This review contains spoilers.
Unlike alternative methods of dispatching one’s enemy in nineteenth century England—your disembowelling and your throat slitting—duelling turns out to involve a surprising amount of red tape. A doctor, a lawyer and an officiator must be present, each dueller has to bring a buddy, start from an allotted spot and, after a polite exchange of bullets, cease firing. There’d be less bureaucracy involved in taking out a tracker mortgage. Whether rowing through pestilential fog to a between-parishes island owned by a gypsy in a top hat is also regulation or merely an added dash of Taboo style wasn’t made clear.
Style is something Taboo has in spades. Each week, its dreamy underwater opening credits and Max Richter string score advertise the beauty to come. And come it does. In resplendent settings like the East India Company headquarters, and in less resplendent settings like the weed-draped flanks of the Thames where Lorna and James shared a boiled egg breakfast lit like a Renaissance painting. Beauty and ugliness co-mingle in Taboo. And that, it seems, is the whole point.
Provoking no small amount of relief, this week Taboo finally revealed a project other than ‘Look! Tom Hardy! Off the films! In a hat!’ Exposing the ugliness under the gilt surfaces of Regency England is this show’s purpose. It’s a series about the evil that powerful men do.
For weeks, we’ve been watching James Delaney pat the East India Company, the Crown and Thorne Geary around like a cat impassively toying with its dinner. With frustratingly inscrutable motivations, he made enemies of them all. When his motives—securing a tea trade monopoly for his newly minted shipping company—were revealed, they could have scarcely been less compelling. Now comes the real hook.
Taboo is a conspiracy thriller. A decade ago, Sir Strange and colleagues in the Honourable East India Company lined their pockets by running an illicit slave trade that resulted in almost three hundred souls drowning in a staged shipwreck. They conspired to cover it up and now, because it suits the Crown to finally consider ten years’ worth of ignored letters from justice campaigner George Chichester (Lucian Msamati), it’s about to come out.
Knowing what precise kind of bastard Sir Strange is and what precise motive James Delaney has for being a thorn in his side makes Taboo suddenly very watchable. We’ve gone from witnessing Hardy’s character slice and dice his way through a weekly stream of bland assassins to witnessing him take on one of the greatest evils of his time. And not just for flipping tea; for justice. In one plot move, Taboo is no longer politically blank. Instead it’s exposing the ill-gotten wealth on which our Empire and institutions were built. That’s a story worth telling.
Worth telling twice, in fact. Taboo is playing its ‘powerful men commit evil’ tale in stereo, once on a global scale with the East India Company scandal, once on a domestic scale with Zilpha and her abusive husband. Outraged at his ‘property’ being invaded by Delaney and humiliated by his misfiring duel, Thorne Geary beat Zilpha and hired an exorcist to cleanse her of her demonic half-brother. Cue a physically and sexually abusive ceremony that left Zilpha not cleansed but, like her brother, hell-bent on revenge.
It’s all building satisfyingly towards what may well be a literally explosive finale thanks to Henry IV-quoting Cholmondeley’s accelerated gunpowder production line. Zilpha’s on the war path, Sir Stuart is on the ropes, James has discovered the Nootka Sound treaty, Mark Gatiss ate an ostrich egg… In short, it’s all happening. And by chopping off thumbs and blowing powder about, Delaney’s just about managing to keep the plates of his fearsome reputation spinning.
How much of that reputation is a performance is the real question Taboo has yet to answer. If this show can prove over the next three episodes that there really is a convincing character under James Delaney’s hat, then it won’t have just shaped up, it’ll have performed a transformation worthy of Cholmondeley, one from potatoes to champagne, a dead thumb to a diamond.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.