She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee:
Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
One of my favourite episodes of Harlots thus far is episode three where the show does such an amazing of job of exploring the themes of power and control, and what the women need to sacrifice in order to gain them. Now, in episode five, it is not only power that is at play here; it is also safety. The characters might flirt with the underworld at Margaret’s party in episode four, but it is in episode five that they are truly dipping their toes into the abyss, having been lured and tempted there by a Hades-like figure. Gone is our heroes’ attempt at playing the devil. They are becoming the abducted Persephone instead. Safety, of course, is not guaranteed.
In mythology, Persephone is a character who is closely associated with themes of youth, purity and plenty. In Harlots, innocence is a concept that has been woven into the fabric of the show from the very start. Margaret’s past is largely defined by the loss of hers, Lucy’s virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder, and Lydia Quigley is embroiled in a plot to kidnap young girls to satisfy the appetite of powerful men. In episode five, the use of childhood innocence as sexual commodity finally takes centre stage; it is no longer lurking in the background like a shameful, unspoken secret. Even Lucy, who is no longer a child, is referred to as “young” by Margaret in her negotiation with Lord Fallon. Lucy’s almost childlike sweetness, especially in contrast to Charlotte’s wit and fire, is her biggest ‘selling point’. She plays the piano elegantly, looks down demurely when a man looks her way, and she is even gifted a china doll by the Reptons in a previous episode. There are also throwaway lines which highlight the characters’ obsession with youth and purity. A client of Quigley’s says to a girl,“You always make me feel ten years younger” while Lord Repton’s tells Charlotte that she is now “too old” for him and that he prefers a younger “niece”.
However, the episode’s most chilling moment comes when we see the devastating consequences of Lydia’s actions. One of the young girls she has kidnapped for Justice Cunliffe is killed by the “monsters” who employ him. We begin to see the cracks in Lydia when she arrives at the empty bedroom, not finding the girl but finding her blood on the walls. It is revealed at the end of the episode that even Justice Cunliffe does not know the names of the men behind this atrocity. All he knows is that they are “a growing monster that must be fed.” Of course, this is a storyline that is incredibly dark and perverse. It is not just about child abduction, but child sexual abuse and murder. It is also about the rich and powerful having the means to satisfy their basest desires – a frightening parallel to the real world that is hard to ignore. We have seen aspects of this story told on screen before (the chilling case in True Detective comes to mind), but hardly through a female perspective. So once more, I find myself pleasantly surprised by Harlots, and I can only give credit to its writers for attempting to take on this subject.
“My very own Persephone.” / “These seeds seal your fate. Feel the juice runs down your throat. Now you’re mine.”
One of Justice Cunliffe’s monsters is Lord Fallon, only a “lackey” but someone who is wealthy enough to excite Margaret as a potential keeper for Lucy. Fallon is enamoured with the younger Wells girl, and he follows through with the creepy declaration he has made to her in the last episode. (“One day, I’ll take you to my underworld.”) He arranges to meet with Lucy and her mother in a public place, and then he visits the brothel for a one-on-one encounter with her. In the dimly lit bedroom, he literally plays the role of Hades, feeding pomegranate seeds into Lucy’s mouth before instructing her to swallow them. It is a deeply uncomfortable scene, frightening and strangely seductive at the same time. Afterward, Fallon expresses his satisfaction to Margaret, even calling Lucy “a goddess”, and agrees to hash out a contract so that he can be Lucy’s keeper. Maggie, of course, is overjoyed but her happiness is short-lived. Lucy, who is understandably afraid of Fallon, begs her mother not to agree to the contract. Maggie counters with the line, “You’re going to be one of the leading lights in London and you’ll be safe.”
There is that word again. Safe. Maggie thinks that handing her daughter over to Fallon will make her safe, just as she thinks that Charlotte is ‘safe’ with Sir George. However, Maggie does not know about Fallon’s true nature – that he will likely be the true Hades to Lucy’s Persephone. Maggie also does not know that Sir George is not just a pompous, besotted fool, but an overly possessive and abusive man. In previous episodes, the audience is merely repulsed and amused by Sir George; the character itself and Hugh Skinner make it easy. But, here, we start seeing the darker side of the man when he punches Charlotte with all his might and then rapes her. It is easy for our characters to be fooled by wealth and status, thinking that these things can protect them. But the reality is that safety is not real – that it can’t possibly exist in a world where the Hadeses can simply do whatever they wish from the shadows.
Like Persephone herself, our characters have already eaten the seeds. There is no escape. Now, the true underworld awaits.
- Sometimes, the rivalry between Maggie and Lydia can feel unnecessary; Harlots is fascinating enough without it. However, it is always fun to see Samantha Morton spar with Lesley Manville, and their little exchange in this episode is no exception.
- I’ve wondered for weeks now about where Emily Lacey’s storyline is going. We finally, finally get some major progress in this episode, with Emily drugging her lover-slash-pimp (the poor and annoying Charles Quigley) and finding refuge with Nancy in Covent Garden. I still can’t see where the show is taking Emily in the long run, but I am intrigued to find out.
- Ah. Amelia and Violet. Young love. Finally, some happiness! What a lovely respite from all the darkness in this episode! Amelia is starting to grow on me and I can’t wait to see how she’s going to turn out.
- “I find her wit an unbecoming trait. I’ve cured her of it.” – Oh, Sir George. Forever the romantic. He sinks even lower in this episode, and to quote Sir Christopher, “Bad form, old fellow.” Charlotte putting him in his place at the dinner is deeply satisfying. Jessica Brown-Findlay is doing excellent work in this show, and as a die-hard Lady Sybil fan, I am very, very proud.
- Haxby-watch – After the absolutely shocking hook-up between Haxby and Charlotte in the last episode, Haxby returns in all his sneering majesty. But, oh God, the shame! The horror! He has engaged in sexual relations with a woman he detests! Sir George, upon discover what has transpired, throws Haxby out. Haxby, however, tries to defend himself with this hilarious line: “She thrusted herself upon me!” Oh, Haxby. This is why you are my problematic fave.
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