‘Taboo’ Episode 2 Recap: Human Kindness Is a Very Small Thing

In which Mark Gatiss dons a fat suit and Tom Hardy shows viewers the proper way to use brass knuckles

TABOO -- "Episode 2" (Airs Tuesday, January 17, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Stephen Graham as Atticus, Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney.
A budding bromance. Stephen Graham as Atticus and Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney in Episode 2 of FX’s Taboo. FX

I’m becoming quite fond of James Keziah Delaney. He rides a white steed, he struts around London’s muddy docks with the swagger of a man who has bags of diamonds to spare and he dresses like a man of the Night’s Watch who has been given a 19th century wardrobe update that could be straight from the Gothic fashion collections of Yohji Yamamoto. In episode two of FX’s gloomy history-filled murder-mystery, Hardy blossoms as Delaney, bringing forth all the best aspects of his tortured character, from a playful compulsion for riddles to socially awkward tics and a gait so elephantine it’s comical. This week, Delaney’s adventures really get rolling, we meet several new and important characters and our hero escapes death for now—or does he?

Our story opens at the East India Company’s headquarters, with the villainous Sir Stuart Strange penning a note at his desk, accompanied by the minion from the company’s Africa division. Taking extra care to blow dry the ink on the page, he crumples it in his hands and tosses it on the floor. “You’ve no problem with the principle of obeying me,” he says, “Just the execution…of Delaney.” The paper, he explains, is his minion’s post-dated termination from the East India, rendered null and void only if he completes the tall task of overseeing Delaney’s assassination.

Our protagonist has only just buried one murdered family member, and already the prospects of another one dead are on the horizon. Delaney can feel the threat level rising, and so for much of episode two we find him hot on the trail of his killer(s), and taking strategic steps to collect on his inheritance in ways that will surely stick it to the East India.

History Lesson #1: British Markets Welcome to what’s known as a “candle auction.” I’ve been to many auctions in my day, from art to livestock, but a candle auction seems like a special, tedious kind hell. Each item, in this case ships, are auctioned only for the amount of time it takes for a tall candle to burn down one inch, leaving the bidder at the end of the allotted time as the winner. The swiney fellow from the East India’s archives department is there, and the first ship up for sale is a merchantman brig called the Felice Aventurero, which we are told was commandeered from a Spanish fleet. After a flurry of bidding, Delaney throws down 800 pounds to buy the ship, which he claims in the name of the newly minted Delaney Nootka Trading Company. “That fucking man will hang for treason!,” our swiney friend cries after the sale. The revelation that Delaney plans to use Nootka for trade sends the company man into a tizzy, and he drops the first F bomb of many in the episode (Really, where are the censors on this show?), as well as the first of many threats to be lodged against our leading man in the span of an hour.

As expected, Strange isn’t pleased by this plot development. He copes by incessantly rapping his cane, and berating his hapless minions with rhetorical questions, like why he wouldn’t Delaney even consider their offer? How did he know about the border negotiations—the location in Ghent was supposed to be a state secret. And where did he get the money to buy a ship? (The answer is that the bag Delaney unearthed on the hillside was filled with enough raw diamonds to buy a generous portion of the East India’s fleet. Africa was, indeed, good to him.) And why, oh why, Strange wonders “would he defy reason and the crown?” Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? It’s “the fucking Americans!” Strange explodes at the camera.

‘Boardwalk Empire’’s Stephen Graham is a jovial blood-splattered, foul-mouthed and tattooed inspiring anthologist, who is a colorful addition to a show which so far features a cast of characters entirely rendered in sad shades of gray.

800 pounds minus one horse leads us to Atticus. Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham is a jovial blood-splattered, foul-mouthed and tattooed inspiring anthologist, who is a colorful addition to a show which so far features a cast of characters entirely rendered in sad shades of gray. Along with Helga, Atticus welcomes us with open arms and two horns filled with ale into London’s filthy underbelly. He’s a man of many talents—discreet killing among them—and has a wealth of knowledge gleaned from sailing around the world with Delaney’s father. Here, he’s stolen Delaney’s horse with the hopes of grabbing our man’s attention.

“What’s the biggest thing you seen?” he asks a frustrated, horseless Delaney of his time in Africa. “An elephant,” he replies. And the smallest? “Human kindness,” says Delaney, with a brutal honesty that suggests there’s pain and a story behind his reply. Between probes, Atticus lets loose that about a year ago a man approached him to kill his father, of which he refused—and not as politely as I’m describing here. Delaney barters with him over the debts his dead father owes him from beyond the grave, and asks Atticus to be his eyes and ears. And like that, a bromance is born.

Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent.
Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent. Screenshot via FX

History Lesson #2: The Regency Era Our story enters an opulent room strewn with Persian and animal hide rugs, taxidermied peacocks and zebras, gold furniture, candelabras, painted masterpieces and a live rabbit. Behold, the Prince Regent George IV, and his infamously extravagant reign in England, which lasted unofficially from 1811 to his death in 1830, of whom his biographer Robert Huish described as responsible for more “demoralization of society than any prince recorded in the pages of history.” 

Actor Mark Gatiss disappears into the infamous Prince Regent’s grotesque form, donning a fat suit, false teeth and a bloated, swollen sheen. Our Prince Regent is greeted by a man named Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) to discuss the Americans’ current blockade of British trade routes in waters between England and Ireland. The Irish, he says, are supplying the Americans with food, and the Royal Navy has been deployed and is ready to engage. By Coop’s accounts, war is already in England’s backyard. The Prince Regent, however, flits between concern over the color used to denote American ships on a map (the fact that they’re marked in red nearly causes an international incident) and narcissistic dreams where he imagines himself as England being left to die without help from any of his confidants. (I especially love the specific visual we’re provided wherein the Prince Regent is a whale and the Americans are tiny shrimps firing bows and arrows.) 

The scene is engaging for Gatiss’ rousing speech in which he calls for the American ships to be sunk and “the bodies of the drowned to be nailed to the church walls of Ireland to stop their rebels making common cause.” But Gatiss skillfully paints dueling sides of the infamous monarch for us: self-aware of his own widely mocked reputation and eager to compensate with rash acts of war. How Delaney and the Prince Regent’s paths will cross I’m excited to find out, especially because the scene ends with the Coop promising to “fuck the East India,” a mission Delaney has already thrown himself behind head first. 

Mark Gatiss skillfully paints dueling sides of the infamous Prince Regent for us: self-aware of his own widely mocked reputation and eager to compensate with rash acts of war.

When we catch back up with Delaney, he’s back to walking the docks, but this time he’s being followed. It’s a young girl named Winter who lives in Helga’s brothel, and she’s here to warn Delaney of yet another man that wants him dead: a man with a silver tooth. Later, while Delaney questions Helga about Mr. Silvertooth, the show nicely mirrors its earlier scene with Atticus. “You have goodness in you” Delaney tells her. “I can see it in your eyes, and you have the same eyes as her—Winter.” Perhaps, even in the Taboo’s most detestable characters—Delaney included—we’ll find human qualities. The more the show plays with duality, in its themes and cast, the more I have hope it can rise above being just another stylized period drama. And because Delaney never seems to run out of charming anecdotes, like “Whorehouses are filled with secrets, and secrets to me are weapons.” 

Delaney and Helga talk business.
Delaney and Helga talk business. Screenshot via FX

History Lesson #3: American Spies Following the path of a strong stench, Delaney finds himself in the Bone Infraction department of St. Bartholomew’s looking for a Dr. Dumbarton (Michael Kelly). “I have a wound,” Delaney tells him. “A bullet wound?” he asks. “No, a splinter, from the mast of a ship called the Yankee Prize, which was struck by a Yankee ball.” Delaney’s coded quip is enough to get the conversation started with Dumbarton, who he suspects is an American spy with connections to a man named Carlsbad, the alleged head of the secret society of correspondents in London. Delaney is looking to get in contact with the President of the then-15 States of America before he arrives in Ghent. Nootka, he believes, is something he’ll be interested in.

Kelly is a fabulous actor, but it’s still bizarre hearing him speak in what sounds like contemporary prose with no accent in the same scene as Hardy’s totally unidentifiable and affected speech. I foresee fun, action-packed sequences depicting historical espionage with Dumbarton, especially when he declares “We are an angry nation” while booting Delaney from his office at gunpoint. But, I still need an accent here, or something, even if it’s not historically accurate. 

Michael Kelly as Dumbarton.
Michael Kelly as Dumbarton. Screenshot via FX

History Lesson #4: Slave Trade Like Delaney himself, the Nootka Trading Co.’s first ship has a dark past. Giving the vessel an inspection, Delaney discovers in its hulls glass beads and iron shackles. The find triggers unpleasant memories of the sunken slave ship he survived, and he does his best to rid the ship of its evils by stripping naked, as one does, carving animal imagery into the floorboards and chanting in a foreign language. This scene wins all the awards for surprising me by hiding the subtlest, most creepy hidden ghost behind Tom Hardy’s naked body. I challenge you to spot it despite the many distractions.  

As it turns out, and it’s not a far stretch, the ship Delaney bought was owned by the East India Company before it landed with the Spanish. Thoyt scoffs at Delaney’s revelation that the ship carries slaves, but our man is always has the real facts. The East India didn’t deal in slaves, at least not officially, but they did trade beads and cloth to Tangiers, and from there slaves to Trinidad. Disappointed in father’s lawyer, Delaney takes the chance to tell Thoyt what he really thinks of him and his side dealings with the East India: “You’re their whore, just like everyone else in this city—apart from those actually labeled a whore.” 

“You’re their whore, just like everyone else in this city—apart from those actually labeled a whore.” — James Keziah Delaney

The reading of Horace Delaney’s will commences, and Zilpha, for all the depths of her love, is completely shut out. As we learned already last week, Delaney gets everything, simply putting the nail in the coffin on Thorne’s hatred of Zilpha’s half-brother. And an ugly pattern is developing here in Thorne’s affinity for the N word, and it’s becoming less believable each week that the writers are really using this language as a historical device. But the threats he yells before a crowd of men who are still owed debts by Delaney’s dead father, “Be sure of this Delaney, that legacy is your death sentence,” turn out to anything but idle. Watching from the back, Atticus identifies Thorne as the man who wanted Old Man Delaney dead a year ago. “Want him to fall into the river James?” This is why you keep a man like Atticus as your friend. 

Just when all seems squared away, in walks Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley), an actress who claims to be Horace Delaney’s widow. I mention this not only because her existence threatens all of Delaney’s plans for Nootka, but because Hardy’s visible eye twitch when she waved her marriage certificate in his face was so glorious it made me laugh out loud. I’m sorry Delaney, that you thought this would be so easy. 

Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow.
Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow. FX

But not everyone is unhappy at Lorna’s arrival. The men of the East India Company couldn’t be more thrilled. Except poor Godfrey, the East India meetings scribe, to who Strange’s abuses know no end. Godfrey really has it hard. What is the significance of Lorna’s marriage to the late Delaney, Strange asks him. Godfrey searches the meeting agenda for an answer, before Strange snatches it away. “It’s not written down, you have to work it out!” How is it that groups of powerful men who neglected to read their meeting agendas come to rule the world? This scene makes us wonder. Lorna, Thoyt explains, could file a suit for a joint claim to Nootka. But Strange, as he said plain and clear in the episode’s first scene, has other plans, and Lorna will have sole claim if Delaney dies, “an event which may be imminent” he says a smirk as he slams the scribe’s book shut. Pretty much all of the East India’s meetings are off the record we’re learning.

At the hour’s end, Delaney comes face-to-face with the imminent death sentence he’s been chasing all over town. He wins a brawl in the street with an attacker, ripping his throat out with his teeth. Suddenly those rumors about James eating flesh are seeming more like unfortunate fact. But in the scuffle, Delaney takes a knife to the gut. And while his chances don’t look good from the outside, for a man who’s already admitted to being dead, it seems unlikely that he’ll suffer the same fate twice—at least not so soon.

I still have some questions…

— Like me, Delaney is highly suspicious of Brace. He won’t eat anything he feeds him, and his questions are often read-between-the-lines specials. But even if Brace turns out to be a two-faced murder, this is a hell of a line: “I have seen nay treaty, nor have I seen fairies or water sprites. But I do have Malay coins, enough to bury you, prayer beads, enough to get you to Heaven, and hashish, enough to ease my suffering when the East India Company slit your throat, which of course they will.”

— Lorna is running a close to Brace in the race for Horace Delaney’s potential murderers. What other reason would she for needing to steady herself before meeting with Thoyt and Delaney with the odd mantra, “Calm, pretty, certain, fragrant.” And then there’s her comment, “I spend very little time in German brothels.” Has she been watching his dealings with Helga?

— Listen closely during the opening credits and you’ll notice that the chilling music box tune has been replaced by violin strings.

— Zilpha, it’s an awful thing not to thank you brother, no matter how much you hate him, for sending you a giant diamond in the mail.

‘Taboo’ Episode 2 Recap: Human Kindness Is a Very Small Thing