TV Review: Taboo: ‘Episode Three’


S1, E3: ‘Episode Three’

Fifty Shades of the Spy Who Loved Tinkers, Tailors, Soldiers and Spies

Grade: B+


‘He’s with some men with guns and apparently a cannibal, sir.’

Well, this will never do. Here I was, settling in to enjoy another instalment of Pulp Fiction: 1814, and what do we have here? Instead of the overheated, infinitely quotable trash of the last episode, we have a drily witty spy thriller. Goddammit, Taboo. Am I gonna have to readjust my filter again? And then yet again, when Magic Mamma and Fateful Tattoos make an appearance. And yet again, when the show gets all BDSM on our ass. Good Lord, Taboo.

It starts promisingly enough. James Delaney’s Mixed-Race Moppet, Winter, is fishing a silver tooth out of the mouth of James’s would-be assassin. While dressed as the Artful Dodger. As you do.

And what of James himself – whom, remember, we had left bleeding to death on a street corner with bits of his assailant’s throat between his teeth? He surfaces chained to the operating table of Dumbarton, the American surgeon/revolutionary. Dumbarton is stitching him up and remarking that Delaney takes pain ‘like a stone’. There’s a little backchat, more mentions of ‘Carlsbad’ and some light torturing, and eventually Delaney says he’ll give the US Nootka Sound so long as he’s allowed monopoly over that prized trading route between Canada and China. That’s all James wants, he says. ‘All the tea in China’. You can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy, eh?

Dumbarton points out that he could have just said that right at the beginning and saved himself a world of hurt. And, okay, Delaney’s managed to use his interrogation to weasel some information out of Dumbarton (namely, that ‘Carlsbad’ is female). But Delaney shows yet another spark of elementary strategy in short order, and I have to wonder ‘why didn’t you think of that before?’ You see, Delaney’s ordered siege reinforcements from his ‘victualler’ Atticus. Just as you’re settling in for more portentous Waiting and Glowering By the River, Sir Stuart reveals that he has had a very pointed communique from Mister Delaney: if anything were to happen to him, Jimmy’s willed his land to the United States of America. So now, not only can the Company not kill him, they have an ‘urgent interest’ in keeping him alive. And he’s written to Solomon Coop (Prinny’s fastidious secretary) promising him Nootka Sound in exchange for a monopoly over sea otter pelt trading between Vancouver and Canton. Tea appears nowhere in the letter, as Coop astutely points out. Hey, James? You know this canny tactician you’ve suddenly become? Can we keep him, rather than Magic Half-Tarzan? Please? Pretty, pretty please? You can take your clothes off and chant as often as you like. Especially the first part.

Oh, Apparently not. Because James’s poor Native American Mamma died in Bedlam and was buried in unhallowed ground. Before she was shipped off to Bedlam, though, she was locked in a room in the Delaney manse, where she scratched a mark into the wall. The very same mark borne by James himself and tattooed onto his back when the slavers took him. Exciting! But can we get back to the scheming?

Yes, we can! James has tracked down Godfrey (Edward Hogg), the young man who takes the minutes at East India Company meetings. I’ve watched him and put him down for ‘complicated feelings about the East India Company and/or James’. And, dammit, I wish I’d gotten that down in writing, because I was right about one of those things at least. Godfrey is gay, and James now has an East India spy on his payroll. A spy who literally loved him. And whom he casually smacks about.

In the meantime, I find myself wondering idly whether the show’s setting up a love triangle between James, Zilpha and Lorna Bow. In the last two episodes, every interaction he’s had with one is followed closely by one with the other. Here there is a charged exchange of letters between the half-siblings in which Zilpha resists, with dilated pupils and quickened breathing, the siren call of James’s ‘Come sail away with me to a place without good or evil or incest taboos’. Immediately followed by a tense dialogue between the perennially-amused Lorna and a surly, prophetic visions-plagued James. Is it too early to declare myself for a ‘ship? Because I am digging the James/Lorna. Jorna? Lornames? I’ll workshop it.

Oh, and the show quickly – but quickly – lets us in on one reason that Zilpha’s heart flutters when she rebuffs her brother and speaks of her stern Christian husband whose punishment she deserves. Geary drops in to Delaney HQ to tell James that he knows that Zilpha and her brother used to do the do. And he likes it. And suddenly that talk of punishment and wickedness takes on a very specific meaning. Fifty Shades of Geary. And you know what? That is one little bit of perversity I was not expecting. Well-played, Taboo. Well-played.

Anyway, Lorna’s been in touch with Solomon Coop, and she’s offering James a swap of her share in the Delaney manse for her share of Nootka Sound. James has a flash of his mother (presumably) and abruptly installs Lorna in his mother’s old room, much to Brace’s disgust. Against James’s express warnings, Lorna heads out to her regularly scheduled performance, is kidnapped by the Sapphic decoy to her elderly and titled admirer, struggles valiantly but is rescued by James. And holy shit, look at that sentence I just typed. James offers her one of his diamonds to disappear to Paris, but Lorna only stalks silently back to Casa Delaney. And now whoever is after James has a reason to go after Lorna too…

See, show? This is what happens when you lean in to the Gothic and espionage-y elements of your pulp narrative, and give the voodoo hoodoo a general miss.

Historical notes

  • Godders is in what looks like a ‘molly-house’, where gay men used to hunt out other gay men, frequently in drag and with names like ‘Molly’ (itself a common Georgian slang term for prostitutes) or other girl’s names.

Odds and sods

  • Is there a particular reason that Tom Hardy is rocking the intonation used by Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger in Game of Thrones?
  • And on a related note, I wonder if Steven Knight would be down to marathon Game of Thrones with me? I bet he has the best batshit crazy fan theories up in there.
  • Gotta love Coop’s mincing intonation of Delaney’s ‘ill repute’: ‘Madness, savagery, theft, and worse’. Of course theft is the real crime for the servant of the Crown.
  • Shirtless scenes are so passe. Everyone knows that the smart ogling is in bottomless these days. Between Michael Fassbender in Jane Eyre and Tom Hardy in this episode, I suspect we’re on the brink of the next big thing in male exploitation. Has someone realised that people like to look at lithely-muscled thighs, but may not have the appetite for the looming peril of Surprise Cock? And has this someone hit on the genius compromise of parading their heroes in saucily-slit nightshirts? Take a bow, whoever you are.
  • I confess, though, that the Cockney Waif Winter rather grates on me with her soulful gaze and her desire to be taught magic and her ‘You tore ‘is froat aht. Like a wuff.’ Nobody talks like that. An unfair criticism on this show – nobody on this show talks like any human being could conceivably talk. But Cockney Moppet is lumbered with Cockneyisms, Moppet-isms and Mystic-isms. All at the same time. Of course she can’t handle it. What character can?
  • So Godfrey was in love with James when they were in the seminary together – did we know James went to seminary? He describes sharing a bed with James as ‘exquisite torture’. And look, Tom Hardy is a mighty toothsome fellow, but I am officially putting James on Mary Sue Notice. Threat Level: Severe. He’s going to have to break wind loudly and be told his breath smells within the next episode to have the smallest shot of reprieve.
  • Oh and also Zilpha calls James to a church for no other reason than to straddle him, mack on him and then walk away straightening her skirt. Well all right then Zilpha. Have you considered a roll in the hay? After all, your husband wants children and you and James may well have produced a child already, if the Doe-Eyed infant from episode one is any indication.

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