“You are in every way an unopened box,” Lorna Bow Delaney tells James in “Episode 4” of Taboo. “Just when I think it’s empty, I hear a tiger roaring inside it.” An unopened box can be tantalizing, but the longer Taboo strings out its mysteries—and the more flagrantly it exhibits its excesses—the less convinced I become that there’s a tiger waiting to emerge. Can any secret James Delaney retains be worth the tedium of learning it?
In a recent Saturday Night Live sketch, Kenan Thompson plays an incidental character hauled in by the police on the charge of failing to appreciate Westworld. Shrugging, he sums up his reservations: “I thought the finale could have been the premiere.” I‘ve been admiring the economy of that line since it broadcast, and I can’t think of a current show more guilty of this than Taboo.
“Episode 4” is a small-scale example of the series’ failures of pacing. The plot to steal saltpeter from the well-defended EIC storehouse—saltpeter that will allow James to manufacture gunpowder to use against the very company he’s stealing from—is the engine that drives this episode. It’s clearly set up, well-executed, and cleverly intercut with James’ alibi at Countess Musgrove’s (Marina Hands) party, which creates a welcome relief from the dreariness of the show’s recent settings—at least, until the partygoers inevitably descend into sweating, braying debauchery.
But it takes forty minutes’ running time to reach this caper. Some of the scenes preceding the Breaking Bad-style break-in are necessary, some are padding, and all are overstuffed with Taboo’s characteristic, self-congratulatory squalor. We don’t need to see Dr. Cholmondeley (Tom Hollander) bending an adulterous audience member over his lab table to understand he’s susceptible to vice; who in this show’s version of Regency London isn’t swamped in sin? Their coitus, James’ (uh) interruptus of it, and the chemist’s lecture on the dangers of semen unspent all last too long to be mere stage-setting. Instead, they’re just more gratuitous seediness in this world steeped in it.
With the jailhouse intimidation of Lorna, Taboo goes from wallowing in its grubbiness to slavering over it. The relentlessly sexualized threats from jailer and king’s right hand man alike may well be realistic. But the camera’s complicity in that prurience—lingering on Coop’s hands unlacing her bodice, recurring close-ups of Lorna’s trembling fingers as she covers her breasts—charge the scene with relish, not condemnation or compassion. It’s possible to be grubby without being gleefully sordid. But this is both.
For all its griminess, the show is often lovely to look at: richly textured sets, central cast and background players alike costumed with a period-appropriate blend of finery and filth. Even in dimness, the action is impressively easy to follow, whether it’s James casting spells before his fireplace (and Zilpha, alone in her bed, writhing in passion) or Atticus and French Bill (Scroobius Pip) setting up the saltpeter heist. And every so often, there’s a simple, striking image like Lorna Bow in her bold red dress standing before the oppressively dark metal and stone of Newgate.
Just when the sameness of Taboo’s darkness becomes predictable, “Episode 4” sets its newest violent confrontation in full daylight. The brightness of the bout between James and “the giant” showcases its brutality: a boot to a head, baling hooks dug into hips and shoulders, gushes of blood, wordless grunts of effort. Daylight also lets the audience fully appreciate the dispassion on James’ face as he slashes open his assailant’s chest and digs around inside.
This episode is full of animal imagery. Lorna compares James’ hidden nature to a tiger in a box; Zilpha believes his magical visitations bring him to her in the form of “an animal.” In the crowd at Countess Musgrave’s ball, a man wears a pig’s head. Sir Stuart rants that James has turned London “into his private bear pit—and what are we, the bear or the dogs?” James’ gunpowder enterprise hinges on the piles of cow shit and pigeon shit he can supply to his chemist, who will soak them (along with wood ash) in human urine for the production of gunpowder. Soaking shit and ashes in piss might be a bang-up way to make explosives, but as a guiding aesthetic for a TV show, it’s a dud.
Lorna’s fascination with her stepson has been inevitable since their first meeting, but her brief tactical rejection of him seems more astute and more resonant. Returned from Newgate Prison, where she’s threatened with imprisonment, disrepute, penury, and rape, Lorna dismisses his commands, saying, “Your conspiracies have made it a very tiring day.” Indeed they have, and we’re not even halfway through the series (or the first season).
If all of this mystery and murkiness pays off in the second half of the season, maybe Taboo will be worth the slog through the muck it prizes. It’s not the opacity of James’ plan—that will come out in good time—or the labyrinthian but ultimately coherent plots of the Crown and the EIC that worry me. It’s Taboo’s recurring attempts to excuse the opacity of all its machinations that concerns me, and its unearned assumption that hints of its protagonist’s secrets are enough to sustain interest.
But I suspect Dr. Dumbarton unwittingly speaks not just for the American negotiators, but also for the series, when he tells James Delaney, “Don’t worry how we know so much. We just know so much.” That’s just the sort of empty obfuscation we’ve come to expect from Taboo, a show that wants to explore the complexities of global conspiracies and insurrections without actually articulating them.
We should be as lucky as the tittering crowd of society women watching Dr. Cholmondeley’s lecture, who can trust that his warning to cover their eyes will be followed by an actual explosion. Instead, it feels a lot like we’re the not-so-good doctor, biting into a cowpat and hoping someone can make gunpowder from it.
- Tom Hardy-est moment: The unruffled efficiency of James’ blow to the breadbasket that (temporarily) stops Thorne Geary from sputtering out his wife’s incestuous secret in the ballroom.
- Sir Stuart’s screaming is growing less impressive, not more, as its volume increases. I feel for Jonathan Pryce, who deserves to display more range than this character possesses so far.
- Atticus covers his lower face, but not his distinctive compass rose tattoo, as they approach the EIC’s warehouse.
- Brace suggests Countess Musgrave invited James because if he’s inside, “you cannot be outside, lurking in the dark, scaring people.” Ha! James Delaney has never found a situation where he can’t lurk.