This review contains spoilers.
Cheerio to James Delaney, currently sailing with a ragtag crew to Portugal to liaise with an American spy. Why he’s doing that is anybody’s guess. Why James Delaney has done any of this is anybody’s guess.
Prior to the shoot-out, this finale was representative of the series as a whole. A half-dead Delaney stalked around London taking care of business by having gnomic, sometimes violent conversations with friends and foe, rarely allowing us the privilege of knowing whatever the hell was going on. The episode was designed to show off our lead as a strategic master of Sherlockian guile. He planned his exit from the Tower down to the last detail before he’d even been arrested. What a mind!
Forget that Delaney’s plan was roughly as slick as a Rube Goldberg machine and twice as complicated. Only if we assume that he blamed himself for Winter’s murder and wanted the punishment does the fact that he let Helga get him arrested make any sense. Being in the tower served James no purpose—he could have walked into Sir Stuart Strange’s office to blackmail him on any given weekday. It’s as if Delaney allowed himself to be locked up and tortured simply to show how hard he was and how cleverly he could pre-arrange his escape.
Why provide George Chichester with the means to take down Strange and then blow up the latter before justice can be served? And why did the thing that’s kept Delaney from being killed until now—the will leaving Nootka Sound to the Americans in the event of his death—suddenly count for nothing in the Prince Regent’s eyes? And why the battle of Wapping Wall? And why, and why and why.
One answer to all of the above: spectacle. If Taboo wasn’t going to deliver logic in its series one finale, it was determined to give us a show.
It certainly did that. Dumbarton’s blue-headed corpse strung up like a crime scene from Hannibal. Zilpha’s black figure dropping from that bridge. Flames spilling from the windows of the East India Company headquarters. The shoot-out on the docks. Delaney’s new ship escaping on the high tide… The finale had spectacle alright.
What it didn’t have was emotional impact. Did any of you instinctively sit up to stop Zilpha as she stepped onto that ledge? Not me. Or feel sympathy for James when he read her suicide note? I couldn’t. Shock, thrill, tension, relief… Taboo gave me none of it. Its tangled, complicated story kept its characters all at a distance, difficult to root for or against.
The deficit in emotion was Polyfilla-ed in by tricks of the trade—ticking clocks, letters being delivered, shock deaths—all there to mimic the effects of real tension and peril for which an audience needs to be invested in the outcome. Messages flew all over London and bodies dropped by the cartful (Zilpha, Pettifer, Wilton, Dumbarton, Helga, and presumably Sir Stuart Strange this episode alone) but none of it touched the sides.
The closest I came to feeling something was when Lorna took a bullet in the arm. The excellent Mrs Delaney played her part this week by disguising herself as an Avon lady hawking unctions to soothe Countess Musgrove’s “poor, worn-out chuff”. The delight she took in declaring herself James’ mother was the kind of enjoyable character moment Taboo needs many more of if it’s going to live up to its obvious potential should it return.
One thing you can say about this expensive folly: it’s been full of surprises. Much though, in the same way a minefield is full of surprises. You go along admiring the view, then BAM, you’re knocked senseless, ears ringing. What just happened? What did we just watch? Reason or witchcraft?
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.