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Series / Harlots

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From left to right: Lydia Quigley, Lucy Wells, Charlotte Wells, Margaret Wells

Harlots is a British period drama television series created by Alison Newman and Moira Buffini. The series premiered on 27 March 2017 on ITV Encore in the U.K. and on 29 March 2017 on Hulu in the U.S. The series focuses on Margaret Wells, who runs a brothel in 18th century England and struggles to raise her daughters in a chaotic household. The series is inspired by the book The Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold.


Harlots contains examples of:

  • Adult Fear:
    • Margaret's younger daughter stabs a man in self-defense while he tries to rape her, so Margaret kills him and arranges for the body to be disposed of. Unfortunately, then her elder daughter is blamed for the murder.
    • Harriet's children were never formally freed by her late husband and she struggles to earn enough to buy their freedom before they're separated from her forever.
    • Amelia getting stabbed in an alley just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her mother almost faints when she gets the news.
    • When Margaret realizes that Lucy's keeper Lord Fallon is a serial killer. She tries to warn her daughter, but Lucy doesn't believe her and insists on staying with him. Lord Fallon then reveals to Margaret he knows that Lucy killed George and threatens to have Lucy hanged if Margaret exposes him.
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    • The Greek Street brothel gets set on fire in the season 3 premier, and Fanny becomes hysterical when she realizes her daughter is inside. No one dies in the end, but now their home and livelihood has been destroyed.
    • In season 3, Charlotte's death, and her family finding her still-warm body.
    • Anne being forcibly separated from her newborn son by his father.
  • Always Murder: Even though Charlotte's death was actually an accident, everyone automatically assumes she was murdered.
  • Antagonist in Mourning: Lydia and Isaac after Charlotte's death.
  • Band of Brothels: The series centers around two rival brothels.
  • Bedlam House: Lydia's stay in Bedlam is a nightmare. The doctor treating her decides to spin her around really fast to "revive her nerves".
  • Blackmail:
    • Harriet threatens to tell the authorities that Margaret murdered George Howard if she doesn't give her money to buy her children's freedom.
    • Using Charlotte as an intermediary, Lydia blackmails Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam into paying her fine so she can get out of jail.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Said by Lydia: "blackmail is such a vulgar word..."
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Lord Harcourt Fitzwilliam raped his own sister when they were younger, unwittingly impregnating her with his child.
  • Bury Your Gays: Just barely dodged by the lesbian Amelia, who is stabbed but manages to survive through a long recovery.
    • Unfortunately played straight in 3x03, with Charlotte's fall from the upper story of Lady Fitz's house.
  • Call-Back: Lydia giving Kate a pair of yellow shoes before her debut as a harlot in season 3 recalls Margaret doing the same for Lucy in season 1.
  • The Chain of Harm: Mrs. May abused Lydia when she was younger, who in turn abused Margaret and Nancy. While Nancy has already broken the chain by the beginning of the series, Margaret struggles not to replicate Lydia's actions. She does do some pretty awful things to her girls, but it never reaches the same level as what Lydia did to her. Margaret eventually manages to break the chain too and when her daughters become bawds, they're considerate and thoughtful to the sex workers who work for them.
  • Child by Rape:
    • Kitty Carter had a daughter after being raped and began working as a harlot to support her.
    • Isabella had a daughter after her brother raped her and kept Sophia's existence a secret.
  • Chippendales Dancers: Daniel does this at Mary Cooper's wake.
  • Dark Secret: Lady Isabella Fitzwilliam has one which Lydia Quigley uses to blackmail her.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Kitty Carter is murdered in the season 2 premier, and Fanny changes her daughter's name from Mercy to Kitty in her honor.
  • Death by Childbirth: Lydia's mother died giving birth to her and she was left with her abusive father.
  • Death Faked for You: Hunt can't go through with Margaret's execution, so instead he falsely announces her death and arranges for her to sent to America in secret.
  • Defiled Forever: One of the recurring problems of the series is that, if a woman is raped, particularly by a man of wealth and status, she is ruined in the eyes of society, while the perpetrator trots off without punishment. And if the victim was a woman of color, a lesbian, poor, a sex worker, or some combination thereof? Absolutely nobody cares. Of course, none of the sympathetic characters think this way — but they're stuck in an endless fight against a world that does.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Charlotte sleeps with Isaac to distract him while Nancy sneaks into his brothel and robs him.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: Deconstructed. Sex workers are treated as disposable by those around them, but the writers take great pains to show that they are normal people doing their best with the cards they've been given, for better or worse. When Kitty is callously murdered, the show puts a lot of focus on how beloved she was by those who knew her and how devastated they are now that she's gone.
    Margaret: From where I'm standing, all girls are blameless. Even those with used cunnies, like poor Kitty Carter.
  • Disposing of a Body: After George Howard is killed by Margaret and Lucy, Will and Nancy dumps his body in a river.
    • In season 3 Emily helps her keeper get rid of the body of a man he had tried, but failed to save before anyone suspected him of murder.
  • Dominatrix: Nancy
  • Double Entendre: Lucy, Elizabeth, and Fredo advertise their "tailoring business" (actually a front for a mollyhouse) by having Lucy wears men's clothing and perform a strip tease in a public square, all the while alluding to gay sex.
  • Due to the Dead:
    • Subverted with Mary Cooper. Margaret's girls hold a wake for her, but afterwards Lydia has Molly's body stuffed under the floor of Margaret's new house.
    • After her murder, Kitty is mourned by those who knew her. Margaret sews her throat back together so her body will be presentable for the funeral. The other girls pitch in to support her daughter. Fanny even renames her own daughter Kitty in her honor. And a good part of season 2 is devoted to finding Kitty's killer and bringing him to justice.
    • After Charlotte's death, Isabella organizes an elegant wake to honor her. Everyone attends, and even Lydia comes to genuinely mourn her.
  • Elopement: Sophia runs off with a servant in the season 3 premier.
  • Face Death with Dignity: When Margaret is set to be executed for murder, she tells the executioner to get it over with. He decides to spare her.
  • Fake Pregnancy: Emily lies about being pregnant with Charles' baby.
  • Follow in My Footsteps: Double subverted. Lucy doesn't want to be a whore like Margaret and Charlotte were, and to be fair, Margaret hadn't wanted her daughters to follow in her footsteps either, it's just a very cruel fate that forces Lucy to become a whore.
  • Great Escape: Lydia and Kate escape Bedlam by tricking a doctor into sexually assaulting Kate in front of visitors, grabbing the keys, and fleeing during the ensuing panic.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Most of Lydia Quigley's girls fall into this category, as does Charlotte Wells.
  • Hope Spot: Harriet does get enough money to buy her children, but her step-son decides to refuse to sell them.
  • House Fire: Isaac Pincher sets Charlotte's brothel on fire in retaliation for reporting him to the police for running a bawdy house.
  • Idiot Ball: Lucy telling Lord Fallon that she killed George Howard.
  • Knight Templar: Josiah Hunt replaces Cunliffe as the Chief of Justice after Cunliffe's death. Unlike his corrupt predecessor, Hunt follows the law to the letter and doesn't play favorites.
  • The Lost Lenore: Isabella is horrified after finding Charlotte's body and organizes Charlotte's wake in Isabella's own home, class divisions be damned. Isaac is also devastated after Charlotte's death, and even curls up on her bed to cry.
  • Love Triangle: Margaret has been in a relationship with Will for years, but she returns in season 4 with a new husband named Jonas.
  • Make-Up Is Evil: Lydia Quigley and her girls all wear lots of face powder and pink eyebrows
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: Charlotte Wells starts working for her mother's rival, Lydia Quigley, because her mother's murder of George Howard almost got her and her lover Daniel executed.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: The doctors at Bedlam perform all kinds of dubious "treatments" on their patients. One doctor outright sexually assaults Kate under the guise of curing her.
  • My Secret Pregnancy: Fanny is hiding her pregnancy.
  • Oblivious Guilt Slinging: Hal praising Emily for her loyalty and swearing he loves her, completely unaware of the role she just played in his brother's death.
  • Open-Minded Parent: Elizabeth Harvey opens a mollyhouse (brothel for gay men) because her son is gay. She wants him and other gay men to have a place to be themselves.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Margaret finds Charlotte's body after her fall.
  • Pet the Dog: When new patient named Kate is brought kicking and screaming into Bedlam, Lydia gives her advice on how to survive in there. Later, when they make their escape, Lydia makes sure to free the other prisoners rather than save her own skin.
  • Platonic Prostitution: Charlotte pays Daniel, a male prostitute, to spend time and converse with her platonically. However, their relationship later turns romantic.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • Lydia Quigley is a racist, condescending to a woman with dwarfism, and a Female Misogynist, to boot. She specifically only wants a flock of "white swans" in her house. By contrast, the sympathetic Margaret employs women of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and has no issue with homosexuality.
    • The Spartans are absolutely rabid misogynists and Social Darwinists of the worst kind.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: George goes from annoyingly pathetic to full-on villain after he rapes Charlotte.
    • Harcourt raped his own sister and later brags about "breaking" many women and girls.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After the death of Charlotte, her lover Isaac steals one of her dresses and forces Rosamund to put it on before he has sex with her.
  • Screaming Birth: Anne, after becoming Lord Fitzwilliam's mistress, gives birth to his son half-way through season 3 and screams the whole time. He's so annoyed that he throws a vase out of sheer frustration.
  • Shame If Something Happened: When Florence Scanwell decides to leave Lydia Quigley's service, Quigley threatens her daughter Amelia.
  • Speech Impediment: Josiah Hunt has a stutter, which the other characters mock him for.
  • Son of a Whore: Charles Quigley, Jacob Wells North, Kitty's unnamed daughter, Lucy and Charlotte Wells. Also Amelia Scanwell (though she didn't know it at first) and Fanny's baby.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Justice Hunt has Nancy flogged for starting a riot and threatening to kill Lydia for Kitty's murder.
  • Unproblematic Prostitution: Averted. This series does not pull punches with all the terrible things that can happen to sex workers in the 18th century.
  • Welcome to the Big City: Lydia kidnaps virgins for the Spartans to rape, or to force into her service as harlots. Most of them are innocent, trusting young girls newly arrived from the countryside looking for respectable work.
  • Where Da White Women At?: Will and Margaret. Hal and Emily. Both of these are loving, healthy relationships.
  • Wham Episode: Season One Episode Six — Sir George tries to force himself on Lucy, so she stabs him and Margaret strangles him to death.
    • Also season two episode six — Charlotte's deception is revealed when she conspires to save a girl in Quigly's clutches from being raped. She fails, and Quigly locks her in an adjoining room for the night where she is forced to listen, and her plot to bring down Lydia and save this girl from rape are both stopped in one fell swoop.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Nancy is outraged when she learns that Margaret sold out Emily Lacey to Quigley knowing Quigley was out for her blood.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • Margaret Wells is given the chance to save her own life by selling out Amelia Scanwell to men who plan to rape and kill her, but can't bring herself to do it.
    • Josiah Hunt claims to only care about enforcing the law. When Margaret confesses to killing George Howard to protect her daughter, he has her brought to a noose in the courthouse basement, but ultimately his conscience won't let him execute her as the law demands.
  • Wrongfully Accused: After Margaret kills Sir George Howard, Charlotte and Daniel are accused of the murder.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Margaret kicks Harriet out of her house after she begins to suspect that William is sleeping with her, and William leaves out of anger than Margaret would show so little trust in him.


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