Warning: this review of “Episode 4” of Taboo contains spoilers.
Being friends with James Delaney comes at a hefty price. Hell, you don’t even have to be on grunting terms, just being within close proximity to the brooding rogue is enough to bring an avalanche of shit hurtling your way. “I don’t keep anybody around me that doesn’t deserve what they get,” Delaney tells his old acquaintance, now spy, Godfrey. His similarities with the Grim Reaper don’t stop at his dress sense; death and despair follow Delaney where ever he goes, and those brave or stupid enough to align with him are resigning themselves to “the league of the damned.”
Take Lorna Bow, for example, who has placed herself firmly within the dark world of Delaney. In this episode, she is shackled and jailed by the British crown on a charge of attempted murder (after slicing up the Duke of Richmond last week). Locked in a grungy cell, she’s accosted by Solomon Coop, who aggressively unties her nightgown while suggesting (threatening) that she contest her deceased husband’s will on the grounds of insanity and sign over her share of Nootka Sound to the Crown or else hang. Steadfast as we know her to be, Lorna holds her ground, risking possible sexual assault, banking on Delaney’s promise that he would salvage the situation.
Salvage the situation he does, using his enemies at the East India Company to step in just before Coop has his way with the budding actress. Coop’s actions further infuriate Sir Stuart Strange, who just last week formed a deal with the Crown to team up against the Americans. With the Crown making moves behind the Company’s back, it allows Jonathan Pryce to go on another red-faced, f-bomb filled tirade. “He’s turning London into his own private bear pit,” Strange snaps, implying that this entire thing is a giant ruse by Delaney to pit his enemies against each other.
Strange is correct, Delaney is too methodical in his madness to leave anything to chance. He is always one step ahead of his foes and rarely caught off guard. I mean, it certainly helps that he has a horse protecting him. Yes, it appears we can add “horse whisperer” to Delaney’s skill set, as a disturbance in his equine friend tips Delaney off to sneak attack by a giant brute of a man. Delaney somehow survives a vicious bash to the skull, before knifing his assailant, impaling him with two iron hooks, dragging him across the floor with said hooks, and then gutting him like a pig carcass. Delaney’s brother (or more likely, son) watches the bloody scene from a window.
The gutting is easily this season’s most gruesome and violent scene so far and fitted perfectly within an episode that was grisly and grim throughout; brimming with blood, piss, and shit. The urine and fecal matter came courtesy of a new character, the nutty Dr. Cholmondeley, played by the always excellent Tom Hollander (The Thick of It). Delaney enlists the help of Cholmondeley, a Royal Society chemist with a penchant for f**king his students and huffing nitrous oxide, to help him make gunpowder (which he can use to trade with the people of Nootka). After sampling various forms of animal feces and discussing the benefits of urine, Cholmondeley states that saltpeter will be the quickest way to make the amount of gunpowder Delaney requires.
Delaney drags more tawdry characters into his gunpowder plot. He has Helga stockpile the urine of her prostitutes and clients, barrel it, and pass it off to Atticus who will transfer it via boat to Delaney’s manufacturing farm. A ghastly mission. Atticus is also tasked with breaking into the Company’s warehouse at the docks and robbing their saltpeter supply, busting the door down using Cholmondeley’s theory of chlorine gas + sal ammoniac + heat = explosion.
Meanwhile, Delaney is invited to a lavish ball by his American spy friends, who it’s revealed sent the giant attacker. Unlike Cholmondeley, who happily swishes around the party pumping his nitrous oxide, Delaney looks like he’d rather be siphoning prostitute piss from barrels than hobnobbing with drunken elites, especially after yet another tense encounter with his half-sister Zilpha. Speaking of Zilpha, earlier in the episode Delaney uses some sort of telepathic voodoo to sex up his sister, causing her to have a wet dream. Between the telepathy sex, Coop’s undressing of Lorna, and Thorne’s implied rape of Zilpha after she awakens, this episode is extremely uncomfortable viewing.
The fact that Delaney and Zilpha were both invited to the ball is more than mere coincidence and suggests the Americans are aware of their past transgressions. That’s all but confirmed when Dumbarton tells Delaney that “Love is now part of the deal we are offering.” He says that Carlsbad, who it turns out is Countess Musgrove (Marina Hands), the host of the ball, can provide them safe voyage to the New World, where they can live happily ever after in anonymity. But Zilpha wants no part of her brother, at least that’s what she tells Lorna, who inquires, “If I were to have intentions regarding James, would I need to be wary of you?” Zilpha says that Lorna need not be wary as Delaney and her share the same father.
But Zilpha doth protest too much, and Thorne soon makes sure the entire world knows of his wife’s sins, yelling “You f**ked her,” to Delaney in front of the party guests, before challenging him to a duel… to the death! If only Thorne had seen Delaney dispatch of the giant earlier, he might not be so quick to the join the league of the damned.
We’re at the half-way point of the season now, and the show is really upping the gruesomeness. Taboo is certainly enjoyable, but it’s not quite yet its own entity, it seems to heavily borrow from other prestige TV. This episode had a feeling of Game of Thrones, not just because it shares numerous cast members, but the cliffhanger duel challenge was very reminiscent of GOT‘s trial by combat. Also, the gunpowder story reminded me of the Lannister’s various Wildfire plots, and you have to believe the gunpowder here will be used for an explosion rather than simply to trade. The gunpowder arc also had a touch of Breaking Bad about it; Heisenberg blowing up Tuco’s offices with the fulminated mercury.
With four episodes left, Taboo still has a chance to grow beyond just a Tom Hardy vanity project with a bunch of amazing actors and cool looking sets. But we need to start digging deeper into these characters and their motivations beyond land and money and the occasional tribal magic.
-Can you really make gunpowder with manure and pee? Indeed you can. As the website Today I Found Out explains, to make gunpowder you need potassium nitrate, and during the U.S. Civil War it was produced in large quantities. “One process, known as the French method, involved mixing manure with ashes, straw and urine; the mixture would be tended for many months, perhaps even a year, then filtered through more ashes and a bit of water.”
-Is Winter real or not? With Helga mentioning Winter by name this week I think it’s time to put to bed the theory that she is just a figment of Delaney’s imagination.
-What is Delaney really planning with that gunpowder? We know that Delaney wants revenge on the East India Company for whatever they put him through in the past, and potentially murdering his father. But is getting into the trade business enough satisfaction for Delaney? I’m inclined to believe that it will be used in some sort of Guy Fawkes-like gunpowder plot and it could bring down everyone in Delaney’s path, friend and foe alike.
Taboo airs on BBC1 in the UK (Saturdays at 9:15 pm) and FX in the U.S. (Tuesdays at 10:00 pm ET).