Content Warning: The following review contains mentions of spousal abuse and marital rape as portrayed on the show.
So after the big cliffhanger of last episode how does Taboo keep up? Let’s see.
The episode opens without immediately answering our burning question. Did James accept his brother-in-law’s challenge? For now, we are left wondering with the river of ominousness.
But we don’t have to wait long to know what will happen, as both James and his brother-in-law are sailing the river of ominousness to meet for their duel. Lorna decides to follow them. They arrives at an island where a referee and Thoyt are waiting for them. The precise the rule of the duel is that it will stop at first blood. Thorne Geary, Zilpha’s husband, (I had to look online for his name) doesn’t seems that pleased with this development, but since the duel is with guns it’s still possible to kill the opponent and draw first blood at the same time. Hooray for loopholes. Since James is missing a witness Lorna steps in for him.
The duel begins and… Thorne shoots first and hits James! And very close to the heart!
But what is this? James is not bleeding. Thorne’s gun wasn’t properly loaded. James makes fun of his brother-in-law and explains him that his witness must work for the East India Company. He doesn’t openly laugh at the man, but it sure feels like a comeback for their episode 3 conversation. He then proceeds to shoot Thorne’s witness and leave.
We cut to Zilpha waiting at her house for the result of the duel. She sees her husband and smiles(?) for two seconds before remembering what he did to her. Anyway, she hugs him, but he is bizarrely cold. (Must be the near death-experience he just had.) Zilpha asks him what happened. He lies at first, claiming that he has killed James, but he doesn’t even try to make it credible. Zilpha asks him for the truth, but he denies it. The all scene is pretty sad to watch and nearly makes me feel bad for Thorne… (remembering he raped Zilpha) no wait, nevermind.
Back to the Delaney’s house, where Lorna and the butler continue to bound. The butler informs Lorna and James that last night was very busy. Soldiers were running in the streets looking for robbers. He implies that he knows that James is behind it and informs him that the thieves will be hung. James tells him to let every soldier search the house if they come and runs away from the conversation with Lorna.
We follow them to the dock where they eat together while Lorna tries to convince James that having a normal life when you don’t have to dodge death every two hours is fine too. James doesn’t seems to be interested in the concept. But, he explains her that he isn’t taking as much of a risk as she thinks he is, because the saltpeter belonged to the Crown, and the East India Company was responsible for it. This means that the Crown will not use it against James but against the company. He then reminds her that he is still waiting for the trunk full of his father’s belongings and leaves.
Lorna is pissed by his behavior, but Winter arrives to keep her company. The girl explains her that she also wants to see James live. They sort of bound over their weird fascination with James.
The next scene follows soldiers in blue (The East India Company?) storming and searching every building belonging to James. They find virtually nothing and are pissed.
We go back to James, who is riding in the countryside. But someone is following him. James beats the crap out of the poor guy, tells him to go back to his master, and continues his journey. He arrives at the farm where he has established his tiny illegal chemistry factory and meets with his chemist. They discuss the robbery, the quality of the chemicals, and Lorna. Chemistry guy seems to have taken a liking to her and wants to ‘court’ her. James neither agrees nor disagrees but he doesn’t look very pleased either. He makes his way toward the house and informs everyone, including the 10-year-old boy (probably his son), of the details of the robbery. He also adds that they will be hung for their knowledge, before entrusting the boy to the chemist. What a nice man.
In the mean time, Lorna has brought the famous trunk back to the Delaney’s house. The butler looks distressed and states that he would have preferred that James’ father ‘had burnt it with the rest’.
We return to James, who meets with Atticus and his men. He threatens them, cutting the thumb off of a man he labelled a traitor. Then, he heads over to Helga’s brothel, where he makes more or less the same point. He tells them the East India Company can’t arrest them, and then threaten them by showing the severed thumb.
We then head over to the East India Company, where Stu is super duper angry at the rest of the world. At James because he stole the saltpeter, and at the Crown because he wants to prosecute them for negligence. He decides to destroy both. However, this time his temper makes him look less in control than before.
Later, after he has performed a weird pagan ritual, we return to James. He is sitting in front of the fireplace at home and is burning the contents of the trunk. Lorna tries to stop him. He doesn’t stop but explains to her a bit of his mother’s back story. How she was bought for gunpowder and forced to lie about herself for the rest of her life. How, when she decided she wouldn’t anymore, she was interned in an asylum by her husband. He eventually finds what he was looking for: the Nootka contract.
We move on to Regent and Coop as they discuss the worst they can do against the East India Company. Coop suggests it would actually be better to target Sir Stuart Strange directly. He also says he knows just the right thing to do.
Dr Dumbarton has summoned James to the hospital where he works. The good doctor informs James that the American blocus is running short on gunpowder and wants James to provide it. James answers that the powder isn’t ready and will not be before a certain time. Dr. Dumbarton informs James that he has no choice and tells him to speak with his chemist about the French experiment.
James does so, and the chemist doesn’t look thrilled, quite the contrary. The French experiment was a tentative one to mass produce gunpowder quickly to keep the French control over Mauritius. What did the French do to manage this? They did what French people do better: they improvised by adding chlorate. And it worked freaking well. So freaking well that they blew up half of the island. The chemist doesn’t want to try it (which is weird for a chemist, since we all absolutely adore dangerous experiments with high output). To get out of it he reminds James that his son’s life will be in danger. James eventually forces him by reminding him that the Americans know is name and terrible things will happen to him if he refuses.
Once again, we join Zilpha in her room at night. Once again, her husband enters uninvited. He hears her saying James’s name in her sleep and decides to beat her. Nope, not the slightest bit sorry for that guy.
We return to Coop in his office where he is conversing with a black man called Mr. Chichester. This man sent him a letter about the sinking of the Influence, the boat James was on, 9 years ago. He wants a Royal commission to investigate the sinking of the ship, which he thinks was deliberate. He also teaches Coop one or two things about racism. By the end of the conversation, Coop gives him what he wanted: a letter to prosecute the powerful man he believes to be responsible.
And who is this powerful man? Well unsurprisingly the next scene answers that question: Sir Stuart Strange. He has completely lost his cool. He asks the head of the Africa desk to deal with it, telling him to offer Chichester full and willing cooperation but also burn some papers.
We cut to Countess Musgrove’s house, who seems to have a shitty relation with her husband. Right now, James is here to inform her that the gunpowder will be ready on time. We discover that she has no idea about the gunpowder business but does have some news to give James. She has advised the Americans to accept the monopoly James wants against Nootka. James decides that it must include safe passage in the American blocus. She tells him that he has to sign the contract first. James leaves, but they are both full of mistrust for the other.
We close the episode at Zilpha’s house. Her husband has paid an exorcist. She tries to resist both men but they tie her to the ground and the exorcism begins. It’s unsettling to watch, so I won’t describe it in detail here. Once she is finally freed, she waits a little while before joining her husband in his/her room. For a brief second before the episode ends, she looks like she is going to kill him.
Even if this episode doesn’t have the ridiculous aspects of the last one (and for one moment I was afraid it would), I liked it a bit less. Overall, though Taboo continues to be very good.
I am very glad that we get to see James being less talented that his ‘opponents’. I wasn’t expecting Thorne to shoot first and hit James. Rather that having a shield ‘in scenarium’, James has a shield ‘in Eastindiacompanium’. I also appreciate the fact that he has to obey the Americans in the gunpowder matter. Dr. Dumbarton is super sinister, and I absolutely adore it. Did he launch a cholera epidemic just to keep the Crown and the East India Company away? Why yes, yes he did.
At the same time, James is too omniscient. How does he knows about the whistleblower? The episode never gave us an answer, and it’s unlikely to come up again. Chances are, we’ll never know. I am not a fan of this.
This episode put now well-known characters in different situations that shed new light on them. Sir Stuart is now completely unsettled. Seeing him desperately trying to escape justice is really interesting. Same for Thorne. He is still a massive dick, but we’re starting to see where he is coming from. I still hate him, of course, but during his first scene with Zilpha, I felt bad for him for 5 seconds. That is an achievement in and of itself.
The scene with Chichester is excellent. The fact that he insists on talking about the slaves on the ship when Coop doesn’t want to hear it was interesting. He forces Coop to face reality, and therefore us. We face the horror of what happened on that ship through something other than James’ trauma. How Chichester manages to silence Coop’s rampant racism is also pretty great. he shuts down Coop’s assumptions that he only cares because he is a black man like the slaves. He is not fighting for ‘his people’, he is fighting for mankind, because slavery is a crime against humanity. It’s important to have a black man openly saying this, even more so in a period drama where racial issues are often swept under the rug.
Finally, the confrontation between Lorna and James when he is burning his father’s belongings is one of the best moment of the episode. It is emotionally charged for both characters, but most of all, it explains the more than mixed filling James has for his father without stealing someone else’s trauma. James resents his father for what he has done to his mother. He despises his father’s actions, everything from the fact that he bought her to the fact that he sent her to an asylum after making her lie for his own convenience for her entire life. However, he never claims to be the one directly traumatized by it. His pain and anger are visible, but his mother was the victim, not him.
All in all, Taboo is still very enjoyable, and I am eager for episode 6. I hope that James will struggle a bit more.