(Tom Hollander, Louis Serkis) (Photo: FX)

For a show centered around its protagonist’s brooding silence, Taboo has spouted a lot of words, many of them bawdy, to increasingly empty effect. But “Episode 5” demonstrates the value of action over words. Viewers who stuck with the limited series through the increasingly turgid tides of the second, third, and fourth episodes are rewarded in the fifth with a return to the easy, swaggering stride the show displayed in its premiere.

The duel to which Thorne Geary challenges James Delaney is an example of character displayed in action and posture, not words. Zilpha’s husband is all careful correctness, the stiffness of his martial posture betraying fear as clearly as it displays his rank and training. James’ near-shrugging ease is nowhere near as correct, but far more confident. It’s also a welcome a breath of the careless assurance Hardy brought to the swaggering first episode.

“At the time of your choosing,” the officiant instructs them, “there will be a polite exchange of bullets.” And polite it is. Landing a shot square over James’ heart, Thorne breathes out a prayer of gratitude when his brother-in-law brushes it off, uninjured. James, as courteous as we’ve ever seen him, compliments Thorne on his excellent shot and apologizes for not dying. Is Thorne’s second really in collusion with the EIC to keep James alive until he’s no longer a threat? Or is that just James’ excuse for once again brushing off death like so much spent gunpowder? We’ll never know, since James promptly shoots the second dead.

I remarked last week on the beauty of this series. But this episode (directed by Anders Engström) is particularly lush and textured. Scenes at the farm-turned-gunpowder-factory have the gleam of a Vermeer and the vim of a Bruegel. On Thorne’s arrival home, seen from Zilpha’s viewpoint in their parlor, the wavy glass windowpanes make his approaching figure waver and wane. This simple practical effect renders him almost ghostlike as he returns from his potentially fatal appointment.

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In contrast to Thorne’s ghostly homecoming, James seems more human than ever—and less mysterious, but no less impressive. As he explains the consequences of his saltpeter heist to Lorna (not only will he use the resulting gunpowder against the EIC’s interests, but he’s made them vulnerable to prosecution by the Crown), James eats one of the few bites of sustenance we’ve seen him consume.

Prinny (Mark Gatiss) eats an egg. (Screenshot: FX)

Note the contrast between James Delaney, who takes his breakfast in the brisk outdoors, describing the many layers of advantage in his already completed plan, and the cosseted Prince Regent, who lounges in his recherché chambers, getting schooled on international intrigue by his secretary as he sups on an ostrich egg almost as big as his bloated head. James downs his egg in one bite, but Prinny, whose lips are dribbled with yolk, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew.

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In “Episode 5,” this stellar cast has more chance to shine that the previous rigidity punctuated by bombast has allowed them. Unexpectedly in a series featuring Jonathan Pryce and Mark Gatiss, it’s Jason Watkins who’s stealing the show as the scheming bureaucrat reveling in his own duplicity. As he advises the Prince Regent how best to bedevil the EIC—by prosecuting not the Company, which would hang the accusation on a patsy, but Sir Stuart himself—Solomon Coop is aglow with pleasure in his double-dealing.

That makes it all the more satisfying when his next scene is stolen out from under him by a lawyer from the (real) abolitionist group The Sons Of Africa. Unflustered by the opulence of the royal offices or by the ostentatiously dismissive gestures of Prinny’s right-hand man, the newly introduced George Chichester (Lucian Msamati) is equally unyielding before Coop’s rhetorical feints. As he once again requests an investigation into the (apparently willful) scuttling of The Influence, and the murder of the 280 men, women, and children aboard, Chichester calmly rejects Coop’s suggestion that this is a family affair or a concern only for those of African descent; it is a concern for all who value humanity and justice. (That lets out everyone we’ve seen so far associated with either the Crown or the EIC.)

Not all the Chekhov’s guns set up in earlier episodes are going off, but at least Taboo is showing that a few of them are loaded. The story of The Influence, its suspected identity as an illicit enterprise of the EIC, and its murderous end finally brings Taboo’s long-awaited, half-hidden central secret fully into the light. As the series’ credit sequence and James’ visions have hinted, this is the source of the grievance James Delaney bears Sir Stuart and his cronies, and of the guilt that haunts him. For a show filled with incest, cannibalism, and global conspiracies, Taboo has been surprisingly sluggish. But like Cholmondeley’s batch of gunpowder, soon to be accelerated by the addition of chlorate, it suddenly has excitingly volatile potential.

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I’d like to describe “Episode 5” as a return to form for Taboo… but “return to form” would suggest this confident command of pace and plot has been the rule rather the exception so far. When Countess Musgrove asks James to trust her and her confederacy of spies, he replies, “Trust requires a little time.” We can hope, if not trust, that the few remaining episodes of season one will be as pointed in their narrative, as taut in their action, and as little distracted by the freedom granted them in the depiction of fucking and foulness as this chapter. But with just three episodes remaining, and as the Countess reminds James, time to build that trust is in scarce supply.

Stray observations

  • Tom Hardiest moment: Reassuring Helga and her workers that all his accomplices in the saltpeter theft are under his protection, James dispassionately drops first a severed thumb, then a diamond, on the tavern table, and offers the women a choice.
  • Sir Stuart instructs Wilton to offer “full and willing cooperation” in the investigation of The Influence, “and then I will tell you which papers to burn,” which seems like the wrong order of commands.
  • As Cholmondeley’s chemistry apprentice, young Robert (Louis Serkis) finally has something to do other than look dolefully off into the distance as people speculate about his parentage.
  • I feel for Oona Chaplin, who is given little to do as Zilpha but sit in prim rigidity, her eyes alive with panic, or writhe under the rages of men, from James’ nighttime visitations to her husband’s “punishing” desires to the prurient priest’s exorcism. But the tag of “Episode 5,” with Zilpha fingering a hatpin as her husband sleeps nearby, suggests she’ll soon have more to do.

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