With all of Taboo’s grimdark stylization, graphic language, splattery violence, naughty sexuality and supernatural portents, you’d think that the overarching plan of its hero would add up to more than “make a shitload of money.” And yet, here’s Tom Hardy’s James Delaney in the show’s third outing manipulating the Yanks and the crown alike to secure a trade monopoly for himself, either in sea otter coats or furs, thus giving him the currency necessary to run China’s tea trade. Boring, maybe, but is there any better way to get revenge on a soulless business empire than by hitting it in the wallet? Stuart Strange doesn’t seem to think so; his congested outrage at Delaney’s gamesmanship suggests a man on the verge of an aneurysm. Pray for Jonathan Pryce.
“Episode 3” makes up for the sluggish over-plotting of “Episode 2” by actually telling a story. The absence of character introduction barrages helps immensely: Now we get to settle in with those we met last week and see them in action, whether Lorna Bow or Atticus. Delaney himself has also finished his chore checklist, having acquired his ship, recruited his allies, settled his father’s outstanding debts and made contact with the Americans, which is quite a lot for one person to dust off in a single hour-long installment of television. The effect of “Episode 2” is lopsided. The effect of “Episode 3” is propulsive. This is what happens when you do all your laundry in one sitting, and also when you end a chapter of your sprawling narrative by having an anonymous assailant stick a knife in your protagonist’s gut.
The viscera of Taboo is on the level of a Game of Thrones in “Episode 3,” which opens on a shot of said assailant’s bloated, crab-infested corpse on the shores of the Thames. By contrast, Delaney ends up in the tender care of Dr. Dumbarton, who sews him up and tortures him just a bit for good measure; it’s an ugly, painful moment, but a better fate than serving as a corpse buffet for hungry crustaceans. Couple that with Bow slicing up the Duke of Richmond at episode’s end and you’ve got a decently bloody affair on your hands, which is to say nothing of its smorgasbord of sexual material, ranging between “provocative,” “racy,” and “downright uncomfortable.” Everyone wants to be the next Game of Thrones. Last year, The Bastard Executioner tried its heart out and found itself on the chopping block by the time its season ended. That’s a concern Taboo, as a miniseries, doesn’t have, but the effort it puts into shocking its viewers remains no less impressive.
Consider that in one episode, Zilpha makes out with James in a church pew; Godfrey, the minute-taker for the East India Company, articulates his attraction to James while in an S&M establishment; Thorne confesses that thinking of James’ illicit relationship with Zilpha turns him on before degrading her over supper on account of her period; and Bow is nearly pimped out to the Duke before rejecting his advances at knifepoint. That’s a whole lot of kink, some of it sweeter than the rest. Godfrey’s scene with James is surprisingly tender, a reminder of Hardy’s awesome animal magnetism; alternately, everything involving Thorne is, put bluntly, gross, so gross that you’ll want to leap out of your skin and run screaming out of the room. He’s a creep, but it says a lot that his creepiness lets him hold his own against Taboo’s star.
This is still Hardy’s show, but as the narrative expands, the supporting cast is given more to do. This seems like an obvious progression of events, but in Taboo, Hardy casts such a grand shadow over all that finding light to shine in is tricky. “Episode 3” finds that light, for Jefferson Hall, for Jessie Buckley, for Michael Kelly and for Mark Gatiss and Jason Watkins, whose delightfully reprehensible two-man show as the Prince Regent and his loyal aide, Solomon Coop, already made quite a mark in “Episode 2.” Here, Watkins gets to go up against Pryce, the most visible non-Hardy actor in the ensemble, and the results are predictably spectacular. (There’s nothing quite like seeing Pryce outwitted when he’s working in full asshole mode.) Meanwhile, Chaplin spars in voiceover with Hardy in one of the third episode’s most memorable sequences, an argument about a love that’s forbidden by society and fetishized by patriarchy at the same time.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in opening up the floor to its troupe, Taboo also cedes space to men who hate women. Even the best men here, like Brace, tend to bristle when they’re spoken to by ladies in ways they find displeasing, and while we understand why, exactly, Brace is itching to shoot Bow in the face, his hostility is still a bad look. He’s a saint, however, next to the likes of Thorne and the Duke. This is, arguably, just a sign of the times in which Taboo is set, not an endorsement of behavior but a concession to it; the most honorable action any guy takes toward a gal here is James stepping in to protect Bow, which he undercuts by decrying her as “a weakness” immediately afterward. Is this, perhaps, at least partly what he means when he refers to the evil men do in “Episode 1”?
Most likely not. James is a man possessed by his plan, uninterested in the feelings of anyone in his orbit, save perhaps for Zilpha, a pawn in both her brother’s machinations and her husband’s displays of dominance. She feels like the ultimate victim here: of Thorne’s abuse, of James’ lust, of cultural norms that she adopts without any relish. Taboo might be about vengeance, but watching the show chew into more thematic meat beyond its overarching plot with its usual spellbinding, off-kilter enthusiasm is a more than welcome sight.
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.