Suffice to say, last week’s episode of Taboo – the midway point of this introductory season – was a mess. A largely moronic, unintentionally funny mess. The transatlantic offering from the BBC and FX has consistently struggled with tone and narrative clarity throughout, but last week things looked pretty hopeless as we press onwards to the final stages. It left a numbing throb in one’s mind, and almost put me off continuing to stick with Tom Hardy’s morally warped antihero James Delaney. Alas, we climb over such hurdles and continue viewing. A decision largely regretted following this fifth hour…
After the fourth episode’s fantastically embarrassing climax, in which the wretched Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) called out Delaney (Hardy), challenging him to a fight to the death in the most gloriously idiotic pantomime fashion, our latest outing opens with such a duel, albeit one which doesn’t go quite to plan. Magic-dream-rapist-cannibal Delaney clearly has one friend in the shadowy London streets – the Company man who loads Geary’s pistol, conveniently forgetting to place any lead balls in the powder before a shot is taken. The maximum damage conflicted to our central protagonist is a small sprinkling of dust upon his shoulder. But Delaney – ever the complex character – opted to shoot the loader instead. As we all know, James’ life is most certainly valuable due to his contract with the United States: in the event of his death, the ownership of Nootka Sound would be transferred to the Americans, much to the East India Trading Company’s repulsion.
Meanwhile Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) – still fanaticising about her brother as she rests – is caught in the act by her foul husband, who takes it upon himself to hire a priest who’ll perform an exorcism upon her. She is “cursed” by Delaney’s influence and witchcraft he believes, and he wants her and his home rid of any trace. She had a pretty rough time this week – perhaps more so than usual – as she wriggles and shrieks in agony whilst a man of cloth destroys her inner demons. Oh, and suffering a merciless beating at the hands of Geary which was delightful…elsewhere, Delaney’s physic horse caught a scent of a tailer once again, this time a peculiar man who has been tracking Hardy’s hero since the introductory stages. As expected, the encounter does not go kindly, as Delaney draws his scythe blade and slashes him with brutal menace across the chest and legs. Oh, and he also cuts a chap’s thumb off during a meeting with Stephen Graham’s hapless lunatic Atticus and his band of merry men. A thumb which was then placed so dangerously close to his mouth, you were almost certain he was about to chow down.
So, was this week’s episode an improvement upon its predecessor? In short, no. Admittedly showrunners Steven Knight, and Tom and Chips Hardy reigned in the stupidity slightly, but replaced it with tiresome, airless scenes instead. Far too frequently does Taboo retread familiar ground – almost replicating sequences, without intensifying any of their emotional clout – and yet, the show still feels uneven. It simply cannot find a rhythmic beat for its atmospheric palette; constantly striding mere inches away from parody. And worse of all, this episode was actually dull. Arguably the most underdeveloped and uninteresting hour of the show thus far. Whilst it wasn’t as inept or thematically misjudged as the fourth, it provided no substitute for those wrongs either, rather offering a parade of self-indulgent, lacklustre intervals of programming which equate to a sixty-minute runtime.
The dialogue exchanges between Delaney, Brace (David Hayman), and Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) are easily the weakest across the ensemble cast. Narrative begins to sag and lose potency the moment they occupy frame, and it struggles to retain a sense of urgency after they exit. Taboo needs FAR more servings of Jonathan Pryce’s Sir Stuart Strange, who has largely taken an unfortunate back-seat in these recent outings as opposed to a clear supporting role in the first two or three hours. Mark Gatiss’ brief appearance as the gluttonous George IV (this week, gorging himself on an ostrich egg), was a highlight, as was the acidic bile spat by Tom Hollander, who is making his presence known as the politically incorrect chemist.
After five episodes, one is now convinced that Taboo was an idea far better on paper than in practice. Its creators have little clue how to maintain their story in a consistently compelling manner, making this more arduous to watch with each passing week. Sure, the show is aesthetically pleasing, but narratively it is as weightless and dreary as the colour scheme.
Taboo airs on BBC One HD on Saturday evenings at 9:15pm. It airs on FX in the United States on Tuesday evenings.