(Tom Hardy) (Screenshot: FX)
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Is there a more on-the-nose image for Taboo than James Delaney, blank-eyed with torment, compulsively sparking a flint as he sits amid his own supply of legendarily volatile gunpowder? It’s a scene that should be full of portent, but it isn’t. We know James won’t blow himself up or there’s nowhere left for the story to go. It adds nothing but a pretense of tension that can’t possibly pay off and another long, brooding look at the protagonist in a show already overstuffed with long, brooding looks. Worse, it undercuts the later scene in which the EIC blows up The Felice Aventurero, because an actual blown-up ship looks like a wet squib compared to the imagined explosion of a warehouse full of gunpowder.

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Midway through “Episode 6,” James Delaney shrugs off Lorna’s warnings of his inevitable capture with the weary challenge, “You name me one thing that isn’t just a matter of time.” That’s an apt philosophy for a man resigned to sacrifice everything for vengeance. Unfortunately, it’s also starting to feel like an unofficial motto for the series. After the spark of “Episode 5,” in the sixth episode—of eight, mind you—Taboo once again takes its not-so-sweet time getting to the fireworks factory.

It’s not that “Episode 6” is uneventful—quite the opposite. James and his team pull off a daring transport of gunpowder, packing their first shipment in coffins, using Dumbarton’s manufactured cholera outbreak to keep prying eyes off the cargo. The EIC raids the gunpowder factory. Most vitally, Zilpha gives in to the urges of the previous episode and kills her loathsome husband, stabbing him through the heart with the very hatpin she’ll wear in her mourning hat.

But many of these scenes feel like manufactured obstacles on the scale of Galaxy Quest’s chompers, while others suffer from being telegraphed, obvious, or simply inadequate. Sir Stuart destroys James’ ship! But there are plenty of ships to be had in London, and James still has some diamonds (and the help of Carlsbad and all her confederates) at his disposal. The not-yet-stable gunpowder must be moved, but it can’t survive the bumpy roads! There’s a river right there. The EIC raids the gunpowder factory! It’s already empty. Betrayal amongst thieves! The snitches are killed off, their violated corpses warning others to keep their silence. Even the gunpowder’s much-touted combustibility starts to feel a little damp the longer it’s insisted upon. If only Dr. Cholmondeley could stop rhapsodizing about how explosive his gunpowder is, maybe we could watch this story blow up the way it keeps promising to do.

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James’ scandalous love life is especially (ahem) anticlimactic. Taboo has long teased an incestuous re-coupling between James and Zilpha, so the consummation of their reunion should feel like a culmination of their desires (and maybe a chance to extend Zilpha’s character beyond the wide-eyed vessel for men’s agonies to which she’s been reduced). Instead, it’s yet another moment cut short by James’ tediously persistent visions of his mother.

Even the striking scene in which Oona clambers atop Thorne’s sleeping form like a goblin or an incubus, freezing when he stirs from his drink-sodden slumber, suffers from repetition. “Chapter 5” shows Oona gliding through the night, fingering that deadly hatpin while her husband sleeps; “Chapter 6” repeats it precisely. A recurrence of this murderous impulse could be dreadfully effective, but this isn’t that. Oona wears the same nightdress, she strikes the same silhouette, she contemplates the hatpin with exactly the same expression. The mirrors frame her multiple reflections just as they did last week, suggesting hidden facets of this long-suffering woman. But the repetitions don’t end there. It’s the same camera angle, the same arrangement of the room down to the overblown rose that adorns the vanity. Oona’s candle hasn’t burned down a centimeter. This isn’t a haunting echo; it’s a replay. It may well be the same footage.

Again, Lucian Msamati effortlessly walks off with the few scenes in which he appears. As Solomon Coop did in “Episode 5,” the men of the EIC try to humble George Chichester with vapid condescension… and as he did with Coop, Chichester punctures their airs without breaching civility. With a sardonic flourish, he articulates the barely veiled racism with which they view not just wonders like the Sphinx, but his own appearance as an assured, educated equal. More than an equal, because he knows what they do not: not just the particulars of the scuttled ship operated secretly under the aegis of the EIC, but the connection it has to Sir Stuart’s brother, who owns an Antiguan plantation.

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This scene is especially forceful thanks to its comparative underplaying. Even before Chichester casually drops his damning evidence, his tacit rebuke has set Pettifer’s glass trembling. After he reveals his deeper knowledge of the EIC’s complicity, both Pettifer and Wilton are gently atremble, and Wilton develops a troubling stammer. Yes, visibly shaking hands and nervous sputters are what pass for “underplaying” in Taboo.

The episode’s end is particularly galling. Cutting from James’ drunken rage as Winter approaches to him awakening near her corpse, its heart cut out, the scene is constructed to implicate James in the girl’s murder. The blatant misdirection is insulting, and so is the sudden dispatch of a blameless character. Within the universe of Taboo, there’s brutal practicality in using Winter as a pawn, sacrificed to drive a wedge between James and Helga. But from outside the narrative, it’s downright shabby, an admission that Taboo’s characters are only the flimsiest of props to keep the story moving.

Summing up the schemes against the EIC, Sir Stuart declares, “Chichester is their bishop, the king is safe, Delaney is a horse, and Prinny is their queen. I think it’s time we started moving some pieces.” It’s not just Sir Stuart who sees characters as chess pieces. Ultimately, that’s the flaw at the heart of this show, the dampness that keeps its powder from igniting. For all its preoccupation with forbidden hungers and its insistence on showing the muck of human excess, Taboo views its characters as devices and vehicles for deploying shocks, not as people. It doesn’t matter how many thumbs or tongues or hearts James Delaney cuts away with his knife if Taboo doesn’t have any heart at its core.

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Stray observations

  • Tom Hardy-est moment: Wading into the river, splashing himself with water, and snuffling like a horse.
  • Intentionally or not, James Delaney wading out of the river with his dark shirt clinging to him is a reverse-Darcy moment. Darcy’s plunge softens and sexualizes the rigid propriety of an established character; Delaney’s repeated immersions in murky water get less contemplative and more beast-like as the show progresses. (Getting paid to comparing strapping Englishmen striding around in wet shirts: nice work if you can get it.)

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