All due respect to the East India Company, but James Keziah Delaney has a new nemesis in town, and his name is Pius XIII. That’s right: We’re all stars in the Pope Show, and that’s the stage upon which Taboo co-creators Steven Wright and Tom Hardy now find themselves forced to perform. The Young Pope is undoubtedly a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, but it’s also a marvel of artifice and audacity that makes Taboo look positively tame, no matter how many tribal tattoos fit on Hardy’s nude body.
Of course, this second episode of Taboo has more going against it than stiff competition. For all the care put into constructing a convincingly squalid 19th-century London, Knight’s script too often feels like a first draft. For example: “Am I the only one in this company with a brain?” asks malevolent Sir Stuart Strange, after his East India underlings fail to grasp the nuances of his latest monologue. It’s the kind of line that could have been turned into something clever, and thus illustrated the character’s point, if it were given 30 extra seconds of thought.
Meanwhile, Hardy’s Delaney doesn’t fare much better. Take his conversation with Winter, the tween daughter of local madam Helga, who leads him to the boat of an assassin hired to kill him. “Why do you even believe I’m telling the truth?” she asks. “Because,” he answers. (Well, that settles that!) Or his remonstrance to Helga herself, when he tells her he’d rather join forces than fight. “You have good in you,” he says, like he’s cribbing dialogue from Luke Skywalker talking to Darth Vader. And hand to God, when Yankee spy Dumbarton (House of Cards’ Michael Kelly, his delivery subdued and intriguing) warns Delaney that America is “an angry nation,” I swear I predicted Delaney’s response before the words “I’m counting on it” even left his mouth.
If I’m focusing on dialogue rather than plot, it’s because there’s still not much plot to speak of. Delaney spends this episode much the same way he spent the first: sulking from place to place in lengthy establishing shots, then growling questions or commands at people with accents in varying degrees of comprehensibility and teeth in varying states of decay. This predictable pattern grows only more glaring given Delaney’s attempt to find the man sent to murder him. For a guy worried that the world’s richest corporation has a price on his head, he sure seems determined to select his routes according to maximum ambushability.
There’s also the question of why it’s so hard for the EIC to find and kill Delaney when they know where he lives, where his boat is docked, where his lawyer works, and where his only surviving relative resides. Taboo’s London looks like the ninth circle of Hell, at least when Strange or James’s sister Zilpha aren’t onscreen to class up the joint. Surely you have to watch your feet to avoid tripping over corpses, so why is this particular corpse so hard to create?
We certainly get no real answer from James himself. Two episodes into this eight-hour miniseries, he has yet to do anything worthy of his fearsome reputation; lighting a ship on fire and killing his would-be assassin after he’d already been stabbed in the gut hardly count, even if he tears the guy’s throat as the coup de grâce. As written, Delaney is presented as a cross between Batman (the training in foreign lands, the fortune, the murdered dad, the loyal butler, the cool black outfit) and Wolverine (the Canadian heritage, the hairiness, the feral temper, the teen-girl sidekick), but it’s hard to imagine either man inviting him to join the League of Extraordinary Badasses.
If Taboo is this intent on dragging its feet about Delaney’s powers, it might as well focus on more out-of-the-ordinary material in the meantime. Case in point: the concert where James corners Zilpha for a rendezvous while the chamber orchestra plays the latest hit from hot young composer Ludwig van Beethoven. It’s a glimpse of how this world works when it’s not doing Hamilton–Game of Thrones crossover cosplay. It’s hard, however, to suss out any real chemistry between the pair. Oona Chaplin is as gorgeous as Hardy, and her performance feels taut as a bowstring, but he talks to her in the same flat growl he uses on everyone else.
Even the beeswax candles used as timers by the auctioneer who sells James his new boat, or the lightweight stones its owners used to fill up the ship’s hastily concealed slave quarters, add unexpected detail to this murky period piece. They’re certainly a better sight than the dissolute Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss, under pounds of unconvincing padding and prosthetics), who’s a bit too colorful for the show’s own good.
That said, the discovery that Delaney’s new ship was a slaver is upsetting, and that certainly deserves some unpacking. We learn in this episode that the East India Company’s involvement with the slave trade is not widely known, not even to Delaney’s lawyer, who works as their spy. This means that he may well have been forced to crew the slave ship we see sinking in his flashbacks. I’d go even further and suggest that he was perhaps a prisoner himself when the boat went down. Either way, this is a welcome development because the slaver-with-a-heart-of-gold trope — as seen in every Western movie and comic book in which the hero is an ex-Confederate — is as noxious as they come. On the other hand, it also speaks to Taboo’s fundamental artistic conservatism: A show this basic would never have its protagonist do something fundamentally unforgivable. Delaney may wear a black hat, but he’s a white hat deep down.