Tonight, Taboo lives up to its name. To a fault. As if adhering to some arcane contract it had signed with the East India Company — “Taboo may show all the ultraviolence and sexual assault it desires, but only beginning with episode four” — the show suddenly let loose with an awful torrent of torture, rape, attempted rape, murder, and disembowelment. It’s a bloodbath in a world where no one bathes.
That’s not all: The episode’s nonviolent but otherwise quite eye-melting events include gratuitous sex scenes, gratuitous oral sex scenes, incestuous invisible sex scenes, the large-scale smuggling of prostitute urine, horny aristocrats on nitrous oxide, and a guy who eats not one but two different kinds of animal feces. Peak TV, baby!
At the center of much of the night’s … I dunno, let’s call it action, is Lorna Bow, the savvy and talented widow of James Delaney’s mad and murdered father. Set up for arrest by agents of the Crown in the previous episode, she’s duly hauled away to a hellish prison, in which royal henchman Solomon Coop strips her, then threatens to rape her and toss her to the other prisoners, unless she signs over her half of the coveted Nootka Sound trading post to the government. She’s rescued at the last minute by two of the East India Company’s chief executive goobers, portly Pettifer and sickly Wilton, dressed all in black as if they’d raided Delaney’s closet.
Lorna and James’s loyal manservant, Brace, soon realize that Delaney saw the arrest coming and allowed it to happen. Since the Crown’s move against Lorna would have muscled the East India Company out of the Nootka deal, alerting the Company to the double-cross both saved her and set two of James’s primary opponents against one another. You’d think being used as a pawn in a game that could have led to sexual violation and death in some dungeon hellhole would put Lorna off of her ersatz stepson, but no. She suddenly seems more intrigued by him than ever, up to and including potential romantic interest and passive-aggressively needling his sister Zilpha at a costume ball she attends on his arm. Why anyone would want to spend more than five minutes with this deeply unpleasant, insane murderer who can’t walk ten feet without someone trying to kill him — especially after one has nearly fallen victim to one of his schemes oneself — is beyond me.
But unlike Delaney, I’m no psychic. Yes, we get our first incontrovertible evidence of James’s magical powers when he sits by the fire (pantsless, of course) and telepathically has doggy-style sex with his sister in her bed miles away. As uses of supernatural abilities go, it’s a bit reminiscent of creepy adolescent invisibility fantasies about the ladies’ locker room. For her part, Zilpha only gets to enjoy (?) the experience for a few moments, before her awful drunken husband Thorne staggers into the bedroom, senses her arousal, and forces himself on her offscreen.
Despite the drama and trauma, there’s no variation whatsoever in how these characters are written or played. Jefferson Hall’s Thorne is always an irredeemable bastard, and Oona Chaplin’s Zilpha is always wide-eyed and rigid, as if she just spotted a poisonous snake and is trying very hard not to draw its attention. The duel to which Thorne challenges James in the episode’s less-than-gripping cliffhanger at least promises to shake up the dynamic, since someone involved will (hopefully) be killed.
James’s primary concern this episode, though, is neither Lorna nor Zilpha: It’s piss and shit. When the East India Company realizes that Delaney’s only possible way to open a lucrative trade with Nootka’s native population is to offer them gunpowder, it blacklists him from buying any, forcing him to home-brew the stuff with animal and human waste. He’s aided in this effort by what everyone is suddenly calling his “league of the damned,” as if the writers only thought of the phrase halfway through the series. Truth be told, it’s less a league than a single bowling team: tattooed mercenary Atticus, the randos who work for him, Helga the madam, one of her employees (who graphically goes down on a guard to distract him, despite having no apparent need to do so), and new edition George Cholmondeley, chemist extraordinaire.
Cholmondeley feels less like a character than a factoid someone read about and decided to incorporate into the script: He’s a scientist whose proficiency with pyrotechnics and mind-altering substances has made him a rock star on the London social circuit, complete with disproportionately attractive groupies. He’s in the middle of having sex with one of them, in fact, when James barges in to make his acquaintance. Delaney’s always doing illogical stuff like this to demonstrate how little he cares about anything. If his plan requires this guy’s help to succeed, why not wait until he’s, you know, not currently having sex? Why deliberately mess with someone you need to befriend? Despite what James told his young sidekick Winter a couple episodes ago, “because” is not a good enough answer.
At any rate, Cholmondeley informs James about the need for saltpeter to make gunpowder, which precipitates the league of the damned’s heist of the East India Company’s supply. He also tells Delaney he’ll need vast quantities of piss for the process, leading James to tap Helga’s employees as suppliers. He’ll need feces, too, which leads to a trip to the farm where James’s younger half-brother lives. There, in a scene that strives so hard to be seedy it just ends up being silly, Cholmondeley determines the chemical composition of pigeon and cow dung by taste-testing them. That’s entertainment, I guess.
The farm is also the site of the show’s most violent scene to date: an assault on Delaney by a huge American hitman whom he dispatches by playing dead, then hamstringing him, dragging him around with hooks buried deep in his back, propping him up, and pulling his guts out. You don’t need to be psychic to have guessed that his little brother would see it all, which indeed he does. Of course, all that savagery makes Delaney’s freak-out at the debauched costume party where he, Lorna, Zilpha, Thorne, Cholmondeley, and the American spies Dumbarton and Carlsbad wind up seem all the more ridiculous. He can butcher a human being like a pig, but he’s afraid of extras from an Adam Ant video? James Keziah Delaney is a man of mystery, but at the halfway point of Taboo, solving that mystery is an increasingly uninteresting prospect.