“You don’t appear to be swaggering now,” Dr. Dumbarton says as he stitches up James Delaney’s stab wound early in “Episode 3,” and it’s painfully true. In its first episode, Taboo is assured, even over-confident. In its second, it stumbles. In the third, it’s as bogged down as Horace Delaney’s cellar: a tempting place to look for treasure, but too swamped and cluttered to yield any.
That river-flooded cellar is the last place James hasn’t searched for the Nootka Sound treaty, and in “Episode 3,” he wades ankle-deep in search of the deerskin document. Instead, he finds his mother’s cloak adorned with raven feathers. James’ flashes of vision—or remembrance—as he clings to that garment, followed by his retreat to his mother’s room, have the feeling of a reveal: The screeching river wraith that haunts his memory is his mother. But that’s seemed obvious since we learned in the first episode that his mother wasn’t (as Horace renamed her) Anna from Naples, but Salish from Nootka Sound.
Taboo has a habit of revealing would-be mysteries with a flourish well after the audience has cottoned on. There’s another fumbled reveal in the scene where Dumbarton stitches up James. After the doctor (and spy) calls the mysterious Carlsbad ”she,” James waits a full eight line to taunt him, “So now I know I’m looking for a lady.” In its premiere, Taboo—and its cast, especially Hardy—communicated small slips and revelations like this with a glance, a murmur, a gasp. Now every exchange is overloaded with words, as if Steven Knight never wrote a phrase he didn’t want to hear at least twice.
For a show so charmed by its own mysteries, Taboo is remarkably generous in letting characters in on each other’s secrets. James knows just where to find Godfrey. Sir Stuart Strange knows of the assassin’s death before sunrise, hours before Pettifer (who contracted for the killing) hears. Sir Stuart also knows the affairs of Mr. Thoyte’s law offices, where James Delaney cannily strikes back at the Crown and the EIC by bequeathing Nootka Sound to their enemies if he should die. Thanks to Solomon Cobb (Jason Watkins), Lorna Bow knows of James’ will, including its legal and economic consequences. (Lorna is apparently savvy enough to know all that, but not savvy enough to bargain for more than a modestly handsome London home, and not savvy enough to stay out of a stranger’s carriage.) Cobb knows all that Sir Stuart knows and more.
Everyone seems to know everything and nothing. The only secrets are James’, and at this point, they’re growing more tedious than tantalizing. The show keeps hammering home hints at James’ nature: the shreds of human flesh between his teeth after his alleyway attack, the many civilized meals he silently rejects. The mysterious James Delaney rarely eats, unless he’s truly eating the hearts of his enemies.
The actors do their level best to give life to this dragging plot and heavy atmosphere. Jonathan Pryce, who brings both gravitas and humor to roles the way another actor might bring his own wardrobe, can’t do much to elevate the increasingly fuck-spiked bluster and piercing disdain of Sir Stuart Strange, that titan of industry who knows everything and nothing. Tom Hardy’s charisma begins to pall, especially in the voiceover of his correspondences with Zilpha, which is drawn out to the point of self-parody. (Near the end, she pledges to burn all his future letters unopened, but instead responds immediately to the very next one.)
“Episode 3” is lavished with would-be transgressions, some harmless, some horrid. Zilpha’s husband, Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall, finally given a chance to perform something beyond priggish pique) visits The Delaney Nootka offices not, as it seems, to spy out a sample of James’ handwriting, but to boast about the Gearys’ punishing sexual pleasures, now that the object of her sin is present to stimulate them. The conversational tone of his gloating is particularly loathsome, but still worse is the browbeating he gives his wife for (what he presumes is) her failure to conceive an heir.
In a showcase of a scene, Taboo explains the significant look between James and Godfrey (Edward Hogg), the recorder of The East India Company’s notes, in the premiere. They were boys together at seminary, where Godfrey pined for James, but now James knows Godfrey’s ruinous secret: He spends his nights gowned, wigged, and lavishly made up, reveling with like-minded men.
The kindness in Hardy’s voice and eyes as James confronts Godfrey is belied by the lurid greed with which the camera surveys the scene and by James’ patronizing insistence that his blackmail is an arrangement “between friends.” His slap, spurring Godfrey to spill the EIC’s secrets, seems intended to puncture the illusion of compassion, but like so many of the show’s small surprises, it’s spoiled by the minutes preceding it.
Taboo delights in showing off wounds. Crabs scuttle from the chest cavity of “the Malay” as street urchins strip his corpse’s pockets under Winter’s command. The camera zeroes in on Dumbarton’s needle as it digs into the gash on James Delaney’s side. When James returns home, he swabs the wound with kitchen rags doused in brandy, affording us another generous sight of his still bloody, still dirty torso. (James appears to be decades ahead of his contemporaries in accepting germ theory, but he doesn’t bother to change out of the perpetually damp, increasingly filthy shirt that hangs over the wound.)
In the first three episodes, Taboo gradually wear away the shocks of its various violations… except for the central one, which it has yet to acknowledge. The design Anna cut into her fireplace, the symbol James carves into The Felice Aventurero’s planks, and the design cut into his back are all renditions of the sankofa. A bird flying forward even as it turns back to tend its egg (sometimes stylized as an elaborate heart), this symbol drawn from the Akan art of Ghana has become widely used as a symbol of the African diaspora, and especially of the value of seeking out one’s roots to shape one’s future. Literal translations of the proverb associated with the sankofa include “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot” and “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”
The appropriation of the sankofa, a symbol for the hard-won recovery of a people’s stolen history and heritage, is entirely consistent with a show that portrays the bustling multicultural metropolis of Regency-era London by presenting white men as rounded, grounded characters and using people of color as thus-far nameless background (the looming specter in the resurrectionist’s lab, the faceless figures trapped in a ship’s hold and clamoring for help in James’ memory, “the heathen” rowing Atticus’ boat, “the Malay”).
Even as it plays up its salacious scandals—having Zilpha literally kiss off her incestuous history while straddling her half-brother in a church, putting the coarsest and cruelest words in gentlemen’s mouths, thrilling at the image of Godfrey and his fellows cavorting in gowns and facepaint—Taboo fails to recognize its greatest transgression. Among the sensationalism of these would-be shameful would-be secrets, it’s the gall of exploring the horrors of slavery through a white man’s trauma (or, in James’ case, a man passing for white; open knowledge of his parentage would have ostracized him as thoroughly as the rumors of his cannibalism and incest do) that’s truly shameful.
- “Episode 3” adds some thudding obviousness to the bird imagery of the sankofa. Geary speaks of Zilpha eating her morning toast “like a sweet little bird”; soon after, James releases Lorna’s canary from its cage, growling, “I hate to see these things caged up.”
- After the interminable back-and-forth of the correspondence, Zilpha’s goodbye in the church takes on an unfortunate vaudevillean rhythm: “I used to think we were the same person.” “We are.” “We’re not.” “Now I never want to see you again.” “We will speak again.” “No we won’t.” “Oh, but we will.”