“Episode 5” of FX’s Taboo is yet another disappointment. It’s unfocused, confused, and honestly just kind of boring. But the worst thing about Taboo’s fifth episode is that, for a while, I actually thought it might be good. At the end of last week’s episode, Thorne challenges James to a duel after learning of his secret, sleepytime trysts with Zilpha. “Episode 5” opens with a gorgeously shot, wordless sequence in which James, Thorne, and their respective representatives ride in canoes to the location of their duel, an independently owned island off the coast, while Lorna follows close behind on foot.
The duel itself is a bit anti-climactic, but effective. Thorne takes a shot at James before realizing that his Second – who is revealed to be a Company man – neglected to load an actual bullet into his pistol. James retaliates by shooting the Company man and sparing Thorne’s life. While this could have led to something of a redemption for Thorne, the show is more comfortable allowing him to continue on as the worst man in London. When he returns home, he questions Zilpha’s alliance, and whether or not she would have preferred he die during his encounter with James.
This really doesn’t seem to be too far off from the truth, as we get another scene of the two meeting secretly in Zilpha’s dreams. Thorne retaliates more severely than ever before, beating Zilpha to a pulp before calling in a “professional” to rid her of the demons that have been invading her. It functions as a serviceable metaphor for the current political climate, but every time Taboo is on the verge of making a statement, it does so with unforgivable clumsiness.
Taboo’s intentions are noble. It’s a show that concerns itself deeply with how the world has been treating women and people of color throughout history and the numerous parallels to how we live now. Pair that with the general disdain with which the show looks down on government agencies that operate with impunity, and you can pretty much piece together what Hardy and Knight are trying to say here. It just so happens that Taboo attempts to explore these themes with little to no input from the various marginalized groups they’re highlighting.
We’re now five episodes into Taboo and the show has made very few attempts to dignify Zilpha with the kind of depth that would elevate her from “plot point” to “actual character.” My memories of Zilpha throughout the show are not of her character, but of what the men in her life do to her day in and day out. I know very little about her as a viewer, and I’m often shocked when the show gives her an opportunity to open her mouth. What began as the show’s most promising dynamic has quickly become a lazy attempt at the third-rate feminism that must factor into creating this victim of abuse. In fact it ceases to exist beyond the functionality of her abuse in the context of a story that has much less to do with her than it did at the beginning.
On that same token, there’s still something fundamentally wrong with Taboo in that it’s a story about slavery that offers only a handful of speaking roles to people of color. “Episode 5” introduces a Mr. George Chichester (Lucian Msamati) as a concerned citizen who has been adamant about a further investigation regarding “The Influence,” a sunken ship that carried 280 slaves onboard, all dead of drowning. It’s a welcome change of pace for the show that, like many good things on Taboo, doesn’t last nearly as long as it should. There’s something inherently upsetting about this to me, and it’s a discredit to everyone involved that nobody stopped and thought it strange that their show was yet another story about slavery that doesn’t really have any black people in it. Especially when that show is set in a time period where slavery was alive and well throughout most of the world.
The episode’s highlights are, yet again, courtesy of Tom Hollander as Dr. Cholmondeley, who is seen hard at work on Delaney’s gunpowder. A complication arises when Delaney is blackmailed into having the gunpowder ready in eight days instead of four weeks, which can only be accomplished through the use of a highly dangerous chemical, chlorate, which could demolish anything in its path at any moment, no matter how many precautions are taken. The complication isn’t just a result of needing the chemical, but in who would be responsible for helping Cholmondeley along the way – James Delaney’s son.
We don’t really know a lot about this character just yet, but he’s clearly terrified of his father and – seeing how little James seems to care about the boy – I could see him being used as leverage in regards to various Nootka Sound dealings in the coming episodes. Let’s not forget that Taboo began primarily as a debate regarding the rightful heir to Horace Delaney’s land, and I’m also positive that Delaney’s son will be the golden ticket to the East India Company’s last ditch effort to finally kill him.
Or not. At this point, it doesn’t really matter. Taboo seems to be far less interested in silly details like plot or coherence, and more interested in seeming gritty and complex. Tom Hardy is becoming increasingly more uninteresting with every week. I’ve been having some doubts about whether or not Hardy is actually a leading man, and Taboo makes a very compelling case that he is not. Yes, Tom Hardy was in that movie where the entire thing took place inside of a car and he was the only person in it. But his truly memorable roles are those in which he was not required to carry the weight of a story as big and expansive as Taboo’s. Hardy is constantly upstaged and outacted by nearly all of his co-stars, and at this point, I’m not sure if maybe he wanted it that way.
Whatever the case may be, Taboo is proving itself to be unessential in this ongoing television renaissance. In addition to being as slow as they come, the show is exploring interesting concepts in wholly uninteresting ways. Its positions on race and class are simplistic, and the way it infuses those themes into the actual content is clunky at best. Visually, there’s little consistency in the quality of images on-screen. And overall, Taboo feels like it was rushed through every stage of production from writing all the way to the editing, which disregards pace – either by necessity or neglect – to fit in as many plot points and expository moments as possible. “Episode 8” cannot come soon enough.
GEEK Grade: C
Check out the promo for next week as James returns home from his time missing:
Taboo airs on FX Tuesdays at 10pm.