Tonight, Taboo brought the pain.
The climax of the seventh episode is an extended torture sequence in which Coop, the Prince Regent’s right-hand man, puts the screws (and the waterboard, and something that looks like a cheese grater) to James Keziah Delaney. The goal is to extract information about his grand gunpowder scheme: the names of the co-conspirators, the location of the contraband, and most importantly, the identities of the American spies who planned to buy it from him. Perhaps because he has a sack over his head and can’t see the Hostel leftovers the props department gathered for the festivities, James refuses to divulge anything at all. He instead insists that he’ll give the Crown all the info it requires, as long as he’s first given a private meeting with the East India Company’s Sir Stuart Strange right there in the Tower of London.
What follows manages to be both gratuitously gruesome and weirdly weightless. The camera lingers on the torturers, their implements, and their handiwork with sordid glee. Techniques are trotted out one by one: scraping the flesh from Delaney’s leg, waterboarding him Gitmo-style (complete with a supervising doctor to make sure he doesn’t die), and finally securing him in an iron gimp mask, submerging him in water except for a small pipe into his mouth, and forcing him to ingest some kind of hallucinogenic truth serum. It’s not a terribly gory sequence, mind you. It’s just relentlessly unpleasant, an attempt to derive entertainment value from human suffering.
Honestly, I’d be okay with that if it actually succeeded in saying something about suffering. But of course it doesn’t: This is James Keziah Delaney we’re talking about, and he’s far too badass to succumb to torture. (Because that’s how that works, apparently!) A full 12 hours pass before the Prince Regent gets fed up with Coop’s failure and orders the man to procure Sir Stuart for James’s requested meeting. “My God, look at you,” Strange stammers when he sees his foe … for no apparent reason, since Delaney looks no more scarred and filth-encrusted than ever. For a guy who just spent half a day getting worked over, he’s sure taken it well, sitting at a desk as if this were an appointment in his office. Perhaps he’ll include “this whole torture thing was a waste of screen time” in the minutes of the meeting.
But at least torturing James was new. Most of the time, Taboo feels like an experiment conducted by some television-studies department to determine how often characters can go someplace, ask for someone, be told they’re not there, go someplace else, find the person, and get blown off. Imagine if every scene in the Sterling Cooper offices on Mad Men were preceded by a shot of the involved characters walking down the hall to the room where the scene takes place, then you’ll get the basic idea. In this episode alone, Lorna, Chichester, Godfrey, and Coop hustle and bustle from place to place with no real dramatic or aesthetic payoff to show for it. By simply keeping James in one place instead of allowing him to wander around intimidatingly and pointlessly, the Tower of London did us all a service.
That said, the storyline takes a few dramatic steps forward this week, though Taboo seems intent on making those steps feel more inconsequential than they actually are. For starters, James’s servant Brace, who all of a sudden is acting crazy with grief, admits he poisoned dear old Daddy Delaney to death. A mercy killing, he says, but no less guilt-inducing. James just shrugs it off and asks Brace to help Lorna cook the night’s dinner. His inside man at the EIC, Godfrey, gets outed as both a spy and a homosexual when he promises to testify about the sinking of the Company’s slave ship at James and Chichester’s behest. James assures him, however, that he’ll never have to testify at all. His bastard son Robert comes to live with him, and James puts him to work as Brace’s replacement. His sister Zilpha asks to resume their relationship and he unceremoniously dumps her, which he might have considered doing before he ensorcelled her into murdering her husband for him.
Finally there’s Helga, the madam who’s been aiding James in his gunpowder plot. She blames him for the murder of her daughter Winter, whose killing served as last week’s cliff-hanger. The problem is that no one else does — not even James himself — which makes her rage feel quite obviously misdirected. After shooting at him twice, missing, and then allowing him to just sort of saunter away, Helga goes to the East India Company to rat him out and is taken into custody for her trouble. So let’s just spell this out: Helga gets James arrested (for a crime he didn’t commit) and tortured (to no effect) in order to take revenge (which she can’t really get from protective custody) against the killer of her daughter (whom the show murdered just to get us to this particular plot point). Every single component of this storyline is completely in vain.
Dramatic duds like that make it hard to trust that Taboo will do right by the horrendous crime that set everything in motion: the deliberate sinking of the slave ship Influence with hundreds of people locked in the hold, its nails driven in by James himself. According to Chichester, James was at different times a slave, a slaver, and a thief of other slavers’ diamonds. However guilty he feels about what he did — and the depth of that feeling is an open question, since Tom Hardy’s facial expression never changes — he’s subsumed all of it into the increasingly elaborate, borderline incomprehensible scheme to secure Nootka Sound. Chichester, maybe the only decent character on the whole show, is merely a pawn in Delaney’s game — just as Delaney’s mother and those hundreds of men, women, and children who died at sea are merely part of his origin story. James may be able to withstand torture, but his story can’t withstand leaving these crimes unanswered.