“Ask and ye shall receive” is a fine lesson in life, and a good ethic to live by as you’ll never die wondering. As it turns out, it is also an apt principle to adhere to when watching Tom Hardy’s Taboo, a show that loves to test the patience of its audience. Episode 6 pays it all back and then some, with a tonne of blood, betrayal and “boom” (explosions, but I was on a roll with the ‘b’ words) in this chapter of what is an utterly strange yet tantalisingly infectious tale. In previous episodes, there were plenty of hints towards a bunch of mad and exciting things that may happen on the horizon, however the pacing was still rather lethargic, and this far in it was beginning to hurt Taboo’s legacy. We asked for more of everything, and we’ve surely now received it!
Firstly though, let’s quickly recap. When we last left off, James Delaney had survived a “duel to the death” (in fact, nobody died, brilliant) and scaled up his operations of crafting gunpowder – a vital bargaining chip for his planned voyage to “Nootka Sound”, a small yet pivotal piece of land bequeathed unto him in his father’s will. We also saw the continual crumbling of the relationship between Delaney’s half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, Game of Thrones) and her husband Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall, Vikings), with Thorne forcing Zilpha into an excruciating exorcism ceremony to relieve her of Delaney’s hold over her. The episode ended with a dead-eyed Zilpha stroking the blade of a large needle-like object as she watched her husband sleep.
In this episode, vitally, we learn yet more about Delaney’s mother; specifically, that she tried to drown him as a baby. “She wanted you dead, James,” his housekeeper Brace (David Hayman, The Paradise) reveals to him. This links to the show’s constant focus upon the horrifying, water-laden visions that plague Delaney’s thoughts and dreams on the regular, and also help further the “why” behind the “what” that is his complete and utter strangeness. As a huge Hardy fan, it is difficult to think of a role that tops this one for sheer prowess and skill.
Over at the good old East India Company (EIC), its board has begun to panic as a result of the investigation “Sons of Africa” lawyer George Chichester (Lucian Msamati, Game of Thrones) has launched into the “mysterious” sinking of their slave ship, where some 280 people lost their lives. “He’s African; they smell fear like dogs,” quips panicked rep Edmund Pettifer (Richard Dixon, The King’s Speech). Similarly concerned, yet less intimidated, EIC Chairman and all-round prick Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, Game of Thrones) likens this bump in the road to a game of chess. “I think it’s time we start moving some pieces,” he confidently states. The way in which Taboo creates and develops these pompous pigs is so crafty you find yourself hating them in large, uncapped dosages – it’s all rather delightful.
Relatedly, Delaney’s game of cat and mouse with EIC sees blows landed on either side. An informant amongst James’ ranks – the factory’s land owner Ibbotson (Christopher Fairbank, The Fifth Element) – tells a priest of the whereabouts of the operation. In counter to this, Delaney’s own rat within the EIC, Godfrey (Edward Hogg, The Bunny and the Bull), lets Delaney know the bad news in the nick of time, and they are able to move the gunpowder to safety via boats. To show that he knows what’s up with it all, Delaney promptly removes Ibbotson’s heart and dumps him back into the same confession booth for the priest to see. Incensed, Sir Stu sends records officer Benjamin Wilton (Leo Bill, The White Queen) to seek out Delaney at his shipyard, plainly stating to him, “It’s war. The gloves are off.” He isn’t joking, as just moments after his carriage whisks him away Delaney’s ship explodes. Delaney is truly stunned by this, and it is the first time we’ve seen a show of defeat written plain across our hero’s face. This “kaboom” moment happens towards the end of the episode; before this bedlam a LOT happens between Thorne, Zilpha and our favourite nutcase.
The “Thorne and Zilpha” show reaches a major and irreversible climax, with Zilpha ultimately making good on her horrifying, furtive threat last episode. As Thorne sleeps, she sits atop him, needle-blade in hand, pinpoints a spot on his chest and pierces his heart. He dies quickly and painfully. Her moves are shockingly cold, clinical and swift, proving beyond shadow of a doubt that she truly shares blood lineage with Delaney. She then visits James in the middle of the night, and he arranges for a swift burial of the body, using his USA connections and the local fears of cholera as a diagnosis/justification of Thorne’s passing. After Geary’s funeral, Zilpha is visited in her gigantic room by James, who barks “take that f**king dress off, now!” (how romantic). The pair embrace passionately, and the lust, repression, hurt and anger all pour out, but those pesky visions come flooding back to James and he nearly chokes Zilpha to death. Horrified by what he has seen, and then what he almost did, James promptly legs it to seek privacy at his mother’s abandoned hospital, where the gunpowder is now being stored. I’d be loath to find a sunnier first date/resumption to a relationship than this – I’m sure of it.
After his boat is turned into matchsticks, Delaney loses control. First, he threatens Godfrey for not having the scoop on this massive incident. He then winds up his associate (he doesn’t have friends) Atticus (Steven Knight, Snatch) until they find the boat traitor – they do, and Delaney promptly guts him. Next, whilst chugging copious amounts of brown liquor, he visits the brothel and asks the madam to kill a captain so that he may have their boat. This idea is swiftly rejected, and Delaney takes yet more liquor with him and stumbles his way to the water. As with each episode, brothel acolyte Winter (Ruby-May Martinwood) interrupts Delaney’s maniacal bingeing to shoot the breeze. Delaney initially dismisses her, stating that he’s “busy” and “not fit to be near” her. His tune is swiftly changed when Winter produces another bottle of alcohol, and on James chugs as he paddles and struggles in the unsettled and black waters.
He awakens with a literal-face-in-the-mud level hangover, and as he strives for his bearings he finds Winter’s lifeless body strewn horribly across the shore. It is missing chunks of flesh, and has been cut severely. Scarily, this sounds exactly like our boy’s modus operandi…
Did Delaney kill Winter? Would the EIC stoop that low? Will Delaney get his boat? Will Delaney ever smile?
This episode was a cracker, getting a hell of a lot done in its 57-minute span. What I liked most is that, despite the total “turbo-mode” boost that it was given, the show continued to feel as strange, intriguing and bizarre as it always has. This is crucial, as such qualities are the load-bearing beams in this dramatic tale. Taboo’s unrelenting and consistent ability to build and expand upon tensions and grievances means that you are constantly being lured further and further into its web of hauntingly eerie storytelling.
Further, and as you’ll have seen from the many citations, the cast is extraordinarily strong. This is always vitally important and central to any piece of film or television, however is especially so in a show such as this. Taboo is very bleak, very serious, and very serious about being bleak and serious, and so the abilities of its cast to show and tell the story in such a way, without ever becoming too stale or boring, is a testament to them as a collective. And, as plainly stated earlier, at the helm of all of this is Hardy, whose Delaney is such a peculiar animal, portrayed so brilliantly oddly, that one daren’t look away. It is a truly scene-stealing, breathtaking performance.
THE REEL SCORE: 10/10