I’ve now seen five out of eight episodes, and Jesus Christ you guys, this show is entertaining.
Our story is set in Fair London, circa. 1770, where two brothels not particularly alike in dignity are basically at each other’s throats. One brothel is classy and polished, but it’s led by a Madam who is EVIL. Seriously, you can see the metaphorical mustache twirling as soon as she comes on screen.
Brothel Number Two is scrappy and earthy, but trying to come up in the world. It’s led by a Madam who is being played by Samantha Morton, which automatically makes it GOOD.
In addition to a cavalcade of cheery sex workers, Samantha Morton also has two lovely daughters. The older daughter is Lady Sybil from Dowton Abbey and she is the kept woman of an overly dramatic nobleman.
Also, (and this is a small spoiler, but you figure this out in the first episode) it appears that Lady Sybil has it written into her contract that she must fall in love with a handsome young Irish man from the wrong side of the tracks in literally EVERYTHING she’s in. (In addition to Downton, didn’t this basically happen in A Winter’s Tale too? Anyone?)
Lucy, the younger daughter is big eyed and innocent and as the pilot begins, her mother is currently accepting sealed bids for her virginity. Needless to say, this is problematic, but the show does an interesting job of navigating the complications of putting modern moral standards onto an 18th century brothel keeper and her daughter. In other words, it doesn’t absolve anything, but it also gives a very clear sense of how her mother got to this point. Lucy’s storyline gets progressively heartbreaking as the series continues, but I won’t say anything more here.
Anyway, the show manages to be beautifully soapy while also exploring some really complex ideas about sex and power dynamics. Part of this, I would argue, is that the show runners are apparently almost entirely women. The impact of this feels palpable. For one thing, sexual violence is a big running theme through the show-how could it not be?-but, with one notable exception, ITS NOT SHOWN ONSCREEN. You see the circumstances and you see the aftermath, and it’s just as devastating. (In the one case where its shown on screen, I would argue that its actually earned. It didn’t feel gratuitous at all, but like a logical extension of character. And it’s also shot in a way that makes it brutal to watch.)
The show is also refreshingly racially diverse, considering its a show about 18th century London. They could have so easily gone the route of “oh no black people existed in Europe before Josephine Baker” but they really don’t. I don’t know enough to know offhand what the racial makeup of 1770s London was like, but I have to imagine that there were people of color around, especially in working class social circles. It’s also not just incidental casting that they don’t address, they’ve been touching on racial issues and I get the strong impression they plan to do so more and more overtly as the show goes on. Margaret Wells has a freed slave working for her, who is navigating a lot of issues about autonomy and what “work” and “freedom” mean. (Also a horrifically upsetting storyline, but I don’t want to spoil anything.) She’s also married to a black man, who helps to run her house, while dealing with the twin stigmas of race and being a brothel keeper.
Anyway, I’m becoming progressively more enraptured with this show. I have 3 episodes left to go and I’m going to be sad when I’m finished.
Your turn! Who else is watching? What do you think about it?