At times, Taboo feels like a series of dark and hazy vignettes; what I imagine the great English artist J.M.W. Turner might have produced if he had visited a brothel, a pub’s back room or the docks for inspiration instead of turning his eye toward the sea. But as romantic, and at times disturbing, as the careful framing of light in each episode’s scene have been thus far, the plot connecting them hasn’t been able to measure up to the emotions conjured by Hardy’s accent alone. Yes, we know Delaney is out for revenge. And yes, he has a dark and tangled past that involves his sister, Africa and the evils of the British East India Company. If it’s not crystal clear by now, the East India is powerful and cares little for human life—so little they’re now racing to burn the mismanaged paper trail on the laundry list of humanitarian horrors they’re responsible for. But as entertaining as it is to watch Taboo pull back the curtain on the lesser known histories of various Regency era subcultures, I’ve been aching for some real action to make me care about this cast of misfits and I demand justice for whatever ails Delaney. While last week’s episode left me filled with hope—specifically hope that Thorne would die—Episode 5 let me down. Literally. (Thorne’s second in his duel with Delaney purposefully forgot to load his gun, and so neither man was shot or killed dead.) This is a major bummer. But now we’re all rooting for Zilpha to take him out herself, because that would be sweet revenge indeed.
But in the meantime, we are given some minor subplots involving illicit gunpowder, corporate coverups and an exorcism. And some new knowledge of the respectable art of dueling. All delicious topics for discussion.
Return to Last Week’s History Lesson: 19th Century Dueling Tensions were running pretty high at the end of last week’s episode: Delaney’s secret sex life with his sister Zilpha had just been outed in front of a house full of inebriated party guests, and Thorne had decided the only way to solve the matter was with violence. In the thick mist (Thoyt used the word pestilential to describe it, which is just awesome) of the morning, our parties are rowed onto an island owned by a gypsy, who is able to benefit from owning land outside the jurisdiction of the church by charging aggrieved men for good luck tokens for their duels. Each man presents his gun for inspection, and names a second, although Delaney is man enough not to need one. However Lorna, who happens to be bored and curious about what a man looks like when he’s shot dead wades onto the island for a close look, is appointed Delaney’s stand-in second, inspiring one of the best and cutting quips this week from Thoyt: “Can’t you find a boat like a normal person?” he says to her, like the Mean Girl he really is at heart.
Before the festivities commence, there are a long list of rules and regulations. Thoyt (as the lawyer present) stands between the two men, making sure to ask for his payment in advance. A sword is placed equal distance in opposite directions from Thoyt to mark the spots where Delaney and Thorne will begin their paces, and anyone firing “untoward” will be fair game to be shot, and there will be no second shots. The MC of the affair clarifies that the duel is over at “first blood,” much to Thorne’s dismay. According to the Irish code of 1777, Thorne can’t just change the rules to his liking; any man wounded will be tended to by the doctor and there will be no second shots fired. At the drop of a handkerchief, the two men walk toward each other and, at the encouragement of the MC, “there will be a polite exchange of bullets.”
Of course, none of this happens, and all the rules go out the window, but it’s not nearly exciting as we were all hoping for. Thorne shoots, and something hits Delaney, but it’s not a bullet and not even enough to wound him. Like a confused and annoyed animal, Delaney walks briskly up to the now praying Thorne, puts the gun to his face then shoots his second in the head. “It would appear my life is more precious than yours,” he tells Thorne, while revealing that his second didn’t even load his gun at all, and was most likely a convenient stand-in with East India ties.
Aside from settling domestic scores in dramatic fashion, this week also brings the rivalry between the Crown and the East India to a head, all because James went and stole some minor ingredient for homemade gunpowder. As Delaney reveals to Lorna, over hardboiled eggs and an English sunrise at the docks, the saltpeter he had Atticus lift from the EIC’s warehouse had already been sold to the Royal Navy, making its disappearance a case of potentially criminal negligence. While the Red Coats running around may be drumming up fear that those involved will be hanged, it’s the East India who should be worried.
The East India knows this, and the news has sent Strange into a God-cursing tizzy. The company, he says, is “richer than god,” so not to worry. “I blaspheme with impunity because the company is at my heel.” He intends to use all the corporate resources available to stop the rumors about prosecutable neglect from spreading, and to put Delaney in his place. “We’ve screwed maharajas and we’ve screwed moguls, and this man is merely a london mongrel.” Strange has the best lines. But so does Delaney. Really, this is a show of great one liners, an A+ Tom Hardy accent and implied incest.
It’s Mark Gatiss time! Mark Gatiss has returned to the screen! Back in Prince Regent land, Mark Gatiss is eating…an ostrich egg? This dude is crazy. But he’s also game to stick it to the East India, and Coop has a clever plan. He thinks it would be more effective to go after Strange himself, and he’s conveniently found some damning documents in a bottom drawer somewhere that could do the trick. The papers come via a man named George Chickester, writing on behalf of a group called the sons of Africa who want the Prince Regent to open an investigation into the sinking of a slave ship called the Influence. In an uncomfortable, but poignantly current scene, Chickester reminds Coop that sharing the same race isn’t needed for practicing human decency, and his goal is to uncover and expose that the ship’s sinking was deliberate and covered up. The Prince Regent, so it would seem, is also interested in the truth.
“You have to improve your fucking game,” Strange screams at his minion. If he were a basketball coach, this directive might be an effective motivator, but to his underling from the company’s archives department, it’s just terrifying. The Africa desk, he says, will take charge of this mess and offer the company’s “full and willing cooperation,” to the Crown in the pending investigation—and then he’ll tell him which papers to burn. Why are there even papers that need to be burned?! The Empire didn’t take over the galaxy by leaving a paper trail—oh wait, they did. And one of those papers included the plans to the Death Star and we all know how that turned out.
History Lesson #1: The many ways cholera is not spread Sometimes funny little bits of history surface on this show 1) to show us that people had ridiculous ideas in the olden days and 2) as a sort of metaphor for the episode’s larger thesis, which this week happens to be the untraceable and rapid dissemination of information: the whereabouts of Delaney’s DIY gunpowder factory and the EIC’s negligence of goods in its care. And then there’s cholera. “I’ve always questioned the miasmatic theory of cholera,” Dumbarton tells Delaney, who has gone to search out Michael Kelly at the hospital despite warnings that a cholera outbreak is loose somewhere in the halls. While Delaney claims he’s immune (which can happen if you’ve survived a previous infection), the outbreak is just a cover up so that the police don’t come sniffing around Dumbarton’s spy den. To cut to the chase, he says the Americans want Delaney’s homemade gunpowder, now that the Irish are unable to supply it because of the British blockade.
A follow-up conversation with the Countess Musgrove (a.k.a. Carlsbad) about the American’s desire for gunpowder doesn’t bring any new revelations, but it does bring us the winning quote of the week. When Delaney comes knocking, the Countesses’ old, soup-slurping husband, who also has no idea what cholera is, says with a straight face: “If it’s someone you fucked, please check if they came from the east of the west. In the east there is cholera. You can catch it from fucking.” The Countesses, bowled over by his blunt, and perhaps progressively open attitude toward discussing extramarital affairs, just manages to muster, “It isn’t, and there isn’t and you can’t.” At least someone has a clue how to disease is spread.
Which leads us to the “french experiment.”
History Lesson #2: The “French Experiment” According to our favorite nitrous oxide huffing chemist, Cholmondeley, the French Experiment was “entirely French in conception and execution and therefore a total disaster.” In a rush to hurry the production of gunpowder on the island of Mauritius the “foolish fucking French,” as he calls them, decided to add chlorate to their mixture. If you’re counting on making gunpowder in record time, than their experiment was a “wild success.” But, adding chlorate also means stirring round the clock with increased, almost assured, chances of explosion. As for the French? Well, they “blew Mauritis almost in half,” Cholmondeley tells Delaney with a stern warning in his voice. But Delaney isn’t scared by the bedtime story, and tells Cholmondeley they have no choice but to rush their own production to meet the new demands of the Americans. “You would risk the life of your son for chlorate?” Cholmondeley utters aloud for the first time to Delaney’s face what we’ve been wondering from the beginning. The boy puttering around the farmhouse is now helping the chemist, and Delaney is responsible for putting him in harm’s way.
History Lesson #3: Exorcism Scamming Zilpha has yet another tough week at the hands of her Grade A asshole of a husband, Thorne. After walking in on one of Zilpha’s Delaney-possesed erotic dreams, he beats her brutally on the bedroom floor. And if that weren’t enough, he wraps this week by bringing in an exorcist for hire to rid his wife of her demons. I’ve seen The Exorcist, and have a loose familiarity with demonic possession mostly based on B-list horror movies I’m not emotionally equipped to watch, so I know the ritual we see this scam artist perform on Zilpha is not an exorcism. During this hogwash ceremony, the exorcist ties Zilpha’s hands and feet to the floor, and sits on top of her molesting her body and claiming that the bruises he’s causing on her chest are just the “evil coming to the surface.” But once again, we end the week with hope…for Thorne’s death. This may have been the last straw for Zilpha, and in a plea to Delaney to “teach me , guide me,” we watch her ponder a blade from her vanity drawer.
I still have questions…
This week’s most Delaney line ever, in response to Lorna’s request for firewood: “Why would we do that? This is the Delaney household, we have no warmth here.”
We’re well aware of Cholmondeley’s dalliances with women, but we weren’t aware of the stats until he tells Delaney where Lorna would fit into the mix: “Not only is she among the large number of women I would sleep with, she’s also among the much smaller group of women I would masturbate over.” I especially like that he ended that thought with a “Well this is fun!”
Winter makes multiple appearances in this episode, to Lorna and to Bill at the brothel. And while I might be ready to conceded that she’s an actual human entity walking about London in our story, I’m still totally perplexed by her. Why does she appear at such random moments?