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Even treason, torture, and a solved murder mystery are tedious on Taboo

Illustration for article titled Even treason, torture, and a solved murder mystery are tedious on Taboo
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For all its flaws, Taboo knows how to drop a last line that resonates, and so does Tom Hardy. “I have a use for you“ is the phrase that echoes through “Episode 7.” James intones it ominously to Robert, to Godfrey, and finally to Sir Stuart, escorted to a cell in the prison where James has been tortured for 12 brutal hours without yielding.

James’ insistence on the usefulness of his confederates and his enemies is both sinister and effective, but the word that keeps popping into my head as I watch Taboo—the florid, outdated word James’ contemporaries might have used in this context—isn’t “useful.” It’s “inutile”: useless, pointless, unprofitable. With just one episode left in the limited series’ current run (but with the possibility of more to come), Taboo remains grim, grimy, grotesquely lavish, and ultimately tedious.


Buried beneath layers of muck and magic, the story at the center of Taboo is simple. James Keziah Delaney, who served Sir Stuart Strange’s interests first as a schoolboy cadet, last as a hand on an illicit slaving excursion, seeks vengeance on him and his conspirators. So why all the magic and muck to begin with? Does any of James Delaney’s carnal corruption or rumored unearthliness matter one whit to the story unfolding?

In “Episode 7,” Taboo solves the mystery of who murdered Horace Delaney… but it’s no real mystery and nothing to solve, just a devoted servant broken down by guilt. Brace poisoned his master to save him from the ravages of madness, and he wishes he’d had a chance to poison James as well, to save him from being executed for treason. “Episode 7“ also solves the mystery of Winter’s murder, which wasn’t so much a mystery as a momentary red herring, so obviously transparent it’s a wonder Helga’s fallen for it. Even her credulity seems to be part of James’ master plan, since her sudden shift in loyalty leads to his arrest, torture, and—as he foresaw—his prison meeting with Sir Stuart Strange.

Without hints of James’ return from the dead (hey, remember that?), his cannibalism (the show dropped that, too), his mumbling acts of sorcery, and his forbidden love for Zilpha (dismissed just one episode after she yields to his importuning), this plot of intrigue and revenge would be a lot drier—but a lot faster-paced. So far, the only purpose of all this mysticism is to lend texture to the tale—or, less kindly, to obscure it and pad it out.

Tom Hardy’s performance as the apparently invulnerable James Delaney is potent, wearily comic, and deceptively layered. It’s hard to imagine anyone else investing the intentionally opaque protagonist with such plausible stoicism, or making his fugues and his muttered spells as compellingly watchable. In a show so unsparing with its violence, James’ occasional bouts of tenderness are telling, the more so for the shrewdness they conceal. When Godfrey, who harbors a long-unrequited love for his classmate, wavers in his courage, James leans in, lowers his voice, and utters soft promises of a world without rules or judgments. It’s cruelly effective, and it’s impossible to know whether James’ gentleness is purely self-serving or if there’s some earnest intent lurking under the evident manipulation. Godfrey doesn’t know that the last person who thought James promised to sail away with her is now buried under the waves, where the currents of the Thames might carry her corpse to the ocean. But we do.


Even Hardy’s charisma has its limits, and as hardy as he is, he’s no longer the actor carrying this show on his shoulders. That honor goes to Lucian Msamati. George Chichester’s unflappable acumen makes him more than a match for the titans of industry who think themselves his betters, easily the equal to Hardy’s Delaney, and far less wearying to watch than either.

Chichester alone is undistracted by rumors of James’ evils and his otherworldliness. As they sit in the dark of the Delaney house, confirming James’ history—his period as a slave, his work as part of Sir Stuart’s illicit slave venture, the theft of diamonds that funded his return to London—James drawls, “I have done much worse things than stealing diamonds.” But Chichester isn’t diverted by James’ vague claims of atrocities. He only seeks James’ testimony as the last living (or last remaining—let’s stay open to the possibility that James is no longer living) member of Sir Stuart’s illegal skeleton crew. Chichester’s uncompromising directness pierces the vague atmospherics of Taboo as cleanly as the massive nail he shows James would have pierced the planks of The Cornwallis.


This focus is unique among the characters populating Taboo, and it’s part of what makes Chichester so formidable—and so persuasive. Godfrey recoils from his imagined judgment, but Chichester assures him, “I am only concerned with men’s minds. Clothes are of no interest to me.” He isn’t distracted by his potential witnesses’ indiscretions, their fears, or their digressions. He’s interested only in the specific facts bearing on his case against the EIC and against Sir Stuart. When Godfrey gulps down gin in a panic, Chichester urges him toward clarity, not worry: “We can talk with purpose, or without.”

Too much of Taboo is without purpose. Godfrey’s secret life at the molly house gives James leverage to blackmail him, but the scene of James bantering with Godfrey’s unnamed companions as he awaits arrest add nothing but padding to an already overlong show. That’s true, too, of the long conversation between Helga and Atticus as they row Winter’s body out to sea, of James’ visit to the secret powder-room at the abandoned mental hospital, of Coop’s repeated head-shaking visits to the Prince Regent. It’s true of this entire season, which sacrifices the clarity of its conspiracies by shrouding them in spells and scandals that so far have little impact on any of the plot.


Even the baroque brutality of the torture sequence, so horribly effective at first, becomes less horrific and more comic as it dawdles on. Why introduce Dr. Ling’s “potions” to induce hallucinations when James has ben visited by specters and spirits throughout the series without any medical interference?

Once you start asking why, it’s hard to stop. Why would Helga expect to walk away from her confession of colluding in a treasonous plot when she hasn’t bothered to secure a pardon in exchange? Why is the sign inside Bethlem (“mens dana in corpora sano”) misspelled? Why are James’ flunkies so careless about observing his prohibitions against setting fires near the gunpowder stores? Why was James Delaney initially portrayed as a flesh-eating, sister-fucking, spell-casting dead man, if his cannibalism, his incestuous desires, and his incantations don’t contribute much more than distraction to the show? Is all of this adding up to a great explosion in the finale? Or is all that scandal and sorcery so much wet gunpowder?


Trying to coax information from the meandering, liquor-swigging James Delaney on the night of their first meeting, George Chichester offers to return in the morning, but James tells him, “No, no, there’s no use, I am always like this.” And so is Taboo. Even with Chichester’s admirable clarity of purpose driving the episode, even with the plot creaking to its conclusion, there’s too much bluster and false mystique clogging up this would-be taboo tale.

Stray observations

  • Tom Hardy-est moment: Hearing Brace’s admission of poisoning Horace Delaney, James repeats, “You did him… a kindness?” with a sardonic lilt that lets his servant’s own words damn him.
  • Dr. Dumbarton’s “When my reds are red, my whites are white, and my blues are blue, then I will clear out” is a wordier version of “These colors don’t run.”

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