TV Review: Taboo: ‘Episode Eight’


S1, E8: ‘Episode Eight’

Oh say caaaannnnn youuuu seeeeee, by Taboo’s early light?

Grade: B


Hmmmm. An action-packed but oddly insubstantial finale to series one, but with enough promise that I’m looking forward to season two if and when it happens. Let’s get to it…

‘Things that go bang….things that cause confusion….’

After the thrilling, ominous closer to the previous episode, comes the payoff. And it’s a reasonably satisfying one. James offers Sir Stuart a trade: he will recant his testimony to the Royal Commission, in exchange for – you guessed it – a ship, and safe passage to the United States. The testimony is particularly juicy: not only was Sir Stuart running slaves illegally, but when the name of the ship was changed from the Cornwallis to the Influence, the shiphands stowed the Union Jack and the Company flags….and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. And slavery might be one thing, but treason? Oh no he di’int!

But he did, he did, and now we know why Sir Stuart looked particularly ill at ease at the reminder of his brother in Antigua, I imagine. Well, Sir Stuart obliges James with his trade with suspiciously good grace, and James heads back to his cell to await His Majesty’s pleasure.

In the meantime, James’s son is Hermes, flitting hither and yon with messages. One for Cholmondeley, pressed into service to make ‘things that go bang’ with his trademark worrying relish. One for George, saying ‘#sorrynotsorry’. One for Lorna, who has a pretty entertaining stand-off with the Countess Musgrave where she trades salacious banter, drawls out a meaningful reference to ‘powder’, tells the Countess that her ship leaks, and extracts a promise of safe passage to America. One for Atticus, who springs Helga and her associate from the Company’s clutches.

And one for James himself from his son, singing ‘Oranges and Lemons’ outside his prison cell. And James smiles with dark glee and purr-growls ‘PSYCH!’ to Solomon Coop. No deal, Mister Coop. And very, very soon, no cause to hold James any longer, because Sir Stuart, grinding a tooth or several, will drop his case.

So out James pops. He has a ship. He has gunpowder. He has – temporarily – a deal with Sir Stuart. Peachy, right?

Well, not quite. Another message awaits him. Zilpha has cast herself onto the bosom of Mother Thames, and has written to James telling him to….join her? Remember her until he joins her? And James promptly embraces the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. Right on schedule, here comes denial. Zilpha can’t be dead, because she would speak to him and he would hear her. Lorna gives him a ‘your blue funk won’t bring her back’ speech, only slightly tempered with a layer of ‘Some people here – naming no names, but I am one of them – have given up everything for you’ guilting. Who knows whether it works or not, but James rises stiffly from his Grief Chair and goes to tie another loose end.

‘No one in this city has only one master.’

And the loose end answers two questions: the immediate one of what was making Sir Stuart look so pleased with himself, and what Dunbarton’s game has been all this time. Mister Dunbarton is a double agent, you see. He’s sold out the Americans to the East India Company, which is why the Countess had no idea about his Gunpowder Plot and also why he was so unfazed when the Crown was looking for American conspirators. He offers James safe passage in return for the title to Nootka Sound. James – of course – kills him instead, in another rather beautiful sequence in which he drowns Dunbarton in a butt of Malmsey wine vat of blue dye, and leaves him pinned on a clothesline. A fitting end for a turncoat.

‘If anything…it’s a fine day to die at sea.’

And, as the episode draws to its conclusion, the Great Taboo Genre Melting Pot adds another to its mix: Western. James and his crew are lying in wait for the redcoats with a booby-trap Cholmondeley’s rigged up with his Science-Fu. There’s a shoot-out with surprisingly little gore, and Helga bites it. However, the League of the Damned has a decent survival rate: Godders scampers free and fabulous, Cholmondeley seems to have made it despite terrible burns, and Lorna also seems to have come through, albeit with nasty wounds.

And off they sail, James and his League. And guess what? They’re Americans now, as the Stars and Stripes is hoisted. First destination, though? Rather closer to home, in the Azores, where James has to see a man named Colonnade.

And Sir Stuart? Well, he has 99 problems, and George Chichester is definitely one. You see, James left one last little present for Chichester: his testimony, all written up. And – as much as I would have loved Chichester to have had more to do – I can at least take some comfort in the knowledge that one man of principle was allowed to retain his ideals intact. Sadly, Sir Stuart won’t be around to see it, if that gunpowder-laced ‘ace’ is anything to go by. A shame – I’d like to see him brought definitively low.

What did you make of this episode as a finale? I thought the motifs of escape, slavery and liberty (Zilpha’s suicide, James and his league of the Damned, Brace being left behind because ‘[liberty] would torture [him]’) were a tad on-the-nose. And I remain a little disappointed that both the slave trade and James’s time in Africa were treated as little more than exotic backstory embroidery – or, frankly, in the case of James’s chanting and trances, distracting irritants.

But this remains one of the more confidently-executed bits of Genre Soup on the market. And from the looks of it, we’ve got Pirate Adventure coming our way. So for that reason alone…

Historical notes

  • Coop hopes that James’s brain isn’t ‘completely fried’. This does not feel like authentic Georgian speech.
  • Similarly ‘balls-up’.
  • Similarly ‘weekend’, which – while being around since the 1630s – only saw general use in 1878.

Odds and sods

  • It’s a musical episode, this one. ‘Oranges and Lemons’, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. I also like the sprightly jig that plays as the crew prepares to leave, and the military drums underpinning the theme as the redcoats take their position.
  • Love the shot of James standing over Dunbarton with indigos and scarlets dripping off flags around him. Could’ve done without the shot of James connecting psychically post-mortem with Zilpha, mind.
  • Prinny goes Full Trump with his ‘Fuck Nootka! Fuck treaties! Fuck everything!’
  • Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrgh but my heart breaks for Brace when James says ‘Brace, you were not born for freedom. It would torture you.’ James’s whisper-growl is….kind….as it says the words. Which undoubtedly makes it worse.
  • James knows where Cholmondeley has hidden away. Cholmondeley asks whether James sees him in his dreams. Awwww, those two are so romantic.
  • They serve good hock to traitors, apparently.
  • Lorna was on fire this episode. Sassing the Countess, wielding a pistol like a badass, scolding James for his stupor with only minimal reminder that she loves him (or something). Also, check these out:
    • ‘I have a product that will allow you to accommodate an entire fleet, both Admiral and Rear Admiral.’
    • ‘I’m Mrs Delaney.’ ‘His wife?’ ‘No…his mother.’ Awwww, YEAH.

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