Taboo episode 2 review

Taboo looks the part, but it needs to do more with its lead to prove itself any more than a colonial Gothic pastiche...

Taboo episode 2 review

This review contains spoilers.

Do you know something? Stabbed in the gut as he is, I think James Keziah Delaney might just make it. We are, after all, only on episode two of eight. If Tom Hardy’s character bled to death on a cobbled street at this stage in proceedings, everybody else on Taboo would have to pack up and go home. Jonathan Pryce’s agent would need to score him another gig as a grade A colonial bastard, Oona Chaplin would have to take her corseted, unnatural lust elsewhere, Jason Watkins would need to go back to being great in Trollied and Mark Gatiss could simply take the pillow out from under his jumper and write another series of Sherlock. Stephen Graham as tattooed-of-pate, dentally challenged Atticus, could stay. I’d watch Stephen Graham do anything.

Atticus was one of four new characters introduced this week, each one sporting a more perfect name for a nineteenth century melodrama than the last. There’s him, royal adviser Solomon Coop, actress Lorna Bow and thirteen-year-old urchin Winter (whose hopeful plan to get to America pegged her as this series’ war movie private with dreams of buying the family farm and thereby signed her death warrant for a few episodes’ hence). “Miss Winter?” asked Delaney. “Just Winter” she told him, like one of the X-Men.

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Winter’s not the only one with a touch of the superhero about her. Delaney’s omnipotence continued in week two as he strode through the episode steadily unfazed by a growing list of enemies. The East India Company wants him dead? He’s unflustered. An American spy marches him along at gun-point? He’s bored. A Malay assassin is sent after him? He sets fire to his boat, guts him in the street, chews off a lump of his neck and fails even to look as excited about that as he did when someone moved his horse.

Tom Hardy is aiming for the kind of macho performance in which a millpond-still surface belies the maelstrom raging underneath. Either he’s not pulling it off or the character wasn’t well-developed enough by the time he put the hat on, but after two hours in Delaney’s company, we know as much about him as we did at his father’s funeral. All I’ve gleaned beyond some hinted-at past trauma is that left to his own devices, Delaney is like a wilful toddler who won’t keep his nappy on and prefers to go trouser-free.

His sheer competency is what makes him unexciting to watch. Delaney does nothing but make moves. This week he installed a safe, bought a ship, burnt another, propositioned his sister… all without hesitation, all without fear. Action is obviously required in drama, but failure to act can work too. Shakespeare got a whole play out of it. A good one, too.

The fact that he knows more than anyone else doesn’t help us to get a handle on him either because it means we’re yet to see him truly on the back foot. He deals with assassins and surprise step-mums with the same steady acceptance.

That said, I have discerned one potential flaw in Delaney: his overconfidence in the probity of postmen. I’m loath even to stick a fiver in a nephew’s birthday card, but he happily posted a diamond the size of an Oxo cube to his half-sister this week. That kind of carelessness can’t end well.

Similarly doomed seems to be his infatuation with Zilpha. What is his ambition there? Does he envisage a cosy future with a gaggle of web-footed children living off the fat of his newly built shipping company?

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The new Mrs Delaney, aka Lorna “spanner in the works” Bow may put pay to that. First James’ mother, then Zilpha’s, and now an actress… Delaney Sr evidently had an eye for the ladies. Perhaps that’s what did for him in the end.

Delaney’s detective mission to find out who poisoned his father stalled somewhat this week. In news that sounds more fitting for a children’s bedtime story than a Gothic melodrama, he learned from Bryce that the culprit may be a honey-beer seller on Feather Lane, but that doesn’t bring him any closer to a verdict. He does know, courtesy of Atticus, that Zilpha’s husband wanted to have the old man killed. That’s two strikes against Thorne Geary. I give him two more episodes at best.

In it for the long haul will be Jonathan Pryce’s Sir Stuart Strange. Those two are the Inspector Campbell and Thomas Shelby of Taboo, two powerful men on opposite sides of a gulf who get each other’s goat. One represents the establishment, the other is a renegade. Who will win?

Ultimately? Invincible, mad James Delaney of course. He’s untouchable, even painting that cobbled street with his blood.

It’s dressed up as quality, Taboo. Scenes like the one of Delaney’s river prayer, hands to the sky and gem stones tumbling into the waters, aspire to a kind of elemental significance, a fire and earth mystical depth wrapped in political themes. It might look the part, but it still needs to do more with its lead to prove to me that it’s anything more than a colonial Gothic pastiche, a penny dreadful tucked inside a fine Georgian gilt cover.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Shovels And Keys, here.

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