Taboo’s fourth episode begins with a pantless James Delaney (Tom Hardy) sitting at his fireplace whilst experiencing troubling and haunting visions of himself floating unconsciously or dead in a large body of water. He is awoken from this trance-like state to furious banging on the door by government soldiers who, as Delaney predicted, have come for Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley). Before they get to Bow, Delaney assures her that he’ll come for her; she must hold out.
This directive proves easier said than done, as Bow is marched into a dank and rotting prison and has her clothing stripped from her, piece by piece, by the king’s right-hand man, the rabid and insatiable Coop (Jason Watkins). Coop’s objective is clear – terrify Bow into signing over her half of Nootka Sound by any means necessary. Bow, despite her obvious fear and uncertainty, remains strong: “I’ve been told to await a better offer.” Boss. Her increasingly dreadful situation is halted by the arrival of the East India company men, who arrange for her immediate release.
With that matter resolved, at least for now, Hardy seeks out the superbly named and utterly oddball George Cholmondeley (played by Tom Hollander, The Night Manager), a chemistry teacher who seems to be a little (okay, very) high on his own supply. His services are secured with a bag of gold, and slowly but surely Delaney’s “League of the Damned” grows in number and usefulness.
Because he’s not already strange enough, Delaney then sits at his fireplace once more and performs a bizarre ritual, wherein he covers himself in dirt and soot and appears to be drinking blood. The impact of this ritual, we are shown, is unto Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), the half sister Delaney has several times declared his undying love for – in THAT way. Zilpha writhes and moans and contorts in begrudging ecstasy from this ritualistic pleasure/torture ceremony. Did I mention this show was a bit weird?
The purpose of Cholmondeley in Delaney’s twisted organisation becomes clear in the revelation that the governments (US and England) and East India have all worked to ban Delaney from accessing the materials required to craft gunpowder. Cholmondeley will use his chemistry knowledge to craft it from less immediately known sources (think urine and animal faeces). The pair scour Delaney’s farm to begin harvesting this caustic concoction.
The Americans – now baying for James’ blood after he bequeathed Nootka Sound to them – send a gigantic assassin to do away with him, however Delaney manages to (barely) survive the torrid and graphically visceral battle.
Finally, Delaney and Bow attend a ball (which Delaney received two invites for – one from the mysterious Countess Musgrove and the other from the Americans). Upon arrival, Delaney locks eyes with Zilpha – also in attendance – who flees. Delaney tracks her down, telling her that if she too was invited to this ball, the Americans must know about their love life and past.
The episode ends with Zilpha’s husband, Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), shouting at James about his relations with Zilpha, quietening the room. Geary, decidedly drunk, challenges James to a duel to the death. Delaney is silent as the episode ends.
By this stage in Taboo (halfway through season 1), I’d have liked a bit more to have progressed. I’ve been championing the slow-burn, but feel the time is nigh to really get moving. We’ve had the English and now the Yanks try for Delaney’s life, a slow but steady recruitment campaign by Delaney to challenge his ever-growing list of foes, and a lot of grunting intensity from Hardy (all of which have been very enjoyable) – but now it’s time for more, a lot more.
The episode was nonetheless largely enjoyable, and Delaney’s crew of misfits continues to impress and amuse. I feel that the inclusion of Cholmondeley offers much-needed lightness to this otherwise blackening and untrusting tale, and hope that he features regularly in order to calibrate and balance things out.
Two big questions for the next episode: What will be the result of Geary’s challenge? And will the show move forth at greater speed?
For now, this episode receives…
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10