Possession is often said to be nine-tenths of the law, but on Taboo, it's pretty much all anybody cares about. As different parties scramble to take possession over various people, places, and things, they all have one uniting characteristic: their quest reduces them to utter savagery, something that stands in stark contrast to their very Victorian obsession with high society, manners, and other Edith Wharton type things.
And that's about it. Taboo is the kind of show that pretty much lays its cards out on the table in a real plain way, right from the very start. James Delaney's father dies. His death prompts a resurrection of sorts as it causes James to return to London from Africa. We first see him entering London by way of creaky rowboat on foggy river, obligatory hooded shroud in place, his crossing into London made into an almost literal River Styx. In case that image wasn't on-the-nose enough for you, we're smash cut into an extreme close up of a dude's face with dimes on his eyes mere moments later. Taboo is that kind of show, and the problem is that it doesn't always know it.
As Delaney sets about securing his father's inheritance — and by extension, his family legacy — he has to deal with the East India Trading Company, a newly-formed America, and the proverbial Crown. All three of whom want very much to see him dead for one reason or another. Delaney basically just manipulates every one around him, which is awesome until it gets tiresome: seeing a guy constantly be smarter than everyone else in the room can be fun but it's rarely compelling and almost never good (lookin' at you, season one of House of Cards and also just every single season of Sherlock).
Delaney has been served up enough setbacks to keep things from getting truly monotonous, but we've yet to see anything in the way of a real adversary for him. It sure as hell isn't Stuart Strange, the outburst-prone head of the East India. He's a great foil for Delaney in that his bursts of profane shoutery do a great job of illustrating the "savagery" that lurks beneath the surface of the brittle facade most Victorian men call nobility, but his character is so thinly-sketched and broadly bad that he fails to become anything other than a tool in the story, existing solely to help the writers accomplish things, but never coming to life as his own living, breathing person. (Compare and contrast: the High Sparrow had way more depth, perhaps because we actually spent some time with him?) Cartoonish evil is never fun to watch, especially when it sets its sights on sexual violence. Let's not even get started on the rapeyness in this week's episode. That maybe gets its own piece.
After all my complaining, though? This fourth episode is easily the show's best. It's the most focused, thanks to clear stakes and a relatively singular objective: steal the saltpeter so we can make us some gunpowder. The planning and execution of the heist make for some great stuff, even if the Victorian party with which it's intercut almost immediately descends into obnoxious screaming Victorian party cliché. The camerawork and visuals that are used to illustrate Delaney's PTSD and aversion to crowds during the party scene also serve to flesh out some of the thematic points I was describing above, but again: it's all on the nose and winds up just being a bit annoying.
Either way, the game is certainly afoot. At this point, Taboo is more enjoyable than not. There's plenty to complain about, but frankly there's also plenty to enjoy before you get around to thinking about all the stuff that might invite your complaints. When it comes down to it, Taboo is an interesting Gothic tale of intrigue and ghosts and weird super powers and whatnot. Its execution might feel a bit first year, even if the pedigree behind it is responsible for some of the best stuff I've seen in a while (Locke is a movie that deserves your immediate attention), but the good work at hand is enough to keep me interested in coming back. So far, Taboo's blend of the historical and fantastical works: the ratio is just enough to keep one from overpowering the other, and each seems well researched (check out haruspicy for some true "what the fuck" if you want to know a little more about why Delaney gutted his attacker). Some of the thematic work might be a tad on the nose, but there's a lot to enjoy about Taboo. Here's hoping it doesn't drop the ball.
Oh, and also...
• Holy shit, I hope Geary gets shot directly in the face next week. Like, I hope the duel opens the episode and Delaney just immediately brains him and that's that. It's borderline unceremonious and the show just totally moves on as if to say "Fuck that guy, right?"
• I am perpetually braced for the bro/sis sex scene I know we're going to be forced through at some point in the next four weeks. :(
• I demand that there be a Better Call Saul-esque Cholmondeley spin-off series.