TV Review: Taboo: ‘Episode Five’


S1, E5: ‘Episode Five’

James Delaney moves faster than a speeding bullet

Grade: B


Well, that was somewhat better. Some scheming, some politicking, and – best of all – a James Delaney who doesn’t immediately and automatically and always have the upper hand.

‘There will be a polite exchange of bullets.’

If you recall, last episode ended with Geary demanding satisfaction of James. And how does that play out? Well, we move to some appropriately mangrove-esque and fog-sodden marsh on the riverbank, whereupon James and Geary will duel to first blood, though Geary’s petulant ‘to the death!’ makes his intentions perfectly clear. And indeed Geary takes a shot whose intent is unmistakeable. Shame there’s no ball in his pistol. There is in James’s though, and he takes out Geary’s second like he’s picking off targets at a range. Geary’s second, James explains, is a Company man hired to make sure that, whatever Geary did, James would be coming out alive. James apologises to Geary, congratulates him on a magnificent shot, and leaves.

‘Will you be ordering champagne, or potatoes?’

Geary shuffles off home and proceeds to take out his emasculation and butthurt onto Zilpha. He refuses to tell her outright whether James is alive or dead, and whines about her celebrating his death and James’s survival. Which….I mean, you’re both rapists, Geary. You keep walking in on her sleeping and moaning her hot brother’s name, and then you beat her up and get her exorcised by priests who cop not even particularly discreet feels. Zilpha doesn’t have good options here.

‘I am inside your heads, gentlemen. Always.’

I rather like James when he’s being steely and competent. He explains to Watson – sorry, Lorna – that he won’t hang for the theft of the saltpetre because only the Crown can have him hanged, and the Crown is currently at odds with the Company and will treat the theft as an excuse to crack down on the Company for its negligence. He puts the frighteners on one of Atticus’s hired toughs who was planning to rat him out, and offers Helga’s ladies a choice between two options: a diamond for their silence and a heads-up when the Company comes a-knocking…or the thumb he took off the hired tough. And the competence is particularly enjoyable, when placed in the context of genuinely worthy enemies. For example…

‘You’d risk the life of your son for chlorate?’

Dumbarton and the Americans want gunpowder. And they know James has stolen the saltpetre. And they know where he’s stashed it. And if he doesn’t cough up the powder in eight days – well, good night, sweetheart. James is as impassive as ever, but it may be the first time that our Omniscient Antihero isn’t five steps ahead of everyone else. Dumbarton is proving to be a very worthy antagonist. And Cholmondeley, too, is displaying an intuition that James may find rather inconvenient: he has guessed that the Doe-Eyed Farmboy acting as his assistant is James and Zilpha’s son.

‘Even though I am black, I am not related by blood to every slave stolen from Africa.’

Speaking of sons, here’s another set of heartening developments. Schemes running in parallel to James’s, that have nothing to do with The Notorious JD. More screentime for the lovely and reptilian Solomon Coop. And, best of all: a person of colour with actual lines, whose story does not seem to be in service of James’s Secret But Very Important Vendetta.

George Chichester (Lucian Msamati) is a representative of the Sons of Africa, and has been petitioning the Crown to investigate the drowning of a slave ship called The Influence. George thinks that it was drowned by the Company intentionally. And Solomon thinks there must be something to it, because he institutes a Royal Commission. And Sir Stuart, performing a strikingly convincing impression of a cornered rat, instructs his flunkey to write back indicating that the Company will cooperate ‘fully and willingly’…after which they need to get burning with some documents.

Of course The Influence is the ship on which James himself was trapped and about which he PTSDs, so that’s all going to tie together. But in the meantime George is a breath of fresh air. In a show so thick with grime and appetite and seething ambition and repressed God alone knows what, his measured diction and calm principle are like a draught of something very cool on a very hot day.

‘Have you never bought a soul for beads?’

Oh, do hush, Lorna. She wades across the river to watch the duel, then subjects us to a lip-quivering ‘I’m happy to admit that I don’t want James Delaney to die, but can you admit that you don’t want James Delaney to die?’, directed at James. Then she surrenders that sodding trunk, dashing my hopes that she had A Plan All Along. Then she watches, lip quivering again, as he destroys his father’s ‘beautiful’ correspondence. James tells her that his father bought his mother for beads, and then had said mother committed when she refused to play along as a Spanish Countess or whatever. And that, therefore, James – quite understandably in my eyes – is less than enthralled by Daddy Dearest. Lorna storms away muttering the nonsensical retort I reproduce here. Literally the only time I have any use for her is when Cholmondeley sends her books to woo her, she sees that James is Not Happy, and walks away with the lopsided grin that I used to so enjoy, murmuring that she’d never get in the way of James’s advances to Cholmondeley.

This was something of a place-setter episode, but after the screeching GothicPlusPlus cacophony of last episode, I enjoyed the return to plans and plots and the sense of method behind the overheated camp.

Historical notes

  • The code duello does require a second…for the job of e.g. inspecting the duelling weapons and making sure there’s no hanky-panky. Also, I am fairly sure that a woman was not allowed to be a second, although I get that this was more of an unspoken understanding. Anyway, poor old Lorna doesn’t perform any of the functions of a second. James basically pats her on her head and tells her to go keep warm by the fire.
  • The Sons of Africa were real, and a driving force behind abolition. Chichester may be based on Olaudah Equiano, an influential abolitionist and former slave himself.

Odds and sods

  • Does the Countess Musgrove know about Dumbarton’s demand for the gunpowder? She doesn’t seem to. What’s Dumbarton’s game?
  • Tom Hardy nailed that list of his father’s crimes. With the tears and the carefully controlled rage and that dreamy half-growl? Excellent.
  • Oh God, Winter shows up again and drones on about how much she wuvs James. Whom she says has promised to take her to America. Watch out for that one, Jimbo. She’s a bunny-boiler in the making.

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