“The difference between Delaney and me,” Sir Stuart Strange tells George Chichester early in “Episode 8,” “is that I always make sure I have one last ace to play.” Taboo’s explosive finale one-ups Sir Stuart; everyone has two or three last aces to play. That means the plodding series is capped off by a final episode so jam-packed with action that it overplays its hand. Taboo’s finale is more explosive and engaging than the rest of the season, but ultimately just as empty.
Zilpha’s episode-opening plunge into the river is an example of that emptiness. As Oona Chaplin’s forlorn voice narrates her last letter to James, rhapsodizing about the loophole she’s found, the way to slip between the bars of the cage that holds her, can anyone be surprised when she throws herself into the Thames, where the water soaks her heavy clothes and drags her down? It’s a gorgeous, woeful scene as Zilpha walks through the dim streets, and as she stands on the edge of the bridge, her silhouette dark against the dawn. Her drowning echoes the show’s credit sequence, as bubbles of her last breath rise through the dark, cool water to the surface.
It’s all very effectively shot, or would be effective if only there were any reason to feel more than an instinctive burst of pity. Poor, tortured Zilpha was never a character, only a plot mechanism and a scandal simmering in the background. She was an obstacle to James’ inheritance. She was a thing James wanted, and the thing he discarded when he finally had it. She was the means by which one of James’ opponents is eliminated. She’s never been much more despite Chaplin’s attempts to endow her with something besides blank torment or mad desire.
Lorna Bow Delaney fares better, and so does Jessie Buckley, who plays her. Initially introduced as another plot obstacle animated by a small repertoire of simpers and smiles, in the last few episodes Lorna blossoms into one of the show’s more imposing characters. In the finale, she insinuates herself into a spy’s confidence, she talks James out of despair over Zilpha’s death, and she takes aim at the redcoats encroaching on Delaney’s escaping ship before being struck down herself.
To give Taboo (along with series co-creator and “Episode 8”’s writer Stephen Knight and director Anders Engström) credit, the finale is the most compelling episode since the premiere. Its action sequences are both thrilling and coherent, a tough balance for a scene as sprawling and charged as the one that unfolds at Wapping Wall. As the Crown’s soldiers approach, James’ motley gang of flunkies pulls together, suddenly showing themselves as the formidable force they are. Even Helga, newly bartered out of Sir Stuart’s possession, throws herself into the fight—and dies when she turns back to retrieve her dropped weapon.
Clear, competently constructed action sequences can be powerful. So can moody meditations, especially when they’re balanced by glimmers of piercing wit. But all these elements are nothing without something at the center, someone to care about. Seeing Helga drop could have been gutting if she’d been anything other than a chess piece to be moved around a board—if any of Taboo’s minor characters were. (No fault falls on Franka Potente, whose bawdy, bold portrayal fits perfectly in the grubby world of the show.)
As Taboo plays out its hidden aces, sometimes two or three in succession, the mounting action feels ever more nonsensical. James leaves his signed testimony and Godfrey’s for George Chichester, implicating the EIC and insuring Sir Stuart will be hanged for treason. Surely it’s overkill to blow him up literally as well as legally? Rather than sending the testimony to Chichester, James sends a note telling him where to find it. It’s another convolution constructed to show the depth of James’ cunning, but that cunning turns out to be more Rube Goldbergian than Machiavellian. And it’s paltry treatment of George Chichester (and of Lucian Msamati, who’s carried Taboo for the past few episodes) to first send him on an unnecessary errand, then explode his decade of work by dispatching Sir Stuart before he can be brought to justice.
If Taboo were judged only by its confident premiere and its exciting finale, it would seem thrilling and entrancing. The first episode is bursting with secrets that refuse to stay buried; the last goes out in a blaze of defiance. But in between, too many mysteries are hinted at, then discarded. Too many characters are moved around and sacrificed like pawns, never fleshed out or given inner life. The scandalous, would-be shocking trappings of incest, magic, and resurrection prove to be inconsequential distractions from the plot at the show’s core.
As there was in the premiere, there’s a lot of talk in “Episode 8” of keys and locks and doors. James maintains that if Zilpha were dead, he’d know, because he’d hear her as clearly as if she were on the other side of an open door. Did she drown herself? Taboo’s first season abandons that question along with the question of whether James can really hear the dead, dismissing it as “a question to be asked and answered in America.”
Too many questions are left unanswered. “The things I did in Africa make your transactions look paltry,” James Delaney says in his final meeting with Sir Stuart. “I witnessed and participated in darkness that you cannot conceive.” The longer he ruminates on his unspecified evils, and the longer the show conceals them, the clearer it seems that James’ mysticism and his spells are little more than a distraction from the unnecessarily complicated but fairly conventional plot at the heart of the show.
I love a slow burn, but Taboo would have been far more thrilling if it had shortened its fuse. A story that starts out with rumors of a top-hatted dead man roaming London and feasting on human hearts had better find a way to make that mystique pay off. A show that hinges on the forbidden love between half-siblings and the uncanny connection between them needs to have some resolution of that relationship beyond one of them stepping off a bridge. A show that sprawls over this many episodes needs to fill its hours with something more than smoke and mirrors. And a narrative that blows smoke about the diabolically powers of its protagonist should make concrete use of them, or at least show why they’ve been so bruited about. Taboo manages none of that. A show that opens with sorcery, cannibalism, and incest has no business being this dull.
- There’s an unexpectedly touching moment between Godfrey and the badly injured Cholmondeley aboard The Good Hope. In his throes of agony, the chemist mistakes Godfrey—disguised in his molly-house costume or finally taking his true self public, it’s hard to know—for a woman he wronged long ago, and Godfrey soothes him, offering him forgiveness in what could be his last minutes on earth.
- If Taboo extends to a second season, I expect Cholmondeley to survive. Hollander’s performance is too delicious to give up.