If you’re not a woman or villain, all’s well that ends well for James Keziah Delaney and his “company of the damned.” In Taboo’s season finale, he escapes the clutches of the Crown, destroys his enemies in the East India Company, shoots his way through a company of redcoats, and sets sail for adventure in the Azores. It’s more complicated than that, of course, since this show can’t take a single step forward without a double cross. Moreover, a few of Delaney’s confederates — like Mr. Chomondeley (burned by his own explosives), Lorna Bow (shot in the shoulder), and Brace (abandoned with only a dog for company) — are worse for the wear. A few others, like Helga (shot to death in a dash for freedom) and Zilpha (tossed off a bridge by writers who couldn’t figure out anything more interesting to do with Oona Chaplin) won’t be making the journey at all.
There’s also the matter of Delaney’s sudden decision to change course and meet a man named Colonnade, who’s been mentioned a grand total of three times in the entire series, instead of heading to Nootka Sound. And there’s the morally weightless slaughter of dozens of cannon-fodder troops in the place of a climax that either involves memorable enemies or takes violence seriously. Oh, well! James Delaney escapes London, hoists the Stars and Stripes on his commandeered ship, and lives to brood another day. “We are Americans,” he proclaims. Which makes it our patriotic duty to figure out why the finale, and Taboo as a whole, fell so flat.
To start, let’s examine the strange case of Dr. Dumbarton. A preternaturally soft-spoken American spy played by House of Cards’ Michael Kelly, the good doctor is revealed in this episode to be a double agent, pressed into clandestine service by the East India Company. Based on what Lorna says to his boss the Countess (a.k.a. “Carlsbad,”), James was aware of this long before Dumbarton tried snookering him into signing over Nootka Sound to the Company. Even so, Delaney unloads on the Doc with almost unprecedented ferocity — slamming a pen through his head Dark Knight style, dunking him in a vat of blue dye, and hanging him from the ceiling with his white contract and blood-red clothes creating a perversely patriotic tableau.
Yet this whole bloody affair comes out of nowhere. Had Dumbarton’s loyalties ever before been in question? Did he commit any sort of betrayal before the attempted Nootka Sound swindle, at which point his murder by James was already a foregone conclusion? Did he leak any information that screwed up the plans of either the Americans or Team Delaney at any point? As best I can tell from beneath the byzantine plotting and barely comprehensible accents, the answer to all of these questions is “no.” Why bother introducing this plot twist, then? If it’s to show that James is always one step ahead of his enemies … well, we have every other scene in the series to remind us of that.
Which is a big reason why, despite all the firepower, this finale feels as inert as wet gunpowder. It expects us to worry about what the Company will do with its captive sex workers, Helga and, uh, whatsername, as if James won’t have a gang of highwaymen ready to rescue them on precisely the right road. It expects us to get upset with James for betraying anti-slavery crusader Chichester in his quest for justice against the Company’s clandestine slave trade, as if it weren’t part of an obvious fake-out to get the EIC to lower its guard. It expects us to believe Sir Stuart Strange is gonna get away with it all — trading slaves, betraying the Crown, orchestrating countless murders including those of his underlings Wilson and Pettifer, you name it — as if we couldn’t see that final revenge-bomb exploding from a mile away.
But there’s an even deeper problem, one rooted in character rather than cat-and-mouse games. I mean the character of James Delaney himself: infallible, unflappable, unbreakable, all but omniscient. Muddy him up and dress him down all you like, but he’s clad in impregnable plot armor from start to finish, which the story doesn’t even bother to complicate by making it feel like he’s in danger. The only rooting interest you can have in such a man is attachment to the actor playing him. As likable as Tom Hardy is, he can’t get Taboo over that hump.
This problem seeps into the character of the show itself. Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.
Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.
Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” he gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.
James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.