Well, at least we got some explosions out of the deal.
Let’s get the least pressing but most depressing item out of the way: The passage of poor Zilpha, who appears to exist in Taboo for the sole purpose of maintaining continuity between the series proper and its opening credits sequence, an aquatic, beautifully melancholic affair in which the cast bobs along in what is presumably the Thames. Watching Zilpha drown herself in London’s most famous river neither pays off any of Taboo’s plot threads, nor builds to a payoff of its own; she’s here to be lusted after, kicked around, rejected, and condemned to a life lived in the company of her own loneliness, which isn’t much of a life at all.
Thus the episode’s first scene, in which Zilpha cashes in her chips and Taboo’s narrative moves along, unaffected by her absence. It’s a small moment, a blip on the show’s radar, but it’s also emblematic of Taboo’s greatest weakness: Its excess of insubstantial characters and content. Steven Knight could have trimmed away huge chunks of the material and maintained a functioning TV show; that kind of judicious editing would only have enhanced its coherence and increased its velocity. You’d think a series whose cardinal season ends with men in service to the Crown engaging in bloody, street-level guerrilla warfare with a motley assembly of thieves, killers, chemists and prostitutes would run with a sense of intention from one week to the next. Not Taboo. Taboo’s first season drags more often than it ought to.
Such is the burden of just-too-muchery: Inevitably, the more brouhaha you stuff into your show, the more likely it is that said brouhaha starts to feel like filler. Was Thorne an essential character to Knight’s overarching plot? Was Zilpha? How about Dumbarton, Countess Musgrove, or poor old Brace, left to dejection and decay by Delaney in tonight’s climactic battle scene? Brace, at least, has a function, being the true killer of Horace Delaney, but all things considered the guy gets off easy for his act of mercy. James Delaney is many things, one of them being “unhinged.” It’s a small miracle he didn’t off Brace himself when given the chance to do so, though perhaps being left behind in the Old World as James and company head off to the new one is punishment enough.
The problem with Taboo’s overindulgence is twofold. First is the matter of dilution, in which the essential is muddled by the disposable and the audience begins losing track of the elements necessary to keep the series’ primary engine running. Second is the matter of that aforementioned keyword, “payoff,” in the sense that the show’s wasted components turn out not to have any. This at least makes it easy to discern what’s important and what isn’t, but boy, does it ever make the experience of watching Taboo frustrating. There’s a presumption to the show’s dramatic approach, a fallacious expectation that we’ll just accept its host of contrivances and manipulations as crucial to its success—that we won’t pause to wonder just what exactly we were doing in Zilpha’s company, for instance, when her presence was never more than a bump in the road on the way to the finale’s conflux of murders, brawls and detonations.
It isn’t just Zilpha, either. Robert’s parentage feels like it’s supposed to be a big deal, but Knight and the Hardys never take that particular detail anywhere, while the resolution of Chichester’s bid for justice meets with the sound of a whoopee cushion under compression. “Justice,” Lucian Msamati breathes in one of the season’s last lines, but what should feel like a major victory for lawfulness plays with a shrug. There’s no triumph here, not because Chichester was never Taboo’s focal point (though this is invariably true), but because justice was never the goal. The goal was revenge. Whether the series satisfies the aims of revenge may be in the eye of the beholder; “Episode 8” certainly offs enough of Taboo’s guilty parties, which sounds a lot like revenge on paper. It’s just that the climax isn’t immediately pleasing.
There is much to enjoy here, which can be said of Taboo as a whole; the entire finale feels like an amalgam of Gangs of New York, the Pirates of the Caribbean films and Game of Thrones, a rowdy and appropriately savage rumpus in which the soldiers and cutthroats of England go head to head in the muck by the docks of Wapping, stabbing and shooting and bludgeoning one another in a frenzied orgy of mindless violence. You won’t even know who to root for. Sure, the English military is under the control of a foul-mouthed, prickly Prince Regent with the temperament of a six-year-old (sound familiar?), and sure, James and his legions are Taboo’s ostensible “good guys.” But they’re also, you know, a bunch of actual crooks and, in the specific case of James, total unapologetic bastards.
Granted, James is fueled by a deep and abiding sense of guilt for actions taken while in Africa; a bad conscience can turn any person into a bitter and ruthless barbarian. But white guilt is, perhaps, the thing that Taboo might have chosen as its main through line, and if James’ struggle is with his own misdeeds, then the series should have capitalized on that theme as an integral part of its structure. James and Strange quietly chat with each other in the Tower of London early in “Episode 8,” and Strange expresses his wonderment at James’ survival in the sinking of the Influence; James chronicles his rescue at the hands of “an African” and tells Strange, “The things I did in Africa make your transactions look paltry. I witnessed, and participated in, darkness that you cannot conceive.” If Taboo is about James assuaging his remorse for those things, then it should have reserved more space for exploring them, and maybe been a bit more honest about them than its kinetically edited dream and flashback sequences allowed.
Two more series are planned in Taboo’s lifespan. If the next two installments manage to hang onto the qualities that make the show stand out—its design, its performances, its sense of abandon—while streamlining the narrative, then this dark, bizarre, thoroughly nasty little series should improve. Without sufficient trimming, though, it’ll sink.
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.