Skulking, spying, smuggling, sabotaging, and slaying: These are James Keziah Delaney’s stock in trade, and tonight’s episode of Taboo is all about his tradecraft. As the rogue’s plan to secure a lucrative trading route out from under the rival English, American, and East India Company factions moves forward, the show’s portrayal of his dirty deeds has gotten much clearer and tighter than it used to be, and more entertaining as a result.
Much of this episode’s business relies on a bogus cholera epidemic concocted by Delaney and Dr. Dunbarton to keep prying eyes away from the American spy’s secret headquarters. This winds up being perfect cover for, well, pretty much anything James needs to do. Need to dispose the body of an abusive, alcoholic husband, no questions asked? Call him a cholera victim and he’ll be six feet under and away from prying eyes within hours. Need some secure containers to transport an illegal shipment of gunpowder? Order up a few coffins for imaginary cholera victims. Need to get that shipment through London’s soldier-patrolled streets? Dress up like undertakers, store those coffins in hearses, and stick cholera warning labels on them to keep unwanted inspections at a minimum. (Just don’t forget to leave enough room in one of those coffins for James’s secret son Robert, so he can sneak in and play dead to maintain the ruse. It’s a bit of quick thinking on the kid’s part, and it makes for one of the hour’s coolest story beats.)
As has been the case for a few episodes now, James’s devilish reputation as a killer par excellence is proving well-earned indeed. When he and his crew are ratted out by the farmer who owns their makeshift factory, Delaney tears out the man’s tongue and props the corpse in the confessional of the priest who leaked the information to the East India Company. When the EIC retaliates by blowing up James’s ship, he has his henchman Atticus lead him to the guy who was supposed to be guarding it and tears out the man’s heart, offering it to Atticus as a souvenir. Granted, this was the same guy whose thumb Delaney chopped off in last week’s episode, leading Atticus to wonder whether his boss had psychically seen the betrayal coming or caused the betrayal by chopping off the dude’s thumb in the first place. Still, it’s an impressive bit of wetwork.
Even Zilpha, James’s beloved (ahem) sister, gets in on the homicidal act. Under her brother’s telepathic tutelage, she (finally!) kills her thoroughly awful husband Thorne by stabbing him through the heart with a hatpin, no muss, no fuss. After James uses the cholera gimmick to expedite the body’s removal and burial, Zilpha celebrates in the gothest way imaginable: Resplendent in black mourning clothes, she jams the murder weapon through the hat she wears to the victim’s funeral, smirking all the while. After spending the entire season with the same bug-eyed facial expression and high-tension body language, Oona Chaplin lets her character’s lusty satisfaction with this job well done seep into her eyes, her mouth, her shoulders, her walk. She may have killed her brutal husband to be with her sorcerer brother, but she’s never seemed more human.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for happy ending never arrives. After the burial — at which James digs the grave himself, mensch that he is — Delaney shows up at Zilpha’s house, demanding she take off her dress immediately. Music to her ears! But he’s haunted by in flagrante visions of his mother trying to drown him as an infant, a knowledge bomb dropped by his faithful manservant Brace at the beginning of the episode. (It’s an odd choice, pacing-wise, but one made with practical considerations for the rest of the episode.) James freaks out, nearly chokes Zilpha, and flees the bedroom before their family reunion reaches its climax. Don’t worry, buddy — flashback dick happens to a lot of guys.
The irksome thing is that the episode focuses on James’s reaction to the event, not Zilpha’s. After all, Delaney isn’t the one who just ended years of violent drunken abuse by becoming a murderer in order to rekindle forbidden love with a sibling. Nor is he the one who got physically attacked by the other in the middle of having sex. Can you imagine how Zilpha must feel to have gone through all that for nothing? Well, you’ll have to imagine it, since the show isn’t gonna show us.
Indeed, many of Taboo’s old troubles — the workmanlike plotting, the half-baked supporting cast, the overreliance on James’s alleged magnetism — are still hanging around. To wit:
How do we know that Chichester, the former slave now leading an inquiry into the East India Company’s illicit dealing in human cargo, is a good guy? Because he’s the only handsome man in a room full of blotchy, weak-chinned uggos.
Why did the EIC wait until now to blow up James’s ship, when its ownership and location — like that of his office, his house, and his sister’s house — is a matter of public record? Because the show requires him to be as mysterious as Batman even though everyone knows who and where he is at almost all times … until a moment like this, when the Company needs to make a major move against him.
Why does Winter, his teenage sidekick, keep hanging around even though he’s a mean-spirited creep? Because James is the main character, and everyone from Winter to Brace to Zilpha to Lorna Bow to the poor closeted guy he blackmails into being his EIC spy act as if they know they’re just supporting players in his story.
Why did Brace’s revelation about the murderous madness of James’s mom get dumped at the beginning of the episode instead of placed somewhere with more punch? Because it gives us just enough reason to believe that his violent PTSD flashbacks might cause him to brutally murder poor Winter at the end of the hour. Yep, Taboo kills a child in order to plant doubts about Delaney’s sanity in the audience’s mind, as if we needed any extra guidance in that department. You almost have to wonder: Are these people watching their own show?