“They took him to the tower, and no one will be kind enough to feed him arsenic.”
Brace’s tearful, heartbroken confession to Lorna Bow in Taboo’s seventh episode represents precisely the capacity in which the series works best. Taken out of context, it’s weird, morbid, thoroughly at odds with itself. Taken in context, it makes perfect sense, because only in a world as unkind as the one Steven Knight has drawn in Taboo would sneaking a fatal dose of arsenic to a person be considered a kindness; only in that world could David Hayman, cheeks ruddy and eyes sodden, feel guilty and devastated at having failed to kill his master with poison, feel responsible for condemning him to the indelicate mercies of Solomon Coop and the hosts of the Tower of London.
The rest of “Episode 7,” however, highlights precisely what doesn’t work on Taboo, specifically the series’ sprawling, muddled narrative—two things a narrative can ill afford to be when it lasts only eight one-hour episodes in total. “Episode 7” shows us the ways in which Taboo might have been a tighter show, a show in harmony with itself and with its themes: George Chichester, perhaps unsurprisingly, plans to use Delaney as a witness in his investigation against the East India Company, though Delaney, ever the planner, puts poor Godfrey up to the task instead, being that he’s privy to Sir Strange’s secrets and his attempts at covering up the truth behind the fate of the Influence.
You’ll wish that Chichester had been introduced sooner in Taboo’s overarching plot, and that his role was larger to begin with. Lucian Msamati is a mesmerizing actor, and any moment he’s on screen, Taboo becomes an entirely different show from the one it began as: A disciplined and more refined work of historical fiction, in which justice is pursued against a more clearly defined crime than the sudden passing of Horace Delaney, which we now know isn’t the work of the East India Company directly but rather an act of mercy by a grieved house servant. Why couldn’t the series have been about Chichester and James Delaney to start? Why couldn’t the story have followed their split perspectives as they both try, in their own ways, to get even with the same individual?
The reality is that Taboo isn’t about Chichester, or about punishing slavery, but rather about assuaging one particular slaver’s guilt over his actions. “I’m aware you were following orders,” Chichester tells Delaney, not unkindly, when they meet near the start of the episode. “No, I happen to like driving in nails. Takes your mind off the rain, and off of the sinking ship,” Delaney slurs in reply. Like the Influence, he is submerged, not beneath ocean waves but his own conscience, plus enough alcohol to knock out an elephant; Chichester isn’t necessarily trying to make Delaney feel better about his crimes, but he is offering the chance to atone for them, which at this point in Taboo’s lifespan reads as “interesting” rather than, say, “meaningful.” It’s too little, too late. This, perhaps, should have been an integral component of the show’s drama from the start.
Not that Delaney has ever been in need of inner or outer conflict, of course. But watching Hardy act in tandem with Msamati would likely have made for more immediately compelling television, and a one-off joint like Taboo absolutely needs immediacy in order to work. If Delaney means to hamstring the East India Company, then acquainting himself with Chichester right off the bat would have only made sense. Instead, he made allies with untrustworthy people, and has put himself in a position to be betrayed and turned in to the authorities, though Delaney is such a next-level planner that he’s a-okay with getting knicked. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that Taboo feels as though it’s improvising as it goes along. A planner Delaney may be, but it seems as though Knight and the Hardys are not.
“Episode 7” isn’t all bad, but it is scattered, which may well be the single best word to describe Taboo as a whole. Winter is dead and buried, and is only written into the show as a character to set up Helga to betray Delaney, operating under the false assumption that Delaney was the one who did her in. Delaney’s purpose for coming back to England at all is fabricated, as Brace, not the East India Company, is responsible for his dad’s death. All of his dealings with the Americans, with Dumbarton and Countess Musgrove, feel ephemeral, unimportant to the plot except as a distraction. So much of the content feels disposable that the more we recognize the essentials, à la that willfully strange prevailing tone, the more we appreciate them.
Hell, even Zilpha, seen in “Episode 6” triumphantly executing Thorne, lacks any real purpose in Taboo’s greater scheme, as Delaney has unceremoniously rejected her. This is a good, healthy development in a real-world sense, but as drama goes it’s puzzling. It seems likely that we’ll be left to ponder her function in the story even after “Episode 8” airs next week. Maybe Taboo will be kind enough to its audience to tie its disparate elements together with the neatest bow it can muster.
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.