This review contains spoilers.
For weeks I’ve waited to see James Delaney on the back foot – to watch him put under enough pressure that he finally cracks and reveals the human being inside that inscrutable outer shell. Goodbye to that hope. If twelve hours of torture in the Tower of London doesn’t break Delaney, nothing will. Cuts and bruises aside, he remained as in-control and unreadable in the torturer’s chair as he’s been since he landed in London. In-control, unreadable and sadly, dull.
Taboo’s lead is its weakest link. Somehow under and over-written at the same time, Delaney is all over the place. Are we supposed to love him? Hate him? Love to hate him? Aiming for moral complexity, he’s ended up a woolly tangle nobody has the strength or inclination to unweave.
As dramatic leads go, Delaney’s more furniture than character. An unwieldy object that blocks out the light leaving everything else in dismal shadow. Put side by side with Steven Knight’s other major TV protagonist, Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby, Delaney pales in comparison. They’re similar in many ways – both Men Who Do Bad Things and masterminds of criminal gangs who further their own interests by playing powerful parties against each another – but while one is robust and fascinating, the other is flimsy and tedious.
The respective interests each is furthering might be the problem; Shelby’s are clear while Delaney’s are clear as mud. Over three series, Tommy has consistently used his mind and muscle to pursue power, wealth and a place in the establishment. Over seven episodes, James has stated an intention to use his to avenge his father’s murder and seduce his sister (two goals he now appears to have dropped), establish a shipping company, gain a tea-trading monopoly, take revenge on the EIC for an act of barbaric cruelty he may have committed on their behalf, and most recently, set up a utopian society where anything goes aboard a ship to the New World.
Like a spoilt child on Christmas morning, Delaney seems to tire of each new toy as it’s unwrapped. We never know what’s going on in that skull of his and instead of that making us lean in closer, it’s made this series a slog.
A series this handsome and bizarre shouldn’t be a slog. Taboo finds beauty in a muted palette (The opening shot of Winter’s funeral was the latest in a long line of compositions so painterly they deserve to be hung in a gallery – we must have the talent of cinematographer Mark Patten to thank for that.)
There’s talent galore in Taboo—the score, the art direction, that glittering supporting cast (War And Peace’s Jessie Buckley is the find of the series, she deserves to have casting directors hammering down her door after this)—which is what makes Delaney’s deficits as a lead so frustrating.
With its debauched chemist, brothels, ‘Mollies’, Dickensian urchins and tattooed gangs, Taboo is a wild, welcome showcase for Regency London’s oddballs and misfits. It’s all roughly as far from Jane Austen’s quadrilles and whist parties as you can get, which feels very much like the point. But lurid Gothic melodrama is all about shocks and thrills and while Delaney always stays two steps ahead of everyone else, the thrills are few and far between.
So you have a use for Sir Strange, James? Be merciful and make it a quick one. We may only have withstood seven hours’ torture to your twelve, but it’s plenty.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.