Warning: this review of “Episode 6” of Taboo contains spoilers.
Up until this point in the series, James Delaney has stayed one step ahead of his countless enemies. Even when he was ambushed and stabbed, he quickly got back to his feet, brushed the human flesh from his teeth, and continued on grunting. Delaney has ducked and dodged the East India Company, the Americans, and the British Crown, playing each group against one another while he stomps around Regency London swigging brandy and growling at anyone that dare give him a funny look. It was just a matter of time before things blew up in his face.
The past and the present caught up with our brooding anti-hero this week. Firstly, the past is not quite how Delaney seems to remember it, at least according to Brace. Throughout the series, Delaney has painted this image of his mother as a saintly victim who was ripped from her homeland by his father and then shipped off to a mental institution. Brace, however, tells a different story, one which involves Mrs. Delaney attempting to drown James when he was a baby. The visions of his mother standing in the lake now taking on a very different tone.
Delaney visits Bedlam, handling the chains that likely shackled his mother years earlier. Chains are a recurring motif in this series; we previously saw them on the Spanish crusade ship Delaney purchased and in the cells where Lorna was arrested. For all its murkiness and violence, Taboo is ultimately a show about freedom (or lack of it). Obviously, the slave trade is the primary example of that. Delaney’s mother was a slave, sold into marriage, imprisoned in the Delaney household, and then later locked up in Bedlam. Delaney himself was (likely) a slave; one of the 280 men, women, and children aboard the Company’s illegal slave ship. And, of course, Zilpha was a prisoner in her marriage, beaten and abused by her captor/husband.
Speaking of Zilpha, she finally dispatches of the drunken and abusive Thorne, stabbing him in the heart with her hatpin while he slept. Sounds like a game of Cluedo – Zilpha, in the bedroom, with the hatpin. It was a cathartic moment that we’ve been eagerly awaiting ever since we met Thorne in the first episode. But Zilpha’s actions only create further problems for her brother, who seems confused when she turns up soaked and bedraggled on his doorstep telling him, “I killed him; just like you said.” Is this something Delaney ordered her to do in one of this telepathic fireplace intrusions? Or is Zilpha lying?
With the catch-all excuse of cholera, Delaney is able to dispose of Thorne’s body with the help his American friend/foe, Dr. Dumbarton. The cholera trick also works when Delaney is forced to move several barrels of highly combustive gunpowder. Wracked by guilt, farm owner Ibbotson (Christopher Fairbank) confesses to a priest about Delaney’s gunpowder plot – a confession which finds its way to Sir Stuart and the Company. After loading the powder into caskets, Delaney’s men are able to transport it under the guise of a funeral procession. For his trouble, Ibbotson has his tongue removed and is left for dead inside the confession box. Didn’t these people learn after the thumb threat last week?
After disposing of bodies and gunpowder, Delaney and Zilpha give in to their suppressed passions, engaging in some incestuous, post-murder love making. But still haunted by the revelation about his dead mother, Delaney nearly strangles his sister to death, and judging by the look on Zilpha’s face, she isn’t into auto-erotic asphyxiation. If Delaney’s mind wasn’t already plagued by demons, it certainly is now.
Delaney’s deteriorating mindstate sees him end this episode passed out, face down in the mud, his ship blown to pieces by the Company, and a dead and mutilated Winter by his side. Did Delaney kill her? We don’t yet know, and neither does Delaney. He was the last person we saw Winter with before she died, handing him a bottle of liquor while he warned her to stay away and go home to her mother.
Even though we’ve seen Delaney commit heinous acts – in this episode alone he murdered, removed tongues, ripped out hearts, and throttled his own sister (while having sex with her) – it would seem out of character for him to kill a child; especially one he appeared to show a fondness towards. It’s more likely this murder was committed by the Company, who having declared “war” on Delaney moments earlier, seem to be setting up his arrest and potential hanging.
I said last week that it was just a matter of time before the powder keg exploded, and not only did we get a literal explosion in the shape of Delaney’s ship, but various plots came to a boil in this particularly gruesome episode. It sometimes gets lost in the conversation, given that Taboo is a co-production with FX, but this show is airing at prime time on BBC1 on a Saturday evening. That is kind of incredible. There aren’t many (read: any) BBC dramas that feature incest, dark magic, and weekly grisly murders – at least none with a cast as stellar as this. And for that, we should really be thankful for Taboo.
-George Chichester, who was introduced last week, continued his investigation into the sinking of a ship owned by the East India Company. He confirmed that the ship was originally named The Cornwallis, later changed to The Influence, and used to illegally carry 280 slaves. The ship capsized in 1804 while slaves were trapped under deck.
– Was The Influence a real ship? Despite Taboo often taking inspiration from real life events, it seems that neither a ship called The Influence nor The Cornwallis sunk in 1804.
-Not a great deal of action from Lorna Bow this episode, but she did get to dismissively glare and undermine Thorne during his poetry recital.
-We found out Delaney’s supposed son is named Robert. And the kid has quick thinking much like his father, expertly playing dead during the gunpowder transportation.
-Was Delaney’s mother really trying to kill him? I haven’t trusted Brace from the start, he clearly knows a lot more than he’s letting on, and I don’t believe he has been entirely truthful with Delaney. My guess is that rather than trying to drown her infant son, she was performing some sort of christening or native ritual – hence her being adorned in face paint.
Taboo airs on BBC1 in the UK (Saturdays at 9:15 pm) and FX in the U.S. (Tuesdays at 10:00 pm ET).