Appropriately enough, the third episode of Taboo opens with a shot of muck. Already TV’s most dirt-encrusted show by a substantial margin, Steven Knight and Tom Hardy’s period-piece opus reached new levels of physical filthiness in tonight’s go-round. When lead character James Keziah Delaney (played by Hardy) turns to actor Michael Kelly’s American spy for lifesaving surgery, the doc’s teeth are so rotten they’re practically orange. When James staggers home to clean and dress the wound, you can barely see blood beneath the layers of grime. When he unearths a mysterious symbol from the fireplace in his late mother’s room, he winds up looking like he used his own body to sweep the chimney. Like the gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail about being able to recognize the king simply because “he hasn’t got shit all over him,” Taboo is out to paint the town brown.
Which is not to say it traffics solely in the disgusting. On the contrary, if you’re a fan of Hardy’s thighs — and who isn’t? — there’s much to enjoy here. Whether he’s recuperating from his assassination attempt, wading through his flooded cellar (where the water comes in so frequently, it literally ebbs and flows with the tide), or sitting cross-legged after a nightmarish vision of a crow-cloaked, white-faced sorceress, he seems to do his best work pantsless. Hardy cuts a different figure when he’s wearing nothing but an oversized shirt than he does when he’s striding around London in all-black everything, but it’s fair to say the overall effect is equally impressive.
For the first time in the series so far, the story follows suit — to an extent, anyway. James still hasn’t manifested any of the supreme ass-kicking powers that have his enemies so shook, unless you count ripping out the heart of his assailant offscreen sometime after the previous episode. But he manages to get the jump on two of his three primary adversaries (the English government and the East India Company) by drafting a will that leaves his all-important Canadian trading post at Nootka Sound to the U.S. in the event of his death. As Sir Stuart Strange puts it, not only can the Crown and the Company no longer kill him, it’s now in their best interest to keep him alive. This puts James in the position to sell his Nootka post to whichever side will grant him a monopoly on its trade route to China — provided, of course, that they help him screw over the EIC, which he hates with a passion.
Still, the safety net he weaves with all this double-dealing is a weak one. For one thing, the Americans have more incentive than ever to kill him off and grab the land for themselves, and his experience at the tender mercies of that spy-surgeon-interrogator indicate they have no qualms about playing dirty. For another, he has to worry about betrayal by Atticus (Stephen Graham, with a Cockney accent thicker than the mud that coats the scenery), the hitman he’s hired to serve as his eyes and ears in the streets and on the docks.
Meanwhile, his attempt to rekindle a relationship with his half-sister Zilpha adds its own variety of oddly monotone turmoil to James’s life. In a conversation that’s rather strikingly conducted through letters and voice-overs, the wanderer explains some of his scheme and tries to remind her of what they once shared; she responds by saying she’ll burn his letters unread, but she proves herself a liar with a new reply, just two lines of dialogue later. This leads her awful husband to show up at James’s office, crowing about how his newfound knowledge of his wife’s incestuous tendencies has led to the roughest, hottest sex of their lives. For her part, Zilpha summons James to a church, where she straddles and kisses him before swearing never to see him again. It doesn’t make a ton of behavioral sense, but it’s got that Game of Thrones feeling, and not just because Oona “Queen Talisa” Chaplin is involved. And just in case you weren’t sure if her hubby was a total bastard, he browbeats her over dinner about her failure to conceive in the most vulgar terms possible.
Then there’s Lorna Bow, a.k.a. the Widow Delaney, the scheming actress who married James’s late dad and now has a claim on half of his estate. It’s all well and good when she seems like just a willing pawn in the government’s scheme to get its hands on Nootka Sound; she’s got no interest in the place herself, and simply wants the house her husband owned. But if half of everything James owns is hers, and James himself is now untouchable thanks to his will, that puts her in grave danger. Kill his co-owner, and either England or the East India Company can throw the whole claim into question.
This leads to one of the episode’s strongest sequences, in which Bow gets caught up in a deviously clever scheme to knock her off the board. Many of the low-level actresses and actors in her company, it turns out, moonlight as sex workers. A misleading word in the ear of a randy duke gets her kidnapped and nearly forced into a nonconsensual ménage à trois, until she slices the aristocrat with a knife and James shows up with a pistol to help her escape. Now she’s a wanted woman, making her presence at the Delaney house even more dangerous than before. It’s not a sequence to light the world on fire, but it relies on complicated plotting and a glimpse into a unique and forgotten theatrical demimonde — both of which set it apart from the show’s usual prestige-by-numbers squalor and splendor.
The episode’s other standout stretch involves sex work of an even more forbidden variety. Striding into a gay brothel full of men in drag, James makes a beeline for Godfrey, the guy who takes the minutes at all of the East India Company’s meetings. Now we find out why James gave him such a prolonged once-over in the EIC office: They were best friends in school long ago. At least, that’s what they were from James’s perspective; Godfrey reveals he was in love, and that their clandestine sleepovers were “exquisite torture.” James blackmails his old friend into becoming his man inside the Company, and the whole scene is shot through with sadness: Godfrey has to live two separate lies on top of each other now, thanks to the man he once loved — who clearly still likes him, but is coldly using him nonetheless. The tears sliding down the pancake makeup on Godfrey’s face are the physical embodiment of Taboo’s most (or maybe only) genuinely moving moment so far. See what you can do when you scrape away the muck a bit?