Word in London travels fast. “You cut up an assassin and ate his giblets,” mumbles everyone’s favorite local gangster and walking encyclopedia Atticus through a stained toothy grin, followed by a hot tip from his heathen handyman that the forearm is the tastiest, most tender part of man to chow down on. It’s episode three, and everyone seems to be enjoying having a go at our man Delaney for his stunning method of self-defense against a knife wielding attacker last week: ripping his throat out with his teeth. And while Delaney’s Tyson-like bite got the got job done—it rendered his attacker dead and provided our friend with a chance to escape with a mere flesh wound—on the football field that move would almost certainly be considered “unnecessary roughness.” And that phrase, it seems, perfectly encapsulates what is quickly becoming the status quo on this show.
We open on a very dead Mr. Silvertooth, discarded along Delaney’s favorite spot for evening strolls: the docks. Winter and a ragtag group of children who would almost certainly be Baker Street Irregulars if we were recapping a different show, discover the gutted man’s corpse being gobbled up by crabs, and Winter calls dibs the only thing of value Mr. Silvertooth has left to offer, that silver tooth.
The last time we saw Delaney, I was starting to worry that the next six episodes would be Tom Hardy-less—a fate I was not prepared to accept. So now I offer my thanks the Gods, and to Doctor Dumbarton despite the fact that the only reason he agreed to patch-up our man is so that he might exploit him. “You take pain like a stone,” Dumbarton tells Delaney, while he sews him up just enough to keep him from bleeding out. “When you came in here with bits of man’s flesh between your teeth, we kind of had a silent deal.” And here comes the vig. Dumbarton wants intel on Delaney’s claim to Nootka and, like everyone else, for him to sell it. But if we’ve learned anything about Delaney in the short time we’ve been acquainted, it’s that money is no object, Nootka has no price and vengeance is the ultimate prize. Through gritted teeth Delaney says he won’t sell Nootka, to the Americans or anyone else for that matter, unless he’s given a trade monopoly on furs for tea that spans from Fort George (Vancouver region) to Canton (China). This proposition assures me that Hardy is in this for the long haul. Or at least until he gets stabbed again, which is highly likely to happen.
Only a week has gone by since we were first introduced, and Mark Gatiss’ Prince Regent is looking worse for wear, but he happens to still be healthy just enough to host mid-day socials and discuss politics in passing with his shady secretary. We don’t get nearly enough Gatiss this week, but there’s still time for him to get filled in on Delaney, the “adventurer” as Coop calls him, and the opportunities Nootka may hold for the Crown. That’s about it from this front. More Gatiss next week please.
Back at Chez Delaney, our man makes his usual entrance into Brace’s kitchen. Like a sitcom, the routine of the stumbling, grumbling and likely injured Delaney into Brace’s station is a running gag that provides just enough levity to Taboo’s Gothic storyline that it’s almost more satisfying than it should be. In these two characters we find classic cliches: the aristocrat blinded by passion and the put-upon help. When Delaney demands the windows be boarded up and the river hatch be secured, Brace is less alarmed than he is annoyed at extended conversation he’s got coming with the carpenter. “So, we are besieged,” he says, while bandaging Delaney’s bloody side. I still have a feeling Brace will surprise us down the line, especially when Delaney says things to him like: “You don’t speak, but you do have answers…and you will give me answers.”
“There’s a Mr. James Delaney for you sir. He’s with some men with guns, and apparently a cannibal, sir.” Imagine you’re Thoyt, on your lunch break and dozing under a newspaper at your desk and that’s how your intern alerts you that you’ve got a walk-in. While the scene is short, it proves that even when Delaney is down a pint of blood he’s still one step ahead of his enemies (and he has a fast reputation brewing as a man who eats other men). He’s come to Thoyt to draw up a will, which would leave Nootka to the Americans in the event of his death. The move throws the East India for a loop, ensures Delaney stays alive for the time being and hands the Americans the advantage over the Crown.
“When peace comes and this border is drawn it will not be by soldiers, but by more fucking lawyers….” — Sir Stuart Strange.
History Lesson #1: The Honourable East India Company There’s a brief moment when Thoyt’s underling goes to hand deliver Delaney’s will to the men of the East India and the camera zooms in on the plaque outside its headquarters, I believe simply to spotlight the fact that the word “Honourable” is officially part of the company’s name. This is swiftly juxtaposed by Strange, sitting at his desk drawing what he presumes to be the eventual border between the United States and Canada on a map, before he’s interrupted by his hapless minions. “Fuck off,” he tells them, not once but twice, before they emerge against his wishes to tell him news he already knows: that their hired assassin (Mr. Silvertooth) is dead and Delaney lives. It’s this contrast, between the company’s upstanding image and its Batman super villain of a CEO, that is perhaps the show’s core social message, apart from the promotion of incest as perfectly natural. “When peace comes and this border is drawn it will not be by soldiers, but by more fucking lawyers—hundreds of them on both sides,” says Strange. All politics is business, after all, and perhaps there’s a thing or two the war of 1812 can teach the people in 2017. For now, it’s in the East India’s “urgent interest” to keep Delaney alive—just as all corporations have an obligation to look out for what’s in the best interest of human beings. Amirite?
History Lesson #2: Common Cause Let’s stick with this train of thought for a moment. Coop and Strange convene to discuss how Delaney’s will might affect the Crown’s desired acquisition of Nootka. But while Strange is sweating it out, and proposes that the EIC and the monarchy must find a common cause to defeat their enemy (Delaney), Coop’s calmed by a healthy couple hits of snuff to the nose as well as a letter from Delaney which pledges that he’ll hand over Nootka to the Brits in exchange for a monopoly on fur trading with China. “Curious that the word tea does not appear in the letter,” Coop says. Curious indeed. Is Delaney pitting the two nations against each other, not only for land but also trade monopolies? It’s here that Coop throws out a personal jab, asking Strange why Delaney seems to have such disdain for the East India. “What the hell did you do to him, Stuart?” he says. With that, Strange warns Coop that Delaney will just as soon sell Nootka to the Brits as he will the Americans. And here, it seems, Coop and Strange have found their common cause.
Back at the house, Delaney is wearing no pants. He’s vowed to “beat the tide” and goes for a dip, literally, in the basement with the hopes of finding more clues his father may have left behind. A box in the cellar contains a black gown covered in feathers, much like the dress worn by the paint-covered woman we’ve seen in Delaney’s flashbacks. Could the woman actually be Delaney’s mother, and are we seeing flashes of childhood memories rather than haunting visions from his time in Africa? Suddenly, we’re joined by another ghost, and it’s…Winter.
Now hear me out, because I’ve got a theory: Winter isn’t real. That’s right. She’s also a ghost, a figment of Delaney’s fractured mind whose purpose is to help him come to terms with the ghosts of his past and his present, while he works out the mysteries of his sordid family drama. This theory could all be hocus pocus, but I simply have no other explanation for this girl (who Helga has still not admitted even exists!) to pop in unannounced, surprising both Delaney and us viewers, and randomly announce that she sometimes sleeps in his basement. Yeah, that surprises him too, and with good reason. Then she says she saw him kill the Malay, rip out his heart, and throw him into water where he floated “straight down the river into Winter’s arms.” Oh, and she came by to give him the Malay’s silver tooth, and to ask if Delaney will teach her magic. She also knows what that bird scar on Delaney’s back is. If this isn’t the opening to a horror movie with a Sixth Sense-style twist at the end then Taboo is messing with me. It’s no matter, Winter now officially creeps me out.
History Lesson #3: London’s Underground Delaney runs into an old friend at a club, and it’s none other than Godfrey, who he knows from his school days and who we’ve become familiar with as the East India’s meetings scribe. However, the after hours venue where he finds Godfrey isn’t your typical pub, it’s populated by cross-dressing men. In one of the more historically-rich scenes so far this season, Taboo provides a window into what appears to be one of the city’s more private subcultures: molly-clubs. In a 2002 interview with Cabinet magazine, historian Randolph Trumbach discusses gay culture in the even earlier era of 18th century London in depth, describing the well-known establishment Mother Clap’s Molly-House by saying: “Molly-houses like Clap’s also had backrooms where men went to have sex and this backroom was called the chapel. There are descriptions from 18th-century sources of elaborate transvestitism, mock male marriages, and even mock births, in which a molly would deliver a wooden doll that was then baptized. In the molly-house there would typically be a good deal of what we now call ‘camping.’”
The reason for Delaney’s visit, we learn, is to blackmail Godfrey into providing information from the East India’s off-the-record conversations. In exchange, he promises to protect Godfrey’s secret life. It’s painfully obvious that not only is the East India crushing Godfrey’s soul each day at work, but his unrequited schoolboy crush is also using him.
The scene then fades into what can only be likened to a 19th century version of sexting between Delaney and Zilpha. Voiceovers provide the siblings heated exchanges through letters, in which Delaney divulges that he’s gathering a group of “loyal servants” with no value to him “beyond the facilitation of this greater good” and that he’d like to whisk Zilpha away on his ship. Zilpha, in turn, says that Delaney’s departure from England was like “the click of the hypnotist’s fingers,” which allowed her to realize her sins, and she wants no plans in his future. Firing back, he tells her to leave her husband, who she says “is harsh, and as a christian I welcome it—I deserve it.” “We used to talk to each other without words in dark corners,” Delaney writes to her. This goes on, and gets more and more suggestively steamy, until Zilpha threatens to burn his letters without opening them and he threatens to visit her in her dreams.
Their sexual tension comes to a rather abrupt head later in the episode when the siblings have a tense but brief meeting in a church, at Zilpha’s request. There’s an exchange about whether or not the two are perhaps the same person, and then she’s on top of him, kissing him. She jumps off, straightens her skirts, and tells him she never wants to see him again—that escalated fast. We’ve now confirmed that incest is on the table this season.
Alas, the love spell is broken when Delaney encounters his sister’s murder-plotting husband, Thorne, outside his father’s office. The smarmy insurance salesman worms his way in with the hardly believable excuse of trying to cut Delaney a deal on ship insurance. Because our James is a man of class, he offers Thorne some coffee, and breaks the news that he’s already insured, but thanks. As we suspected, Thorne’s not really here for insurance, nor is he here to politely sip coffee. Rather, he’s here to thank Delaney, because he’s incredibly turned on by his wife’s oh-so-very-taboo past. And then Thorne proves that he too can write naughty prose: “Since you came back, our fucking has become almost murderous,” he tells Delaney. “To think, I have this wicked thing beneath me, and it’s my lifelong duty to punish her.” I didn’t know Taboo was going to veer into the bodice ripper genre, but here we are.
And just when I thought we’d gotten our weekly dose of Thorne’s poetry, how wrong I was. Each week, I’m stumped between feeling that this character’s dialogue is the most offensive stuff I’ve heard recently, or maybe just the most creative. Confronting Zilpha with the fact that he’s noticed, and is pissed, that she’s got her period again this month—gold star for you Thorne, you don’t even need a period tracker!—he pummels her with an expletive-laden plea for children that includes an apology for not being a blood relative, another mention of her menstrual cycle and a promise to buy her fine china if she can make it stop. Wow, just wow. I happen to agree with your lover/brother Zilpha, ditch this guy yesterday.
While viewers recover from Thorne’s male rights screed, Delaney arrives home to find Lorna Bow squatting in his living room. According to her confirmed and legal marriage with his deceased father, she owns half the Delaney estate, which includes the house. “My servant wants to shoot you in the face,” Delaney tells Lorna, maybe with a little too much honesty. But when the actress tells him that she has in her possession things that once belonged his dead parents, Delaney albeit has a seizure and yells for Brace to ready a room for her to stay.
Episode 3 ends with Lorna Bow completing the circle of violence that began last week. Delaney’s enemies leave no stone unturned, and tag Lorna as a target. After a tough night on stage, Lorna is lured into a carriage by an affectionate fan who wants her to participate in a three-way with her husband, the Duke of Richmond. Just in the nick of time, Delaney appears (in the rain of course) and shoots the Duke, only grazing him but with enough force to send the message that Lorna is not for sale. The damage, however is done. To Delaney Lorna is just a “weakness” bound to get in the way while he plots his path of revenge. And as we began, so we end: ready for a fight.
I still have some questions…
— Before letting Delaney up off the table, Dumbarton lets slip that Carlsbad is actually a “she,” and leaves Delaney “looking for a lady.”
— Atticus prods Delaney, “If we ain’t partners, what are we then?” That’s a good question. Delaney trusts Atticus enough to order his food (Brace doesn’t even get that honor), but what is Atticus’ role beyond being the show’s main muscle?
— Winter says she knows what the bird on Delaney’s back is: a sand piper. But Delaney himself doesn’t know what the significance of the mark is.
— It’s probably not advisable to wade in dirty basement water with an open wound, just a thought.