Warning: this review of “Episode 7” of Taboo contains spoilers.
What a relentless penultimate episode. Funerals. Torture. Betrayals. Revelations. Like a barrel loaded with gunpowder, Taboo packed as many combustible elements into this episode as possible. Culminating with James Delaney chained in the Tower of London being relentlessly tortured by the masked henchman of the Crown.
You can tell that Steven Knight and Tom Hardy had a blast coming up with the various methods of violence used to torture Delaney. 19th-century waterboarding, force-fed hallucinogens, sensory deprivation, an iron mask, and more. It’s one of those scenes where the creators have a license to be endlessly bleak and punishing, which Knight has shown a knack for in his past work, particularly in the gruesome Eastern Promises. But even broken bones and barbarous torture isn’t enough to break Delaney’s will.
How did Delaney end up in this predicament? Well, after waking up from a drunken stupor to find Winter’s lifeless body strewn next to him, Delaney becomes well aware that the walls are closing in on him. He watches Winter’s shoreside funeral from a distance, showing just a modicum of compassion before preparing for the inevitable.
That inevitable? Helga blaming Delaney for the death of her daughter and turning him in to the East India Company (who it’s revealed are actually the ones responsible). Interestingly, this is not the only betrayal of the episode, as Brace finally confesses to poisoning Delaney Snr. An act that he describes as a “kindness,” to put him out of his madness. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I called this way back when, although I expected Brace to have been paid to do it, rather than acting on his own volition.
What both these betrayals have in common is that Delaney seems to know they’re coming. He listens to and accepts Brace’s confession. Not that Delaney says so with words, but if he isn’t tearing your heart out and forcing it down your throat then I think that counts as acceptance. Remember back in Episode 2? “Human kindness” was the “smallest thing” Delaney said he saw during his trip to Africa. It makes sense that Delaney would appreciate or at least understand Brace’s reasoning and that the murder came from a place of well-meaning.
Likewise, he shows no incentive to stop or harm Helga and calmly waits for the Crown’s guards to come and arrest him at the Molly House. Delaney’s omniscience has been a common thread throughout the series, and even though these past two weeks have turned the tables on our grunting hero, it still seems like everything is part of his master plan.
But what is his master plan? “I’m going to sail away, and all those who have use to me will sail along with me, and on my ship, there will be no rules, and there will be no judgment. We are sailing to a new world,” he tells Godfrey, who agrees to testify against the Company on behalf of George Chichester. Delaney’s current plan involves using Chichester’s lawsuit against Sir Stuart Strange regarding the sinking of an illegal slave ship. A slave ship which Chichester reveals Delaney was not only aboard but the one responsible for nailing down the hold, causing the slaves to drown. In return for his full testimony, Chichester tells Delaney, “you will get a full pardon for your crime, for crime it is.”
With that, we learn more of Delaney’s past and what shapes his current motivations. No amount of physical pain can match the mental torture caused by the persistent visions and flashbacks of the slaves he helped drown. It’s the guilt that drives Delaney’s vengeance. It’s why the thought of his mother being bought and chained up in a mental institution causes such anguish. So yes, Delaney wants to burn the old world to the ground and set sail to a new world along with those that have a “use” to him.
Who does he want to use? It seems he longer has a use for his sister, Zilpha, who after murdering her abusive husband and soaking in the tub is ready to take her brother up on his offer. But according to Delaney, the offer has expired, he’s no longer interested in sharing an incestuous life with his half-sister (having visions of your mother trying to drown you every time you have sex will do that). It’s yet another slap in the face to Zilpha who has been a figurative and literal punching bag all season long. He treats her like the prostitutes at Helga’s brothel, giving her a diamond for her trouble and sending her on her way.
He does have a use for Sir Stuart, however. A meeting with the Company’s head honcho is the only way Delaney will dish the dirt on the Americans and his gunpowder associates. After suffering over 12 hours of agonizing torture at the hands of Coop and his men, the Prince Regent tells them to give him what he wants. It’s another mark in the column for the theory that Delaney orchestrated the entire sequence of events just to get Sir Stuart in the same room as him. Even though Delaney sits at the table bruised and beaten, when Sir Stuart shuffles into the room asking what he wants, it’s Delaney who is in control once again.
-What is Lorna doing? Not a great deal in this episode, unfortunately. She was basically there for other people to sputter information at. Brace told her about how he killed Delaney Snr and how he wished he did the same to Delaney himself, rather than watch him hang. She is also the one that finds out the Company killed Winter. Lorna is armed with info so could prove valuable in next week’s season finale.
-Is Delaney really over Zilpha? Unlikely. His motivations, even when revenge based, have always circled back to his unmoving love for his sister. “I used to think we were the same person,” he told her this week. I doubt he’s actually stopped believing that. Instead, I think he’s trying to keep her out of harm’s way. He’s already said in the past that bad things befall those who stand by his side.
-How realistic were those torture scenes? While you may think waterboarding is a more recent invention, as it’s become more familiar to the general public post-9/11, it has existed in various forms for hundreds of years. It pre-dates the timeline of Taboo, going back to the Spanish Inquisition, where it was known as “tormenta de toca.”
-What is Delaney’s use for Sir Stuart? I’m not quite sure. The most logical guess would be something relating to the Chichester lawsuit and the sunken slave ship. Will Delaney and Sir Stuart become momentary allies? Or is Delaney just hoping to set everyone against each other and watch the world crumble around him? I can’t wait to find out. And I’m still expecting that gunpowder to go boom before the final hour is over.
Taboo airs on BBC1 in the UK (Saturdays at 9:15 pm) and FX in the U.S. (Tuesdays at 10:00 pm ET).