Content Warning: This review mentions and discusses suicide as depicted on the show.
So, episode 8 of Taboo aired nearly two weeks ago now. It’s safe to say that I am tiny bit late for this review. But my excuse is that I am French and that I was doing what French people often do.
“Having sex? Going on strike? Complaining?”
Wait! What? No! And who let the English in? No, the truth is I was on holiday and only saw the episode today. Shameless, lazy slug spotted!
But since I finally did my duty, how was episode 8? If I were a casual watcher, I would say “Great!” However, without claiming to be the final expert in the matter, after spending more than 8 weeks recapping and analyzing every episode of Taboo I must say it was mostly ‘Meh’.
Let’s have a look at all this shall we?
The episode opens on Zilpha walking in London. We hear her voice over the scene reading a letter addressed to her brother that mentions “finally knowing how to be free”, “leaving society”, and “hoping to see her brother in this place far away some day”. Unsurprisingly she throws herself in the river Thames. We hear her body hit the water. Everything is starting off well, isn’t it?
We cut to the meeting between James and Sir Strange. They have a discussion about why Sir Strange put James on that ship years ago. It’s more philosophical than plot relevant. James reminds Stu that between his testimony and Godders’, Stu will be found guilty of high treason. But James, in his magnanimity, gives him a way out of this situation; if Stu gives James what he wants from his list, James will burn Godders’ declaration and not make his own. Stu reads the paper and says no initially, but soon reconsiders and agrees. We are kept in the dark about what is on this paper.
We then follow different characters in a short montage. James’s son delivers letters to the world’s least funny chemist and to Atticus. Stu assigns a mission to his usual ‘subservients’. And we see one of them taking Helga and the girl she was with last episode out of custody.
Atticus and his men ambush the carriage Helga’s in. Turns out, they have a deal with the Company about releasing the two women but they have to make it look like Helga and the girl escaped. However, Atticus shoots Stu ‘subservient’ after revealing to Helga what really happened to her daughter. Lorna waits for them in another carriage with the child who witnessed the murder. They tell Helga the whole story, and Lorna offers to help her escape London with James and the others. Helga accepts.
At the East India Company the last surviving ‘subservient’ enters Stu’s office and informs him that he has found a ship, which is what James wanted from them. He asks what should be written in the official records, and Stu completely looses his cool. The ‘subservient’ asks if they should wait for his colleague’s return to make a move. Stu answers no.
We cut back to Lorna and world’s least funny chemist. He is in his lab finally doing proper chemist work (looking for things that go bang) but still drinking chemicals. She reads a letter left for her in her room and leave for Countess Musgrove’s house.
Lorna interrupts Countess Musgrove while she is playing cards by making veiled threats. The woman face each other down in private, but Lorna comes out of the confrontation victorious. By plainly stating to the Countess that her name and activity will be made public if she doesn’t cooperate, Lorna manages to get safe-passage through the American blockade.
Back in the Tower of London, James is to be interrogated by Coop. After being patched-up by the prison doctor, he is brought to the committee. When asked to name the Americans, he starts to talk in an African language. After threat of terrible torture from Coop, James tells him that the charges against him will be dropped by the Company, the witnesses will disappear, and that he will get out of the Tower by midday. Understanding that James has played them all, Coop give us his best “God I hate him” face.
Finally, a free James gives a last letter to his son to deliver and returns home. There, he find Zilpha’s suicide note. Lorna joins him with the note of safe-passage, but he is apathetic. Lorna reads the letter and James tells her that he doesn’t believe that she is dead. He would know if she was. Lorna reminds him that no matter what, dead people don’t ‘sing’ and he has people under his responsibility. She manages to convince him. He tells her that he has one last thing to do before joining them at the dock.
We now join Chichester barging in Stu’s office. He has received a note telling him that the investigation is over and that there isn’t any witness anymore. He is livid and promises Stu that it’s not over. Sir Strange laughs at him and compliments himself about being so much cleverer than Chichester and James.
James is at Dr. Dumbarton office. We discover that the doctor was a double agent for the East India Company all along. He thinks that James still needs a safe-passage and tells him that he will not give him one if he doesn’t sign a treaty ceding Nootka to the Company. They exchange amiabilities and James kills him. Because that’s what he does. However, before mutilating the body, he hears Zilpha calling him.
James goes to meet his men and the lucky few he is bringing with him out of London. The streets has been previously emptied by Atticus and they all prepared for a ‘siege’ with the help of the funny chemicals from the world’s least funny chemist.
Stu’s last subservient comes to give them the boat ownership paper. He is killed.
In the meantime, we move to Coop and the Prince Regent who definitely make my revolutionary blood boil. Coop reveals that after having worked for the Prince for many years, he has realized that he probably should have been syndicated from the beginning to avoid having his soul/faith torn apart. The Prince orders him to have James killed.
Soldiers are sent to the dock. We see James tell to his butler that he isn’t coming with them because he isn’t made for Freedom (James Delaney would make a terrible revolutionnaire). Afterward, a battle begins between his men and the soldiers. At first, they seems to have the advantage against the royal forces thanks to their preparation, but the battle turns in favor of the soldiers. Multiple men are killed, the world’s least funny chemist is injured, as is Lorna, and Helga is killed. Still, some of them manage to escape to the boat and leave London.
We cut back to London where we learn what happen to the remaining cast. Coop seems distressed by the knowledge that James escaped. An explosion kills Stu in his office. Chichester receives James’ note announcing to him that the testimonies await him at his house. The butler is definitively a broken man.
Back on the boat, most of the characters patch their wounds and mourn the dead and dying. Atticus asks James their destination. James answers: Ponta Delgada in the Azores. Atticus is confused and asks about the powder. Wasn’t it for the Americans? James says that they are Americans.
The episode closes on an English’s flag being brought down and an American one being raised.
Was this episode was enjoyable? Yes, it was. Was it entertaining? Oh boy, yes. Was it better that what I expected? Yes. Did it answer or correct the problem created by last episode? No.
First, what was great about it? Well, as I said this episode was awfully entertaining. The battle at the end was really well done in terms of audience effect, tension and emotional impact. Every character was given their time to shine and, as a viewer, it’s very agreeable because you are not left wondering “What about my fave?”. I am especially fond of the fact that the uninterrupted stream of soldiers leads to James and Co. retreating. Having them bravely facing an unstoppable force adds to the dramatic impact of the scene. So yeah, good stuff.
The rhythm and pacing of the episode was also extremely well handled. I could barely breathe from the tension, much less get bored. And, after last week’s frustrating low, this episode was able to get me to start to root for James again. Yes, I rooted for James, but not because of James himself (even if he was less unsympathetic than last episode). I rooted for him because the fate of so many characters I love rested on his shoulders.
Especially Lorna. Lorna is, for me, the biggest highlight of the show. She has clear characterization and motivation. I especially appreciate how, since the beginning, she is presented as both emotional and one of the characters most able to keep their head cool when necessary. Her characterization stayed coherent this episode. Even if she did manage to get the free-passage from Countess Musgrove, when she was reading the instructions from James she looked uncertain. The fact that she is the one to put James on track for the sake of everyone was also great. It was a good reminder that Lorna cares, even when James is apathetic. And this is a good thing, because I care about her too.
Once again Jonathan Pryce was spectacular. Sir Stuart Strange was a very good antagonist thanks to both the writing and the acting. He was an asshole since the very beginning, but a very enjoyable asshole. He was cunning and cared little for anyone except himself, (I am pretty sure that he knew that his ‘subservients’ were going to be killed.). He’s also ruthless, the literal embodiment of XIXth century white patriarchy and still manages to not be a caricature. Stu wasn’t a Mary Sue villain either. He panicked frequently and was way too proud of himself. It was this pride that brought his downfall. An enjoyable villain indeed. I admit I’m going to miss him in season 2.
I am also very fond of how Chichester ends this season. In a show as Dark and EdgyTM as Taboo, especially in the current way of thinking for TV-shows, having a character who embodies justice being given everything to enact this justice to the world was a breath of much-needed fresh air. It’s very cathartic for the audience to see the baddies getting their comeuppance.
Let’s talk about the bad now.
Zilpha, oh Zilpha! I loved Zilpha so much. I found her introduction to the show really well done and liked the potential for having a character that mixed pieces of Sansa with Cersei. And Oona Chaplin did an amazing job with this character. Unfortunately, it all went downhill in the 2 last episodes. After having killed her husband and being rejected by her brother/lover Zilpha kills herself, and with ridiculous effect.
I understand the story they tried to tell. The abuse she suffered had destroyed her. Unfortunately, the implications seem to be ‘This woman is not relevant for any man or the plot in the show anymore so let’s get rid of her’. Zilpha had friends at the beginning of the show! Where are they? Why did she not turn to them when she felt alone? And what about her agency? Her suicide made me so mad. I loved her character, and cannot give the show a pass on getting rid of her so cruelly.
If you think I’m exaggerating, think about Helga’s death, another unnecessary death that confirms my impression of Zilpha’s. Helga was killed in basically her first scene after having learned the truth about Winter’s death and forgiving James. That’s it. She’s served her purpose in driving tension against James and is no longer plot relevant, so they kill her. But not before she realizes that James isn’t completely awful and forgives him on screen. I find it disrespectful. I understand they believe they needed known faces to die in the last battle to ‘prove’ there were consequences, but why not Atticus? Helga could have very well lead James’ men for him in season 2, as we saw her do on the docks. But no, she was killed, not the male character. Of course.
Finally, James. His characterization is better than last episode for sure, but still. He has lost every right to cry about his sister after abandoning her without caring about the consequences. His reaction this episode adds to the problem of Zilpha’s death by giving the impression that it only occurred to give James some good old manpain for two minutes. No, no, and no. Zilpha deserved better.
And I am still a bit confused about his motivation. I get that he came back to London probably to take his father, the butler, and Zilpha with him (and also for RevengeTM!), but changed his mind. The problem is that it was done too fast in the two last episode rather than being given proper time to evolve more naturally. As it stands, his motivates seem confused more than complicated. And this despite Tom Hardy solid performance. So yeah, not entirely convinced by James yet.
Concluding Thoughts on Taboo Season 1
Despite my complaints, Taboo‘s first season was good. Not up to my expectations, but my expectations were very, very high. Having Steven Knight, Tom Hardy, and such interesting subject matter, I was expecting Taboo to be fantastic. It is just good.
Overall, it disappointed me, but I still enjoyed watching it and will likely watch season 2. I don’t know if I will review it yet, but I will watch it. Would I recommend everyone watch Taboo? Probably not because this show is definitively not for everyone. But if you enjoy period dramas with gritty subjects and ambiance, give it a try. It is still and without a doubt a very serious piece of work.