This review contains spoilers.
So, the rumours were all true. Not only is James Delaney an invincible cannibal warrior, he’s also a legit wizard. After three episodes of dancing around it, Taboo took a two-footed leap into the supernatural realm this week by showing Delaney rape his sleeping sister via the astral plane. Zilpha being shown to have enjoyed James “breaking in” would ordinarily be the point I’d tell a TV show to do one, but as I’m here until the bitter end, let’s get into it.
To take a charitable approach, Taboo could be seen to be travelling a well-worn route in colonial fiction by showing Zilpha’s body to be contested territory. She is Nootka Sound, property over which two parties—her husband and her half-brother—are laying claim, each believing their claim pips the other’s (one supported by the law and the church, the other by the elemental rule of passion). Zilpha’s wishes, like those of Nootka Sound’s indigenous population, go unheard. Like them, she is invaded, oppressed and voiceless.
It’s a neat metaphor and would form a neat defence of the scenes showing Zilpha writhing in her bedsheets before her brutish husband insists on going “where [James] has been” if I believed for a second that Taboo had given it that much thought. Instead, it all just feels like another demonstration that this isn’t your grandma’s period drama. Add James Delaney being a dream-rapist to Taboo’s grisly eviscerations, brothel scenes and delight in the word ‘fuck’, and it just seems like the latest in a long line of attempts to titillate and shock.
The Zilpha scenes came after Lorna had been stripped and threatened with rape by the King’s man, an ordeal that, puzzlingly, appeared to cement her loyalty to her step-son, inspiring her to join his band of rogues and have designs on his bed (another Jeremy Kyle taboo if anyone’s counting). Lorna says they are the ships, and he is the river. Yes. And just like the London river that flows past the Delaney house, he’s also full of shit.
Piss and shit both were on Delaney’s shopping list this week in what was Taboo’s most compelling storyline so far. He needed gunpowder to trade and thanks to his spy at the East India Company, was informed he wouldn’t be allowed to buy it legitimately. Thus a heist plan was hatched.
Knowing what’s going on behind James Delaney’s steely glare turns out to be key to staying interested in an episode of Taboo. Well that, the arrival of Tom Hollander as a nineteenth century Super Hans, and said episode containing an identifiable plot beyond ‘man in hat glares at London and grunts’. This week, those planets aligned to create Taboo’s most watchable strand yet.
The gunpowder plot provided what this meandering series has been lacking, namely, structure. The heist provided a bit of A-Team momentum, pulling the hour along to its explosive conclusion. Delaney’s rag-tag band nicked a cartful of saltpetre using one of Cholmondeley’s sideshow chemistry tricks. What a difference a ticking clock and a recognisable aim makes.
If Taboo is going to return for a second series, and judging by comments from writer Steven Knight and the regularity at which new players are being introduced this late in the first run (hello Countess Musgrove/Carlsbad), that’s the plan, then the episodes need to have more of this week’s focus. Give Delaney a mission, tell us what it is, and let’s see him get on with it.
Better yet, let’s see the brilliant supporting cast get on with it. Now boasting Tom Hollander in addition to the likes of Jason Watkins, Stephen Graham and Jonathan Pryce, Taboo has obviously shopped for its ensemble in all the best places – if only both despicable duellers would perish in next week’s episode and we could be left in their capable hands.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.