You may call James Delaney a scoundrel, a scallywag, a rogue, and perhaps even a revenant, but after Taboo’s fourth episode you may also call him one thing more: A cockblocker. Yes, that’s right, Delaney, a man who has made vengeance his life’s sole remaining purpose, has zero compunctions about busting in on two consenting adults playing hide the pickle when one of those adults is important to his cause. In the case of George Cholmondeley, chemist and pervert, knowing that he is important to Delaney’s cause is irrelevant: When Delaney comes a-knocking, you’d best stop your rocking.
The scene in which George and Delaney make introductions is effectively uncomfortable, as is Taboo’s wont, but it’s also completely hilarious, as far as anything in this show can be accurately described as “hilarious.” Delaney, sans top hat but with his trademark scowl firing on all cylinders, literally catches George with his pants down (and with his paramour’s dress up to her waist); the show has been somewhat generous with shots of man ass, and as we’ve seen Hardy’s keister in previous episodes, so too does “Episode 4” afford a glimpse of Tom Hollander’s buns before George grumpily lectures Delaney on the dangers of forestalling male ejaculation. None of this should be quite as amusing as it is, but Taboo’s self-seriousness is, and only ever has been, a mask for its bizarre, bat-shit, tonally askew intentions.
So maybe the question isn’t whether the tone of George and James’ first meeting fits into Taboo’s wheelhouse, but rather why the show has been holding out on us with this kind of willful silliness since its premiere. “Episode 4” is replete with the sort of dourness that defines the series’ overarching narrative, of course, beginning with poor Lorna Bow’s imprisonment and near-rape at the hands of Solomon Coop, continuing with Delaney disemboweling an American assassin, and ending with a drug-fueled soirée cross-cut with Atticus, Helga and company letting blood and stealing saltpetre from the East India. (Saltpetre, for those not in the know, is really a catch-all name for compounds that contain nitrogen, à la potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate and so on. If it’s easier, just think of it as the key to making gunpowder.)
Arguably, these disparate pieces do not fit together, or they wouldn’t in a show less committed to its own grim outlandishness. Delirium is the thread that holds all of Taboo together, and no installment to date proves that better than “Episode 4,” a collection of good killin’, good plottin’, good actin’, and good swearin’, in part by Jonathan Pryce but especially by Hollander. (Pryce appears in a single scene here. Hollander, by contrast, shows up in several more and appears to savor every curse that escapes his lips as a person dying of thirst savors water droplets.) The episode’s final sequence hinges on everyone getting high on laughing gas, even. Nestled in among these broader points are the minutiae, the schemes, the threats, the subterfuge, the cunning; there’s even some heartbreak, plus a little more kink for good measure.
This week’s kink is facilitated by some crazy-ass ritual Delaney carries out in the dead of night that causes Zilpha to have the most intensely physical sex dream had by anybody who has lived up until this point in history (which, returning to the subject of rape, Thorne takes full advantage of, thus making good on his taunts to James last week). It’s odd, isn’t it, how Taboo makes their relationship seem more and more normal from one chapter to the next? When it’s alluded to in the pilot, the viewer raises an eyebrow. When it’s built upon in the second episode, that eyebrow lowers ever so slightly, and when it’s acted upon in the third, we’re hardly surprised. Perhaps this is just a natural effect of learning that Delaney and Zilpha’s secret isn’t much of a secret at all, as everybody in London, even the Americans, appears to know about their affair.
That goes for Dr. Dumbarton, who shows up to menace Delaney, Lorna Bow, and Zilpha at the ball thrown by one Countess Musgrove, who turns out to be the much discussed Carlsbad, or at least that’s the impression we’re left with; she’s rather coy about Delaney’s accusations, but for now we can take the absence of assent as confirmation of her true identity. So it seems that our hero is beset by enemies, which isn’t the worst thing in the world when you’ve got friends who are willing to murder people and, in essence, declare war on the most powerful corporate entity in England on your behalf. If you thought you’ve seen Stuart Strange lose his temper in the past, you’ve likely seen nothing yet. The great saltpetre robbery is going to have massive ripple effects for Taboo’s characters, much like Thorne’s ill-advised challenge to Delany, made in front of an assembly of London’s debauched, libidinal aristocracy.
Delany, of course, remains the “joint in the seesaw,” as Brace puts it, keeping the show in balance—which is to say that, even halfway through its run, Taboo still succeeds on the strength of Hardy’s leading performance. But nearly as integral to the narrative’s function is its idiosyncrasy. This is a show that’s content to barrel from gruesome, prolonged violence into unbridled self-indulgence, with bits of ennui sprinkled in between. (How can you not ache for poor Godfrey in his bedroom confessional scenes with Delaney?) It is, in other words, its own unique creation, and one that continues to carve out better footing for itself with every passing chapter.
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.