A dying prostitute named Mary Cooper (Amy Dawson) serves as centerpiece and cautionary tale in the second episode (April 5) of “Harlots” — but refreshingly, and characteristically, the cautionary tale in question isn’t a moral judgment on Mary’s line of work, despite resident do-gooder Florence Scanwell (Dorothy Atkinson)’s proclamations to the contrary.

Rather, this is a cautionary tale of what can happen to any disempowered worker who lives paycheck to paycheck while lining the pockets of a more powerful entity (be it boss, corporation, or other) — and thus, a plotline that delivers a horrifyingly relevant modern-day chill.

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Throughout most of the hour, Margaret (Samantha Morton) uses poor Mary as a pawn in her war against rival Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville). Mary was once a girl in Mrs. Quigley’s stables — a fairly celebrated girl, by all accounts — before contracting the “French pox” and falling into the rapid physical decline in which we meet her.

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Will (Danny Sapani) warns Margaret to “think hard before you make that dying girl your weapon,” his concern isn’t strictly ethical: He reminds Margaret that Quigley’s girls are servicing “the clergy, the law, and the whole King’s bench” — but it’s exactly that, Margaret’s determination to beat the system, to refuse to content herself with the breadcrumb business that her wealthier, better-connected rival doesn’t already have a monopoly on, makes her an underdog we can’t help but cheer on.

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Margaret seizes the opportunity to smear Mrs. Quigley’s reputation, enlisting a writer client to craft a story about Mary Cooper that skirts libel issues by use of thinly veiled pseudonyms — Mrs. Quigley is “Dame Death,” for instance — and which naturally commands the attention of savvy broadside readers, including those of the wealthy male variety who patronize Quigley’s upscale establishment. None of whom are keen to contract any lethal STDs, of course — and so in short order, Quigley’s business is feeling the effects.

Margaret’s ploy (and use of Mary) is calculated — but her vendetta also makes a far larger statement. Employer-provided health care was even less of a priority back then than it is now, and the truth is that Quigley used Mary to earn money until Mary was no longer an earner for her. Through Emily Lacey (Holli Dempsey)’s eyes, it’s quickly confirmed that life in Madame Quigley’s employ is not all it’s cracked up to be. Emily learns that her clothes, her perfume, her room are all put on her tab, and must be paid back to Mrs. Quigley via her earnings — though at least in Emily’s case, ambition and wit may provide a way out.

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It’s Emily who boldly demands Quigley’s son (Douggie McMeekin) tell her the story behind the venomous rift between Margaret and his mother. And while Junior doesn’t know the answer when he’s first pressed by Emily, he’s soon hearing dear mother’s side of this central story.

As Lydia bitterly recounts, she took Margaret into her house and treated her as “one of my own,” only to be accused of kidnapping by Margaret — an offense punishable by hanging. As we’ve watched Emily’s own experiences under Mrs. Quigley unfolding (including being locked in a room against her will), we begin to piece together why Margaret’s own memories of being in Quigley’s employ (and at her mercy) are so painful.

To underscore Mrs. Quigley’s predatory nature, there’s a horrifying subplot in which she’s soon procuring a virgin for an associate of Justice Cunliff (Richard McCabe) explicitly to violate — and even this doesn’t buy Quigley an entirely compliant puppet — it merely buys her Cunliff’s ear, into which she can coquettishly whisper her pleas for legal favors. Yet when she appeals to him to do something about the slanderous/true story Margaret has planted, he insists he can’t get involved in a dispute between two brothels: She’s bargained her soul for a devil’s ear, but he’s at least half-deaf.

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Meanwhile, Charlotte (Jessica Findlay Brown)’s childish lover Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner) remains easily played — though his manservant Hacksby is another matter (as played by the amazing Edward Hogg, who will be familiar to “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” fans here in the States).

 

A rather intriguing adversarial relationship arises between Hacksby and Charlotte in this episode: Charlotte may be facing the quintessential “for love or money” dilemma — she’s also spending some quality time with a handsome, working-class Irishman — and Hacksby is quick to tell Sir Howard all about it. But when George assigns Hacksby to trail Charlotte “like a dog” and report back on her every move, it seems like something truly interesting might come of Hacksby. He could remain a dutiful and sanctimonious stooge, sure… But it’s hard not to hope that he’ll somehow be won over by Charlotte’s heroic qualities instead.

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An intriguing figure from Margaret’s past also surfaces: One Nathaniel Lennox (Con O’Neill), a former beau who’s made quite a financial success of himself. Margaret sniffs out an opportunity, given her move to the Greek Street house is still not secured — but she’s surprised, on paying Nathaniel a visit, to be answered at the door by his wife Harriet (Pippa Bennett-Warner). There’s no denying the creepy undertones of the relationship between Nathaniel and Harriet: He’s all but ogling Margaret in Harriet’s presence, while Harriet herself tells Margaret that she’s been “well-educated” by her husband, with loads of subtext pouring out of each word and expression.

Margaret is soon rolling out the welcome wagon for Nathaniel and his son Benjamin (Timothy Innes) at her brothel — but for all her strategizing, she fails to see the woman Nathaniel really wants is her. Later, preparing to bed Nathaniel, she’s forced to ply her old charms — and not just of the physical variety. “When you went away, I was inconsolable,” she assures him — and it’s Mary Cooper, of all people, who bursts into the room in a fever, sparing Margaret the deed. For now, anyway.

While we watch Margaret maneuvering Nathaniel — and likewise, watching Mrs. Quigley appealing to Justice Cunliff — there are painful reminders throughout of the modern-day equivalent: Margaret needs an investor, and must offer herself up as incentive to Nathaniel. It’s easy enough to ignore the “sex as power” angle within a period story about sex work, but every woman alive can tell you her running list of the times she’s had to “play nice” with a man in power — a male colleague or boss, an investor, even a husband, when income weights the scales. How many women have to downplay their intelligence, their agency, their ambition for the sake of a paycheck, a career, or the financial goodwill of their partner?

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Despite the coitus interruptus, Nathaniel, returns to Margaret at Mary Cooper’s wake, insisting that he can’t resist her — and that he’ll help fund her enterprise. It’s hard to tell if this feels like a failure or success for Margaret (probably a bit of both), given the creepy vibes he’s giving off. And while Nathaniel is creepy, his son Benjamin (showing open contempt for his father’s preference for women of color like his wife Harriet) is that much worse: These are two characters we’re not looking forward to getting to know better.

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The episode concludes at Mary’s wake: She’s lowered upon a table, surrounded by flowers and candles, by her fellow harlots, all knowing full well this fate awaits most of them. Margaret’s friend, the glorious Nancy Birch (Kate Fleetwood), launches into a well-known lewd song that celebrates Mary’s role as conqueror of men.

The song, the wake as a whole, are a defiant refusal to be broken by their reality. The whore’s life here is not an empowered one — but Margaret and her crew managed to find some empowerment within it. (And if you can keep your eyes dry as Lucy places “her first harlot’s coins” over Mary’s dead eyes, more power to you.)

The episode ends with Mary Cooper’s corpse — left on Quigley’s doorstep by a defiant Margaret and her crew. Harsh, beautiful, kind and cruel: This is what woman-powered storytelling looks like — and it’s freaking awesome.

“Harlots” premieres new episodes early Wednesdays, on Hulu.

Posted by:Julia Diddy

Julia Diddy is a freelance writer and critic in Los Angeles.