Television has long been filled with characters like Tony Soprano, Walter White, Gregory House, Dexter Morgan, Frank Underwood, and Don Draper — men ranging from arrogant and mean to downright despicable, yet we root for them because of some talent or struggle or desire to do the right thing. But, there has always been a disparity when it comes to women in the same role. Thankfully, the number of female anti-heroes on television has risen in the last few years. Recently, Margaret went full anti-hero on Harlots, a Hulu series that is not lacking in complex ladies at all. There are some spoilers for Harlots ahead.
There are two kinds of character that fit the anti-hero description, by my definition. The first is someone who does the right thing for the wrong reason. Think Han Solo at the beginning of Star Wars, in it for the money. The other is a character who does the wrong thing for the right reason — or at least the right reason for them/their situation.
The latter is Margaret Wells. In last Wednesday's episode, she betrayed Emily Lacey and murdered Howard — after he attacked Lucy, who stabbed him. Margaret went from being a boss to being a boss, if you know what I mean. However, she unwittingly put Charlotte right in the crossfire. The fallout from Howard's death, and the way Margaret betrayed Emily Lacey, have forced the matriarch to defend her moral standing.
Sure, she generally supports other women, stands up to racism, owns her own sexuality, and these are all good things. But Margaret is not perfect, and there's no denying that she's an outlaw now. Very early on in the series, she reminded me of Nancy Botwin on Weeds, and I stand by that comparison. I wasn't a Girls fan myself, but I'm glad that show and its own unlikeable characters existed. Just like I'm glad that The Mindy Project, Scandal, UnReal, Jessica Jones, and Homeland exist.
It's not enough for female characters to be strong, or be magically able to do it all, or even just be unlikable — a wealth of complicated and diverse characters is the only way to achieve true representation. Then, instead of female anti-heroes, we can just talk about anti-heroes. Harlots accomplishes this as well as Orange is the New Black and any Shonda Rhimes show — staples in the complicated female role business.
Think about how many different types of characters Harlots has given us in such a small world. There's a female villain in Lydia Quigley. Emily took a risk, became a victim, but never gives up. The Scanwells represent a different moral perspective — but they have skeletons in their closet as well. Lucy and Charlotte are two very different heroines, and neither is an innocent ingenue. Kitty and Fanny are more than comic relief. Harriet has a rich backstory with high stakes. And I'm completely obsessed with Margaret's best friend Nancy Birch, the dominatrix who wears pants and a three-cornered hat.
As of Wednesday's latest episode, there are two queer relationships as well. These characters may all be "harlots," but they're so much more to all of them than that. The layers are falling apart on Harlots and it makes the show so much better. With the season finale on Wednesday, here's hoping a possible Season 2 can continue bringing these layered characters to our streaming screens.