After the confident stage-setting of Taboo’s premiere, the one thing I didn’t expect from the second episode was boredom. It’s doubly surprising to be bored when “Episode 2” delivers on the promotional material’s images of James Keziah Delaney stripped down to his tattoos, deep in reverie and obscure ritual. But the promise of those images is more than the prospect of Tom Hardy in his altogether. It’s the promise of a provocative juxtaposition between the supposed savagery James brings back from the jungle and the mannered hypocrisy of Regency-era London’s convoluted cabals, as cloaked in the respectability of the burgeoning corporate economy as they are in their stuffy waistcoats and cravats. It’s the promise of the mysterious heir stripping his secrets bare.
Instead of unveiling any of the mysteries established in “Episode 1,” Taboo piles on more layers. “Episode 2” introduces more conspiracies, and more characters, each dragging along the flotsam of their unlikely, uncertain alliances. There’s Atticus (Stephen Graham), the well-connected member of London’s criminal underground who claims loyalty to James and Horace Delaney alike, but still asks, “So, how much will you give me for not killing your father?” There’s Winter (Ruby-May Martinwood), Helga’s 13-year-old secret daughter, who shadows James through nighttime London to lead him to the assassin stalking him. There’s Mark Gatiss in yet another fat suit for his grotesque turn as George of Wales, Prince Regent. There’s Edgar Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), a doctor, flag-maker, and spy who warily welcomes James to his workspace in St. Bartholomew’s Bone Infarctions ward, then walks him out at gunpoint. There’s Lorna Bow Delaney (Jessie Buckley) as the dead man’s secret widow, wreathed in tactlessly smug smiles as she challenges Horace’s will.
Crowded in like this, none of these characters has enough room to breathe, to feel rounded or real. Stephen Graham’s Atticus, a twinkling ruffian with a compass rose skullcap tattoo and a consuming curiosity about the world, comes closest to a fully inhabited character. There’s a whiff of realism to the man that’s helped along by the easy rapport between Graham and Hardy.
Like James’ exuberant greeting of Brace in “Episode 1,” the physicality of their meeting—here, a mere chummy tap on the arm as Atticus tells the tale of the gentleman who tried to secure his services to kill Horace Delaney—doesn’t just establish the two as comrades. It also grounds James Delaney, usually so shrouded in grimy pomp and guarded glances. Showing him at ease, or what passes for ease with a man suffused with subdued rage and haunted by horrors, makes James feel more real, more mortal.
Tom Hardy continues to make the man of too many mysteries compelling—more compelling than the sum of his mysteries. In lesser hands, taciturn James Delaney could founder amid the increasingly flamboyant prosthetic blemishes and eruptions of fury from the supporting cast, but Hardy shoulders his way through the muddy waters of Taboo with quiet certainty. His smallest glances or murmurs pack more power than the “fuck”-filled outbursts of his enemies.
Taboo can laugh at the Prince Regent, with his notorious indulgences and extravagances, his curio collection of exotic animals and his excesses of style and emotion. But the show is guilty of its own indulgences and extravagances, of relying on excesses of style to carry a clumsy narrative. Where the first episode was assured and brisk, the second is stumbling and uncertain. In a series designed for binge-watching, this continued stage-setting and world-building might work. In a weekly series, it’s deadening. This second episode relies on the quiet charisma of its lead to keep viewers enthralled despite disjointed chapters, colorful but vacant characters, and ever-mounting mysteries.
Not that Taboo’s mysteries are so arcane. It’s just that there are so many of them, and they’re so haphazardly deployed, it’s hard for the show to sustain any one for long. Some drag on, some seemingly obvious ones have yet to be revisited (surely the dark-eyed boy said to be Horace’s unclaimed son is in fact James’ and Zilpha’s child?), and some are introduced only to be immediately resolved. Who is Winter? Why is she kept in Helga’s brothel without earning her keep? Minutes later, the question is answered by James’ penetrating gaze and Helga’s terrible poker face.
What are we to make of James’ encounter with Winter, of their nighttime trip to the sloop that, she says, his would-be assassin makes his base, of her disappearance from the rowboat? “Why do you even believe I’m telling the truth?” Winter wonders, and so do I. (James’ only answer: “Because.”) Swimming aboard, he collects a few trinkets: a tin of hashish, a handful of foreign coins. Instead of scouring for further clues or lying in wait, James sets the sloop aflame, destroying any lead he might have exploited.
Like James, at this stage Taboo isn’t particularly interested in solving mysteries. Who is the unnamed figure known only as “the Malay”? It doesn’t matter, he’s dead. Though their wordless fight to the death closes an otherwise plodding episode with a much-needed kick of excitement, it robs the series of a tension that could have sustained interest until next week. A protagonist everyone wants dead is in theoretical danger; a protagonist with an assassin dogging his heels is in danger at every second.
Instead, that encounter leaves James with a knife in his gut, which is a weirdly auspicious turn of events. The question of James’ mortality is a real one. Even those closest to him betray (maybe unconsciously) the belief that he’s a dead man. Brace tries valiantly to get James to eat, but when his master inquires about the larder, Brace asks with a hint of incredulity, “You’re hungry?” (He’s not, but he is wary of poison.) Brace complains that the coffee is stone-cold, and James drops a quiet, “Aren’t we all?” When the central character is a possible dead man possessed of unfailing sangfroid, it’s almost comforting to see he can bleed from a knife wound like any mortal.
That wound is more revealing than the frantic, nude scrabble aboard the Felice Aventurero, recovering the scattered beads and hidden manacles that mark James’ new ship as a former slave ship, or than the somber sunrise ritual in which he wades into the Thames to cast the beads, and their lost owners, to rest in the waters. Exposing James physically has no meaning, no depth, if all that’s revealed is more scars, more guilt, and more mystery. Exposing that he still possesses some human vulnerability has far more meaning.
One thing this episode overflows with is unintentional metaphors for its own willful obscurity. When Zilpha asks, “Did you really eat flesh?,” James plays on her curiosity, trying to coax her to come away with him “and hear everything.” But the audience isn’t Zilpha, turning away from temptation, refusing to listen to his darkest secrets. We’re following James’ every step, patiently waiting for mysteries to unwind… and being refused answers. Taboo’s second episode is James Delaney stripped down to the skin, but revealing nothing but more scars and more secrets. Like James returning to his trove beneath the tree (does he really need to refill his pockets so soon?), Taboo is retreading ground, hoping to dig up more diamonds. But it’s coming up empty.
- Lorna’s mantra of “calm, pretty, certain, fragrant” seems destined to be tested by the grimy world of Taboo, where little is calm, pretty, or certain, and even less is fragrant.
- Tom Hardy-est moment: James striding into a murderer’s den, brandishing his note and bellowing, “ATTICUS!”
- Most colorful threat: Atticus recounting his reply to the gentleman contracting him to kill Horace Delaney: “I’ll slit your gizzards.”
- I can’t say I’m impressed with Sir Stuart Strange’s committee members, who can’t be bothered to glance over the agenda of their most pressing meeting yet.
- Gatiss’ characterization is impressively repulsive, but in my heart, I only recognize one Prince Regent.
- However naked he is in solitary scenes, James is vulnerable only when he’s most buttoned-up—when he’s face to face with Zilpha, in the courtrooms or conservatories of her world.