Taboo Recap: A Stab in the Right Direction

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Michael Kelly as Dr. Dumbarton. Photo: Steffan Hill/FX
Taboo

Taboo

Episode 5 Season 1 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 3 stars

Look out, London: There’s a new man in charge. No, not James Keziah Delaney — he’s pretty much doing the same things he always does. I mean behind the camera. Here at the halfway mark of Taboo’s eight-episode run, director Anders Engström takes the reins from Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed the show’s first four installments. It’s not exactly a whole new ballgame, but now it’s much more tempting to stay through the final few innings to see how Taboo ends.

Although he retains cinematographer Mark Patten, who shot all eight episodes, Engström nevertheless brings a new crispness and clarity to the show’s look. Nyholm relied on alternating muddy realism with nightmarish surrealism; the result was a murky mess that offered little in the way of arresting imagery no matter which side of the divide a given scene or shot landed. By contrast, Engstrom makes the muck a little brighter and more fantastical, and gives the dreamlike sequences more solidity, improving the power of both.

Take the early scene in which Delaney returns home from his duel. He and Lorna Bow decide to take their egg breakfast outside, and eat it while sitting on heaps of driftwood, rock, and rotted dockworks covered in lush green moss. A few episodes ago, we’d have seen nothing but mud out there; now everything’s as emerald as a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur. The color palette really makes Lorna’s red dress pop — a scarlet slash across the screen that befits her wild-card spirit and status. A later shot of Delaney riding his white horse across a verdant green landscape takes a similarly striking approach.

The scene between Delaney and Lorna has an echo toward the end of the episode, when James meets with the American spymaster Carlsbad at her palatial estate. As they walk through the grounds haggling over gunpowder, blue and purple flowers are visible in the background, shrouded with mist that’s given a glow by the white-gray light of the cloudy afternoon. It’s lovely to look at, yes. It also gives us a sense of place that isn’t just “impoverished hellhole” nor “island of extravagant excess,” but someplace in between.

Whether it’s Engström’s influence or not, the acting has also improved from Tom Hardy on down. The leading man is truly frightening for the first time in the series, his eyes alight with visible malice as he demands to know what the farm boy who now works in his gunpowder factory (and who’s secretly his son) is staring at, or as he slices the thumb off a traitor and tells his companions, “I am inside your heads, gentlemen — always.”

James’s partner in crime, the roguish chemist Cholmondeley, looks more promising this time around as well. A one-note, wild-and-crazy guy during his introduction in last week’s episode, he seems wittier in his cynicism and salaciousness here. Take the exchange he has with James about his romantic interest in Lorna: “Not only is she among the large group of women I’d sleep with,” the chemist says with characteristically blunt bawdiness, “she’s among the much smaller group of women I’d masturbate over.” When Delaney fails to be duly shocked or repulsed, Cholmondeley just gives up on the conversation with a sarcastic, “Well, this is fun, isn’t it?” It’s an actual joke, instead of a jokelike product.

The baddies are improving, too. Until now, East India Company honcho Sir Stuart Strange’s dialogue has rarely made an impression beyond his lazily deployed F-bombs. Suddenly, he’s issuing Young Pope–esque pronouncements like, “We are richer than God. I blaspheme with impunity because the entire Company is at my heel!”

Even Thorne, Zilpha’s odious husband, is given a brief respite from being the most awful man imaginable. During the beautifully shot, cleverly written duel (“At the time of your choosing, there will be a polite exchange of bullets,” says the official overseeing the gunfight), his traitorous assistant fails to load his gun so that the Company will have cause to prosecute Delaney for murder. But James kills the second and spares Thorne himself, congratulating him on “an excellent shot.” For once, Thorne refrains from sneering. When he returns home, he doesn’t brutalize Zilpha — that comes later, oh boy, does it ever. Instead, for now, he has a genuinely biting exchange about Zilpha’s obvious preference for her brother over him, and how each has to learn about the other’s life through gossip. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but at least you can feel that Thorne is a person in pain.

The episode’s strongest scene comes from an entirely unexpected direction. Searching for a way to get ahead of the East India Company in their quest for Nootka Sound, the Prince Regent and his adviser Coop decide to go after Sir Stuart directly. How? By opening an investigation into the sinking of the Influence, the illegal EIC slave ship on which Delaney worked (or was held prisoner himself). Enter George Chichester, head of a lobbying group called the Sons of Africa, which has tried for years to convince Coop that the sinking was a deliberate cover-up.

Played by Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones’ pirate leader Sallador Saan), Chichester goes through a dizzying range of emotions in just a few minutes. He insists on giving Coop a full tally of the slain: “280 souls: 120 men, 84 women, and—” here Coop interrupts, and Chichester continues, “And, sir, 76 children.” He laughs when Coop asks if he had relatives aboard, as if all black people are cousins. He dismisses the bureaucrat’s characterization of the drownings as a crime “against your people”: “Against people,” Chichester replies, correcting him. Finally, he reacts in silent, astonished joy when he reads the Prince Regent’s letter ordering the investigation. Msamati does beautiful work here, and Jason Watkins is a far cry from his earlier mustache-twirling as Coop. There’s even a sneakily cold-blooded message about social progress only advancing when it’s in the best interests of entrenched power for it to do so.

But there’s still an entrenched power up to no good, and it’s the entrenched power of sucking, misogynistically. Their initial, cutting conversation aside, Zilpha and Thorne are stuck doing the exact same thing we’ve seen them do over and over: Zilpha staring wide-eyed and being too into James, followed by Thorne discovering her, beating her, and sexually assaulting her. The wrinkle, I guess, is that he only beats her, leaving the sexual assault to the exorcist whom he hires to drive James’s psychic visitations from her body.

But Zilpha is such a non-entity as a character that there’s just no additional point to make about this relationship, whether you just repeat the same interactions or add minor variations. Other than “my husband is awful” and “my brother is intimidating but attractive,” can you name a single thing Zilpha thinks? That’s a tremendous failure of writing, and not one that can be fixed by the supernatural rape-revenge narrative the final scene sets up.

It’s similar to a major flaw with James’s writing: He is always two steps ahead of his enemies, yet he never actually does anything to get himself there. He just reacts to their moves in a way designed to demonstrate that he’s outfoxed them. There’s no surprise, no uncertainty, nothing that makes heist or conspiracy thrillers interesting. Taboo has proven it can shake up its mundane visuals, find a sense of humor, and even develop genuine human emotion in that Chichester scene. For its final trick, let’s see if it can turn its main characters into actual characters.

Taboo Recap: A Stab in the Right Direction