TV Review: Taboo: ‘Episode Four’


S1, E4: ‘Episode Four’

Tom Hardy plays Seven Minutes in Heaven

Grade: C




Goddammit. After the tense spy drama of the last episode, I really thought the show had broken through. Instead, it’s scuttled back to its comfort zone of magic, exotica and shivering women panting into James Delaney’s face. It involves gruesome murder, bacchanaliae, near-rape and a challenge to a duel. And withal, it is the most boring episode of the show yet. Can we bring back the scheming and the double-crossing, please?

‘I have been told to await a better offer.’

Lorna’s in trouble. Last episode, she was taken to a high-born man (the Duke of Richmond) who had been promised her services. She fought back, and now the Crown has a reason to come after her. She’s been arrested on the charge of attempted murder of the Duke. She’s stripped to her small-clothes and dragged, shivering, through Newgate (I guess?) into the arms of Solomon Coop. He gives her a nicely-executed ‘I Have You Now, My Pretty’ speech: give us your claim to Nootka Sound and take £1,000, else we abandon you to be raped and eventually hanged. Oh and also he is stripping her, ribbon by ribbon, while he does it. Well done there, show. Leave no cliché unaired, eh?

Anyway, Lorna says ‘James’ has told her to await a better offer, and Coop – correctly – has a monumental eyeroll for her. Followed by a pre-rape monologue juuuuuust long enough for representatives of the East India Company to reprieve Lorna. Delaney’s sent them an ‘anonymous’ note telling them of the deal, so the Company uses their dirt on the Duke of Richmond to spring her. And, in fury at the Crown, the Company withdraws its negotiators from ‘the India talks’.

‘We are the ships, you the river.’

In the last episode, James wrote letters to his sister/lover dismissing his ragtag and insta-loyal crew as vermin whom he’d shake off as soon as he was done with his mysterious mission. He repeats this message here, shrugging to poor besotted Godfrey that he’s only ‘half a man’ (while he’s got his hand in Godfrey’s, no less).

Lorna points out that he would have let her be raped in prison just to see if she would pass some sort of test. Which – is true, but in his defence, Lorna, he did offer you an out. And frustratingly, Delaney’s monomania doesn’t seem to put you off. In fact – groan – Lorna asks Zilpha later whether she (Lorna) should worry about her (Zilpha) if she (Lorna) had designs on James. Zilpha quiveringly says no, but a viewing audience facepalms. And gruesomely, Lorna calls him ‘an unopened box’ with ‘a tiger roaring inside it’. So maybe James is right – everyone around deserves what’s coming to them. Goddammit, Lorna, and I was liking you too. Although I am still holding out hope that your reluctance to furnish James with that trunk with his father’s belongings means that you are not what you seem. Maybe you’re a Company spy. Or a Crown spy. Or an American spy.

‘For thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory’

Speaking of Zilpha, James visits Zilpha in her dreams as some sort of animal and boinks her until she ‘Power of Christ compels you’ to go away. But not before she moans and gasps and thrashes about like she’s re-enacting that infamous Poltergeist sequence where the young lady of the house is raped by a ghost. It manages to be gross and exploitative, which the showrunners are probably cool with. It was also hilarious, which I don’t think the showrunners were going for.

‘Ask no more questions now and talk to me only of chemistry.’

Sir Stuart has put James’s name on a blacklist. This means that he can’t buy the gunpowder he’ll apparently need to trade with the Native Americans in Nootka Sound. Delaney has also acquired a pet chemist called Cholmondeley (Tom Hollander, who clearly enjoys playing unhinged balls of Id). Cholmondeley is a debauched purveyor of laughing gas at ton parties and energetic screwer of I guess science groupies? James needs Cholmondeley to figure out how he’s going to make himself some gunpowder. To this end, he cock-blocks Cholmondeley, encourages him (Cholmondeley) to ejaculate in front of him (James), whisks him off to a farm, watches him eat pigeonshit and cowshit, looms waaaayyyy too close to him and uses the word ‘chemistry’ in a loaded manner many many times. While Cholmondeley looks back at him with an ambiguous expression. But sadly takes him literally and does, indeed, talk of chemistry: James needs saltpetre. And where’s he going to get it? Well, to his secret delight, only one place in London: Company quarters at Wapping Wall.

So James orchestrates a heist involving Cholmondeley’s knowledge of explosives, his friend Atticus’s associates, and Helga’s prostitutes, and has them make off with the Company’s saltpetre. And why can’t James be there? Well…

‘You’re quite a prize, Mr Delaney. Quite a prize.’

Ouf. Well, obviously the show thinks so. Someone’s sent a giant to kill Delaney, and Delaney dispatches him without cannibalism, but at almost pornographic length. Must be the work of the Americans. Whatever will they do next? Why, invite him to a posh do, of course. Which turns out to be Eyes Wide Shut: Regency Edition. Sort of, anyway. In one room there’s country dances and fiddlers. In another, there’s the Countess Musgrove, heavily rumoured to be a prostitute, now married into the nobility and given to throwing raves. She locks herself up in a cabinet with him, confesses to sending the giant after him, and tries to suss out what he wants. He wants that tea monopoly, and he wants to meet with the Embassy in Paris. She promises him that the next attempt on his life will be ‘more artful’, but he’s quietly confident. After all, he thinks he’s talking to ‘Carlsbad’. She doesn’t deny it, but I wonder…I’m still holding out hope for it to be Lorna or Helga or Godfrey.

‘Your own sister too. My goodness.’

In any case, the Americans know about James and Zilpha, and have offered him the option of sailing away with an unencumbered Zilpha if he’ll cough up Nootka Sound. Geary, in the meantime, has presumably been at whatever strong liquor and stronger drugs they’re dishing out at the sub-Kubrickian bacchanalia. He sees James, paws at him for a disturbingly long time, and bellows ‘he fucked her!’ at the top of his lungs until James gives him a quick punch to the solar plexus to shut him up. James drags Geary out, and I really do think he just wants Geary to shut his drunken mouth. But of course a maddened Geary now thinks he has provocation to demand satisfaction. So there you are, James: your first duel! Awwwww, they grow up so fast.

Historical notes

  • Is the Countess Musgrove some sort of amalgam of Lavinia Fenton and Emma Hamilton, with stronger shades of Emma Hamilton?
  • The waltz had actually been around for a decade in Great Britain at the time of the show. The showrunners are correct that it was considered particularly scandalous. Even Byron huffed at the indelicacy of a gentleman’s legs moving between a lady’s.
  • I am fairly sure that Geary is not respecting the code duello when he challenges James.

Odds and sods

  • The sequence where Lorna is being dragged through prison – anyone else reminded of Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey?
  • When James is curled up at the window in his saucy nightshirt, his thigh tattoo makes it look like he’s wearing tights and a garter.
  • Loved the shot of James standing over his second would-be assassin with the mill grinding impassively behind him. It looked like some sort of demented triptych via Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
  • I wince – as I am meant to – at people dropping the n-word around James, or calling him a ‘gorilla’.
  • Oh, and also at one point there is a dude at the party dressed in perfectly correct evening wear except for a giant pig’s-head. No big.

9 thoughts on “TV Review: Taboo: ‘Episode Four’

  1. I actually liked this episode. Except for the mental rape scene, I enjoyed the spectacle of it. Apparently I’m attracted to watching zany shows like Taboo, True Blood, and American Horror Story. The things you discover about yourself.

    I loved this review. It’s just my kind of snark. With your permission, I’m reblogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I actually liked this episode a lot, although the next episode definitely steps it up a notch. I am a HUGE Tom Hardy fan, especially after seeing his performance in “Bronson” and his scene-stealing work in “Peaky Blinders” (definitely the best part of the show).
    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that, along with Hardy, Taboo features two of my favorite character actors of all time; Stephen Graham (going down in history as one of the great onscreen gangsters ever, with his performances in Snatch, Gangs Of New York, and his portrayals of Babyface Nelson in Public Enemies and, best of all, Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire), as well as Tom Hollander. I was so happy to see him, in a great introductory scene for his character, considering I’ve been a big fan of his at least since Gosford Park. He is always so wonderful…
    Definitely reminiscent of Brando, Tom Hardy can say more with a look than most actors can with a monologue. Just read today there will be a second and, perhaps, third season of the show. It gets everything right, from the performances, the costumes, the sets, the cinematography, the music, etc etc… looking forward to more

    Liked by 2 people

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