and restricted in different ways, and both of these visions provide something to compare the present to. But if you’re looking for something to provide you with hope for the future, after Handmaid’s pessimistic hyper-present, Harlots offers hope and inspiration from the past.


1 A concept courtesy of Boing Boing that is essentially a mental palate cleanser after experiencing something particularly disturbing, gross, or intense.
2 See: much of the Marvel Netflix universe, The Handmaid’s Tale, Man in the High Castle, True Detective, Stranger Things, Preacher, West World, Walking Dead, The Fall, and so on.

About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access are wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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