Taboo is one frustrating watch. For every moment of excellence is a sequence of idiocy, and as we reach the halfway point of its introductory series, we are served up the show’s most ludicrously overcooked and maddening hour, which struggles to retain a sense of order and clarity. That isn’t to say the fourth episode of the BBC and FX-collaborative period drama wasn’t somewhat enjoyable, because it was, but a descent into pantomime is frighteningly upon the horizon…
Taking a sidestep from the brooding dramatics of the third episode, everything in the latest outing for Tom Hardy’s bizarre antihero James Keziah Delaney was sensationalist and hallucinatory, as sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) enjoyed a deeply erotic physic sex scene, which was weird even by incest standards, considering she is practically raped as she sleeps. Oh, and her loathesome husband also raped her in the same episode, too. Nice guy. Meanwhile thanks to a tip off from his spy in the East India Trading Company, James and his ragtag allies hatch a heist plan to steal ingredients for gunpowder as he has been blacklisted from legally purchasing any, which in turn served as Taboo‘s clearest and most compelling storyline thus far. The great Tom Hollander joined the sprawling ensemble, and his particularly specialist chemistry skills came in handy during the explosive theft sequence in which they leave with heaps of saltpetre – aka poatassium nitrate.
James’ exploitative violence was in full effect too, with an alarmingly gruesome fight and murder as an unknown assassin – dubbed “The Giant” – tracks Delaney to the farm where he was plotting to manufacture gunpowder. Thankfully his horse – yes, seriously – sensed the lurking presence of a hidden intruder, giving our hero the upper, and exceptionally bloody, hand. After playing dead following a nasty clonk on the head, Delaney draws his curved razor and slashes fiercely at the legs and guts of his attacker, before collecting two curved spikes and stabbing him, whilst dragging, making “The Giant” look like a lifeless puppet on strings. The visual effects work during the sequence, and equally the sound design, were most impressive. Each swing of James’ blade sounding deadly and horrifying.
But to come back to one’s initial point, solid moments such as this, or the heist arc, are damaged by scenes of immeasurable stupidity or tonal misjudgment. Taboo is REALLY cranking up the debauchery now, and it is not a strong suit. The climatic stages unfolded at a bombastic and preposterous party, in which S&M, crossdressing, and whirring filters of drink and drug-induced paranoia took control. These creative choices undermine the chiselled, darkly sobering atmosphere which cloaks Delaney and his scatterbrained odyssey; they feel as though their implementation is simply to shock and surprise, not further drama, characterisation, or ultimately point. And just when you think it couldn’t get any sillier, the final scene happens…
Zilpha’s charming betrothed Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) – a blabbering, drunken mess – is taken outside by Delaney, and things look like they are going to kick off. A crowd gathers, and fear ensues as everyone presumes the neanderthal, cannibalistic, magic-dream-rapist is going to kill him, but no. Instead, in the most Lord Farquaad from Shrek manner, Geary challenges his sister’s lover and sworn enemy to a duel: a battle to the death. It is quite possibly the most embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious conclusion to the episode imaginable. On paper, it sounds dramatic and tense, but it was anything but. About as powerful and gasp-worthy as watching a primary school’s rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk for their Christmas panto.
When Taboo isn’t struggling to maintain a core sense of narrative consistency and tone, it is trying far too hard to be controversial and edgy. The pilot episode – which although not perfect – managed to feel visceral and vibrant, and still maintained a sense of mystery and ambiguity. The shocking scenes were driven by conflicting acts by our protagonist, not silly invisible orgasms, jargon about poisonous semen which needs to be ejaculated, or flamboyant men prancing about like imbeciles.
At the midway point, it seems as though Steven Knight, and father and son team Tom and Chips Hardy are struggling to retain a grasp on the character they wish to build, and the environment they wish for him to reside. When it’s good, Delaney’s saga is great, but when it’s bad…damn; it is pretty much hopeless.
Taboo airs on BBC One HD on Saturday evenings at 9:15pm. It airs on FX in the United States on Tuesday evenings.