Taboo episode 3 review

The enemies and the taboos keep stacking up for Delaney in the latest episode of the BBC’s lurid period melodrama…

This review contains spoilers.

A tea trading monopoly? That’s what all this trouble is over? James Delaney has been fighting assassins, getting stabbed in the gut and making enemies in Regency society’s upper ranks all because he wants to open the UK’s first branch of Whittard.

Well, at least we know.

Aside from riling up everyone he crosses paths with, Delaney’s motivations have been tricky to discern until now. Realising that he’s essentially a Dragon’s Den contestant trying to play the Americans off the British for the biggest investment in his China-based start-up makes him a more accessible lead.

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There’s more to it, of course. Delaney also wants revenge on the East India Company for an unspecified wrong likely having to do with slavery and his mother. In addition to that he wants to avenge his father’s murder. And in addition to that, he’s after a bit of the other from his sister. (She used to let him to do it to her before he went overseas but now says she never wants to see him again, a message she delivered the only way one possibly could deliver such a message: by straddling him on a church pew then flouncing off and leaving him with a morally transgressive trouser tent.)

Delaney has an equally quarrelsome relationship with both his sister and his trousers. The first, he can’t get close enough to, and the second, he can’t get far enough away from. Forget Sir Stuart Strange of the East India Company, trousers are Delaney’s true nemesis. The second he slides the inside bolt across Delaney Manor’s front door, off they come and on comes the squint of past trauma.

When Tom Hardy’s face bears the squint of past trauma, a flashback is never far away. Last week it was his dead dad floating menacingly around the top of the screen, this week it was the turn of his bedlamite mum re-enacting this Madonna video every time he closed his eyes. Salish Delaney was a casualty of Empire imported to our shores like a sack of cotton, locked away to go mad in true Gothic style, then buried under a paltry wooden marker in the grounds of an asylum. She’s the perfect accessory for our tortured colonial protagonist.

That’s the thing to know about James Keziah Delaney; he’s complex. Not in a way that makes him especially interesting to watch, but complex all the same. He’s vicious to attackers but kind to urchins; he threatens brothel madams but gives to charity; he’ll go to town on the still-pulsing neck of a human man but don’t offer him a pork sausage or he’ll get angry. He’s chivalrous, dangerous, romantic, conniving, possibly bisexual, a bit of a genius… he’s a bitch, he’s a lover, he’s a child, he’s a mother, he’s a sinner he’s a saint. He does not feel ashamed.

He does not feel pain either, at least not much according to the American spy who stitched him up after episode two’s cliff-hanger attack. His anaesthetic-free sutures didn’t slow him down a great deal in episode three. A brandy-dipped rag and he was out the door, off to Wapping docks to collect guns for his ongoing war on everyone.

The guns came in handy when step-mum Lorna Bow (a music hall actress gamely attempting to perform Shakespeare to a crowd baying for T and A – a more perfect period cliché you never did meet) was stitched up in a more figurative sense by Jason Watkins’ Solomon Coop. Bow might be a Mad Delaney after all, considering the speed at which she slashed up that Duke and made an enemy of the rich and powerful.

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The devious machinations of Solomon Coop are an entertaining watch. Along with Stephen Graham’s Atticus and Jonathan Pryce’s Strange, Taboo’s supporting cast is proving much more attractive than its lead. Watkins, Graham and Pryce—all actors with a football field’s more subtlety in their performances than they draw upon here—must be having fun playing boo hiss villains. Which is fitting for a series that, as someone with more wit than me has pointed out, is essentially an art-house panto.

It’s an odd soup, Taboo. Visually meaty with pleasingly unusual ingredients (where else are you going to see Scroobius Pip as a French sailor and a live lobster being used as a nipple clamp?), but ultimately, it’s all just a bit thin.