Taboo (S01E03): “Episode Three”

WARNING: FULL SPOILERS

Taboo continues to mix outstanding visual storytelling with great acting in its dark tale of vengeance. We get an expertly executed personal reveal for Delaney (Tom Hardy) as he recovers from an assassin’s attack. At the same time, a subplot is now more of a distraction. Which is unfortunate because that subplot is pretty solid on its own.

To absolutely no one’s surprise, Delaney survives his assassination attempt thanks to the American spy, Dumbarton (Michael Kelly). Delaney comes up with a will awarding Nootka Sound to the Americans should he die, brilliantly keeping Strange (Jonathan Pryce) and the East India Company at bay. Delaney plays no favorites, willing to sell his valuable land to the world power who promises the biggest cut. However, two women complicate both his life and plans: His father’s widow Lorna (Jessie Buckley) and his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

Don’t Trust The Snake

Delaney’s butler Brace (David Hayman) utters the above line in regards to Atticus (Stephen Graham), the scoundrel in his master’s employ. But this line could easily apply to Delaney himself, as Hardy does some amazing work portraying just how duplicitous the man can be.

Dumbarton attempts an interrogation with the wounded Delaney, but the latter manages to turn the tables. Delaney withstands the pain of torture at the American spy’s hands in order to gain information. He knows when to let someone believe they are in control and finds out that Carlsbad, the leader of the American spy ring, is female.

Some of Hardy’s best moments come later though. When he finds the East India Company’s secretary Godfrey (Edward Hogg) in the brothel dressed as a woman, we see a softer side to Delaney. The two share a past at the seminary and the moment the two have is genuinely touching…until Delaney forces Godfrey to spy for him.  He slaps the young man when he begins to cry, revealing the gruff man obsessed with revenge.

Contrast that scene with one earlier with Winter, Helga’s young daughter fascinated by Delaney and his mysterious past. He seems to genuinely connect with the girl and this moment is the only time his grim demeanor softens. He warns her gently to not return to the flooded basement of his home because of the danger there. Could he possibly have a soft spot for the young girl?

source: Sonar Entertainment

Delaney and Strange have more in common than they would probably wish to admit. I would say that Strange is a reflection of what Delaney could become should his plans succeed. He suffers no fools and uses people to his own ends.

They also share a mysterious past. In addition to approaching the Americans with his land, Delaney also approached the King’s representatives, completely bypassing Strange’s “Mighty East.”

Soloman Coop (Jason Watkins), the King’s right hand man, asks what the hell Strange did to create such hatred in Delaney. Pryce gives Strange a knowing but reluctant look at that moment. In the previous episodes, Strange seems to have no recollection of Delaney despite having the man serve under him in the army. I love that there may be more familiarity than previously thought.

Before I move on from the amazing acting, I should single out David Hayman’s work as Brace. He has been great from the very beginning of the show, but I noticed that I never mentioned him. His wary demeanor as he has to deal with Delaney’s increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior is fun to watch and always believable. He also has his best scene so far…

An Important Reveal Done Beautifully

This episode continues Taboo’s tradition of visual storytelling as we learn the identity of the woman (I always referred to her as “The Witch” in my notes) in Delaney’s visions. As he searches his house, we discover that this woman is his mother.

The reveal is beautifully done. Delaney never outright says, “I have visions of my mother.” The episode jumps back and forth between his search of the house and visions of the woman. We get a hint to her identity: Her feathered, black dress is in the flooded basement.

Delaney’s search leads him to another room. He tears through the boarded up fireplace as more visions of the Witch haunt him. He finds the carving of the bird on his back. As Brace comes in, Delaney finally reveals that the room belonged to his mother. We find out that Delaney’s mother Anne may have been locked away as the madness that seems to run in the family overtook her.

The subsequent dialogue between Delaney and Brace is great because it comes off so naturally. Delaney never comes off like he’s spouting exposition…he is having a genuine emotional moment about the final moments of his mother’s life. And Brace’s look of absolute anguish and possible guilt in the role he played in Anne’s last agonizing days is so powerful that it might be his strongest moment in the series.

However, like everything else in the series so far, the revelation comes with further mystery. How did a carving from his mother’s room end up on Delaney’s back in Africa? Is there a supernatural force at work? Or did Delaney put it there himself as that family madness took hold? The mystical aspects of Taboo continue to be used in a fun way.

Some may view Delaney’s visit to Anne’s grave right after as too obvious, but I look at it like the period at the end of a sentence. In addition to being shot masterfully, the mostly quiet scene brings an emotional conclusion to a serious reveal to the skeletons in Delaney’s closet.

The Women In His Life

Women seem to have a strong influence, for better or worse, in Delaney’s life. Given the fate of his mother, I can’t really blame him. And the women in his life now have proven to be obstacles.

The Widow on stage. source: Sonar Entertainment

Lorna makes a play for ownership of the Delaney house and surprisingly James takes her in. In a fittingly absurd sequence in the admittedly short tradition of Taboo, visions invade Delaney’s head and he suddenly shouts for Brace to prepare a room for her. It’s a turn that seems out of nowhere, but given his weakness for women it’s not that surprising.

Lorna is an interesting character. We get glimpses of her fierce side as she trades insults with her audience during a play and even attacks a Duke when he tries to take advantage of her. Even though Delaney warns that she has become embroiled in a power play between nations, Lorna simply shrugs it off. I love that she demands respect and will take it if you don’t give it to her.

I honestly don’t believe Lorna has no idea what she has gotten herself into. She is too smart of a character to be this oblivious. Yes, I believe that whoever is behind that perverse Duke attempted assault used her independence against her, but I don’t think she is this naive.

I’m going to call it now: I believe Lorna is Carlsbad, the head of the American spy ring. It’s probably a big leap of logic and shrinks the “universe” of Taboo, I like a good twist and that would be a cool one.

And then there is Zilpha. I’ll admit, I audibly sighed when we got the letter exchange between the two star crossed lovers/siblings. Part of it is the incestuous aspect, but the whole subplot feels so disconnected from the rest of the story. With Delaney playing two countries against each other, his pursuit of Zilpha feels unnecessary.

Oona Chaplin as Zilpha source: Sonar Entertainment

I understand why this relationship is here. In an unconventional show, Taboo approaches the typical romantic subplot with an atypical relationship. This is a show about defying norms (I mean, it’s called “Taboo”) so what’s more “unnatural” than siblings getting it on? I like how Zilpha seems to struggle within the constraints of London high society and rigid Christian sin.

And there is a lot to like with Zilpha, especially her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall). In my review of the first episode, I referred to Thorne as a simple blowhard. In this episode, I LOVE how he manages to get the better of Delaney with his greatest strength: Words. In any physical confrontation, Delaney will always have the advantage. But Thorne knows what words can cut deeply and his taunts about his sexual exploits with Zilpha to Delaney are perfect. Hall is absolutely slimy in this moment.

When Thorne verbally attacks Zilpha later at the dinner table, again, he knows the power of a pointed insult as he eviscerates his wife for her inability to bear a child. Oona Chaplin does a lot of great restrained emoting in these scenes. That is not easily done and is the mark of a great actor, but I just wish she would be given more to do.

Is Zilpha simply a plot device? Young Winter refers to Delaney as a wolf and the way he pursues his love is very predatory. He is a wild animal after his prey more than a man professing his love to a delicate rose of a woman. It’s cool to see Hardy portray this, but it’s so one sided. Unless Zilpha turns out to be Carlsbad, I feel like Chaplin is being wasted.

They Will Come

This is a strong outing for Taboo, but it feels like the show is trying to tell two compelling stories at once. This would be a perfect show if they could find a better way to link the romantic subplot to the overarching story of Delaney’s revenge. Until then, I can’t completely embrace it.

SCORE: 7.5 OUT OF 10

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