Taboo Review: A Dense, Dizzying Episode Reminds Us That Less Is More

(Episode 1.02)

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<i>Taboo</i> Review: A Dense, Dizzying Episode Reminds Us That Less Is More

“You think all who submit are evil. No. We are submitting to the way the world has become.”

If you thought that Thoyt, the Delaney family lawyer, was nothing more than a treacherous scoundrel after meeting him in Taboo’s premiere, then this week’s episode should give you cause to change your mind. Sometimes people throw in with a tyrant because they like what the tyrant is selling. Sometimes they do so just to survive. In Thoyt’s case, informing Strange and his lackeys on the activities of Horace Delaney kept him from ending up on the pernicious radar of the East India Company. His double-dealings with them aren’t honorable, but they are at least understandable: Taboo takes place in an amoral world and portrays the East India as a firm that’s equally willing to cut deals and throats.

History buffs watching at home will likely find the show’s use of the popular “East India as an evil cabal of murder-happy merchants” trope annoying at best and insufferable at worst, but the way Taboo normalizes the Company’s despotic grip on English culture is surprisingly affecting. When a force is able to exert such a massive influence over government, as the East India is portrayed as having, and when they maintain their influence through browbeating and violence, what are ordinary people to do other than bend to said force’s will? What should James Delaney do? Should he sell Nootka to the East India, or does he dare strike out on his own and attempt running his father’s company? (If he does, is he ultimately as mad as his dearly departed dad?)

It’s likely that Taboo poses these questions unintentionally. They are, after all, folded into its overarching revenge plot, and even Thoyt’s aforementioned conversation with Delaney occurs only within that context. In “Shovels and Keys,” Delaney’s return to London set its people abuzz with chatter and hearsay, a whole lot of stuff and nonsense passed down through the grapevine. In episode two, the grapevine is decidedly quiet, and so Delaney takes the opportunity to expand his material holdings as well as his list of allies: He buys himself a ship on auction, which serves the dual purpose of pissing off Strange, and also contacts a grimy, conniving hoodlum named Atticus (Stephen Graham), who kindly turned down a contract to bump off Papa Delaney and is all too happy to share this information with James for a price.

These are the first steps of many in his plans for both commanding his inheritance and exacting his vengeance. The next respectively involve an American physician, Edgar Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), who works in London, and Helga (Franka Potente), the brothel madam James runs out of his father’s offices in “Shovels and Keys.” Turns out that Sir Strange’s sputtering conjecture as to James’ loyalties are correct: He’s in league with the Americans after all, or he’s trying to be, and Dumbarton is his “in” to the American government. Helga, meanwhile, is sought solely for information, both in regards to a young girl named Winter, who helps James find the sloop of the man who allegedly tried to put a hit out on Horace and then vanishes into thin air, and also in regards to her clients, because presumably there are men of importance and social standing who visit her parlor, and everyone could use some blackmailing leverage now and again.

That’s a lot of plot for a single measly chapter of Taboo’s narrative, though when you’re running a miniseries that’s only eight chapters in length, maybe all you can really do is overstuff them and hope for the best. As with “Shovels and Keys,” this episode is all about moving pieces into place and less about those pieces actually getting anything accomplished, though in fairness Delaney does manage to burn down a ship, settle his father’s debts in a single hectic courtroom sequence, touch base with the Americans, track down a suspect in his dad’s murder, make nice with a lady of the night, either menace or flirt with his half-sister (it’s unclear), and kill a man in the span of an hour. Taboo can be accused of many things, but wasting time isn’t one of them. This is a series with somewhere to be. It just has a laundry list to check off before it can actually get there.

The effect is somewhat dizzying. A great deal happens here, right up to the end, when we meet Lorna Bow, who claims to have married Horace some years before his demise and therefore has the same claim to Nootka as James; we’re even introduced to the man who will be George IV (played by a corpulent and fabulously vulgar Mark Gatiss) in a brief moment toward the start of the episode, swearing and ranting about the Americans and the East India to a subordinate. The many acquaintances made throughout the episode’s running time overwhelm us rather than engage us, though it’s certain that each is a necessary component of keeping Taboo’s mystery plot afloat.

One wonders if it’s possible that half of the incidents and characters announced here could have been held in reserve for next week, or for the week after. That they weren’t suggests the series has a lot to accomplish in its lifespan, and is eager not to spin its wheels. It’s the ghastlier details and quality of production, alongside Hardy’s mesmerizingly bizarre lead performance, that keep us engrossed in Taboo’s intrigue, but maybe this show is a case where less really would be more.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.