Warning: this review of “Episode 5” of Taboo contains spoilers.
I said last week that Taboo seemed to be taking its inspiration from other recent prestige dramas; the dramatic “duel to the death” cliffhanger bringing to mind the “trial by combat” from Game of Thrones. But the face-off in Taboo went down a lot differently than the violent, eye-popping viciousness of GOT. “At the time of your choosing, there will be a polite exchange of bullets,” is not an instruction you’d hear in Westeros; not that they have access to firearms, but if they did, they would be nothing polite about their usage.
Taboo presented its battle in a far more meticulously paced, eerie manner. The combatants slowly rowed across the mist-covered Thames river to a piece of land presided over by a gypsy woman. The officiant carefully explained the rules and logistics (battle is over at first blood, must not shoot twice). Thorne portrayed a stiff upper lip although his eyes gave away his fear. Delaney’s nonchalant swagger while less refined demonstrated an assured attitude. Lorna trudged across the river because “I was bored and I’ve never seen a man shot before.” The whole scene was beautifully filmed, paced, and choreographed.
As for what happened, Delaney, of course, survived a shot to the heart. Not because of his connection with the mystical, although that wouldn’t have been out of the question in this series. Delaney complimented Thorne on the accuracy of his shot, apologized for not dying, and then blew the head off of the East India Company spy who had failed to load Thorne’s pistol. After all, the Company can’t allow Delaney to die knowing that Nootka Sound will then end up in the hands of the Americans.
While the opening duel didn’t quite have the bloodshed and brutality one might have expected, the episode certainly had its share of violence. Delaney sliced up another poor sap sent to stalk and assassinate him. He also chopped off the thumb of a betrayer amongst Atticus’ men, threatening the rest of his cronies, “I am inside your head, gentlemen, always.” He then waved that detached thumb around as a warning to any other potential backstabbers in his ranks. But the most uncomfortable and disturbing actions this week happened to Zilpha.
We’ve talked about how Oona Chaplin hasn’t had a great deal to work with so far; her character is there mainly to suffer the cutting words and actions of the male protagonists. There’s a limit to the variations of panicked glances. In this episode, Zilpha went from verbal punching bag to human punching bag as Thorne, humiliated and defeated after his duel, took out his frustrations on his wife, beating her bloody and bruised. Not satisfied with pummeling the “demons” out of her, he then hired a ghastly priest to perform an exorcism, although he spent more time touching her up than banishing evil spirits. Like I said, uncomfortable and disturbing.
Luckily, there was some momentary light relief provided by Tom Hollander’s dry-witted Dr. Cholmondeley. Although “light relief” in Taboo is still peppered with darkness and sleaze. “Not only is she part of the large number of women I would sleep with, but she’s part of the much smaller number I would masturbate over,” Cholmondeley said, speaking of his affection for Lorna. But Delaney had no time to play matchmaker. With the Americans demanding a share of the gunpowder, he needed it making fast, whether that meant risking explosion by adding chlorate or putting his own son (we assume) in danger as Cholmondeley’s apprentice.
The Americans are one step ahead of the Company right now. In fact, the Company is being outmaneuvered by everybody, from the Yanks to Delaney, and especially by the Crown. And it’s in these wicked machinations where the show shares more in common with GOT. The way Solomon Coop operates is straight from the Littlefinger and Varys playbook, using his network of spies and backdoor dealings to tear down his enemies. Rather than go after the Company on the grounds of negligence (for losing the saltpeter), he is hoping to use the sinking of an illegal slave ship, The Influence, to bring down Strange himself.
Which takes us to a new character, George Chichester (Lucian Msamati), a black campaigner, representing the Sons of Africa anti-slavery group. For years, Chichester has been demanding an investigation into the sinking of The Influence, in which 280 African men, women and children lost their lives. He believes that the Company intentionally capsized the boat to cover up their illicit trading of people. And with this revelation, it seems we now know why Delaney seeks revenge on Strange and the Company – he was on that ship.
Chichester is an immediately captivating character, possessing intelligence and a well mannered but no-nonsense attitude in the face of Coop’s smarmy questioning. “I write on behalf of humanity, as a man concerned with injustice,” Chichester told Coop. “Against your people?” Coop replied, looking down his nose. “Against people.” And with that Chichester may have just become the clearest hero of this piece.
Taboo is slowly revealing more of itself, and it appears to be leading to an explosive conclusion, perhaps literally given the amounts of gunpowder being manufactured. With Delaney plotting revenge, the Americans breathing down Delaney’s neck, the Crown attempting to do away with Strange, and what seems to be Zilpha preparing to murder Thorne, Taboo is ready to blow any minute.
-How do you like your eggs in the morning? Delaney likes his hard-boiled so he can swallow it in one bite on the foreshore. The Prince Regent likes his from an ostrich, and soft-boiled so he can scoop up the yolk with his best silverware. A perfect contrast of styles.
-Delaney finally found the treaty in his father’s old belongings. While burning old letters his father had sent him, he explained to Lorna that his old man bought the land with “gunpowder and lies,” and purchased his mother “with beads” before sending her off to Bedlam when she wouldn’t conform. “Like you never bought a soul for beads,” Lorna said before walking away. To be fair, she has a point, given how often we’ve seen Delaney buy people off with diamonds and jewels.
-Were the Sons of Africa a real group? Indeed. In 1789, a former slave, Olaudah Equiano, who had settled in London, formed the Sons of Africa: “an abolitionist group consisting of twelve Negro men, who advocated their campaign through various methods including public speeches, writing letters and active agitation of the parliament.”
-Winter exists. I considered putting this theory to bed last week – the one that suggested Winter was just a figment of Delaney’s warped mind. But now it’s time to finally put it to rest. Not only has Helga mentioned her, but Winter interacted with Lorna this episode.
-Carlsbad, the American spy Duchess, appeared to have no awareness of Dumbarton’s ploy to obtain Delaney’s gunpowder to pass onto Irish rebels. Just another trick or is she really out of the loop?
Taboo airs on BBC1 in the UK (Saturdays at 9:15 pm) and FX in the U.S. (Tuesdays at 10:00 pm ET).