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PS Picks: Hulu's 'Harlots,' a Show That Foregrounds the Concerns of Women Above All Else

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.


Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, a televised adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, having won countless awards, is widely hailed as The Show of Our Times, at once a cautionary tale (the future could be very bad!) and a mirror of the current moment (the future is very bad, and also it's now!)—particularly as women, en masse, push back against patriarchal forces both subtle and explicit.

There's another show streaming on Hulu, though, that takes on these same issues and is somehow both instructive and, unlike Gilead, the dystopian state of The Handmaid's Tale, manages to be almost fun. Harlots (season one streaming now, season two coming out next week) takes us not into the future but into the past: Georgian London, to be specific, and a house of ill repute run by Margaret Wells (played by the often-underused character actress Samantha Morton).

At the show's outset, Wells is focused on moving her brothel—where, it should be said, both of her daughters work—to a more fashionable address, and much of the first season covers the unsavory deals she and her staff make to climb whatever ladders they can find. It's impossible not to root for some of the titular harlots as they work to save money, establish a secure living, and win favorable reviews in a brothel guidebook that has the ability to make or break their careers, and it's rare—and remarkable—to see a historically minded show that foregrounds the concerns of women above all else.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.