Taboo has an object problem, in that every single character is an object that James Delaney is be able to manipulate almost effortlessly. He pretty singularly tromps through every single episode and it's come to pass, at least up to this point, that every setback he's encountered has been little more than a temporary one.
Admittedly, the resolution of his most recent setback was particularly awesome. The previous episode's closing moments featured Geary challenging Delaney to a duel, which transpires at the opening of this one. This is one of those moments where we, as an audience, get to delight in a show being much more clever than we are. I frankly had no idea what was coming, and found the ultimate resolution — Geary's second turns out to be a Company man, who failed to load any bullets in his gun, prompting Delaney to use his own bullets on the back of the Company man's skull — to be fantastic. The scene is also thematically rich, using the paradoxically ordered barbarism of early 19th Century dueling as a lens to further examine the show's fascination with the distance between nobility and savagery inherent in high society and human beings in general. (Note how Delaney, thought by almost every other character in the scene to be an aberrant savage of a man, is the only one to offer up a relatively pleasant "Good morning" upon seeing his aggressors.)
The rest of the episode, unfortunately, isn't nearly as exciting. After the duel wraps up, the rest of the hour is mostly filled with table-setting, something to which every show has to dedicate at least one episode these days.
The hunt is on for the saltpeter that Delaney and Co. stole in the previous episode, so James goes around and tells his cohorts to brace themselves for the coming inquest. In the process, he dispatches three different adversaries with relative ease. This highlights the show's central problem: Delaney is in God Mode, and has been since the series' start. He seemed pretty wounded by that knife he took to the gut towards the series' start, but since then he's been easily manipulating just about everyone around him, including the heavies sent to rough him up. In this episode, James quickly gets the better of a tail who tries to follow him to his gunpowder making facility, cuts the thumb off a crewmember who was about to sell him out (how he knows this is never addressed), and remotely gets the better of a Company spy sent to intimidate one of Helga's workers. Easy peasy!
At this point, the only actual roadblock Delaney finds himself up against comes in the form of The Americans. Only it's not really an actual roadblock at all: they just want to also please have some of the gunpowder he's making, they're willing to trade with him for it, and they are happy to tell him about this super secret process for making gunpowder really fast so that Delaney can meet the newly accelerated timetable they've forced upon him. No sweat!
MEANWHILE, AT THE EAST INDIA TRADING COMPANY, Stuart Strange is fucking furious, and rightly so because James Delaney is playing the shit out of him and everyone else in this show with the absolute greatest of ease. Not only did Delaney set the EIC up to take the fall for the theft of the saltpeter (losing it makes them criminally liable, turns out), but the investigation has turned up information on an East India ship that had been used to transport human cargo. Hah! Gotcha!
Acting on behalf of the Crown, Coop turns out to have uncovered letters from a man named Chichester, who has been demanding that an investigation be made into the EIC's supposed transportation of slaves. In keeping with the Taboo's exploration of possession and ownership, we see that Coop — and by extension, the Crown — plans simply to manipulate Chichester's humanitarian efforts, reducing him and his quest for justice to mere tools in the feud with East India.
This idea is similarly visited elsewhere in the episode, as James tells Lorna how his father bought his mother for beads...only to institutionalize her when he wasn't able to mold her apparent "savage" nature into the noblewoman he desired. It's one of the first moments wherein James acknowledges that his father was a less-than-savory individual, and it's a moment that deepens the character to a critical degree. Now, if only the show would actually cook up a believably compelling adversary for him to go up against, we'd have the A+ material that Hardy and his performance deserve.
For all the things Taboo gets right, though, it really doesn't know how to treat women. Oona Chaplin's Zilpha continues to more or less be an object used to represent the struggle between Geary, Delaney, and Geary's raging insecurities. This episode sees her savagely beaten, and then subjected to a particularly gropey exorcism in one of the series' more clumsy sequences to date. Threatening to derail the entire episode, the exorcism sequence features a Zilpha apparently rendered incapable of speech, Chaplin's performance a bizarre alternation between terrified (which makes sense) and enraged like a woman who's possessed by a demon might be enraged (which doesn't make sense). I'm frankly sick of seeing Zilpha get terrorized as a method of dramatically kickstarting James's story and illustrating Thorne's masculine insecurities, and it's going to be insanely disappointing if her redemption comes as a result of being coached by James (this seems foreshadowed by her "Teach me. Guide me." at the episode's end). Zilpha needs some agency, and fast.
Oh, and also...
• I'm glad to see that Cholmondeley is at least kind and caring towards the little boy. He continues to be the show's best character, by a long shot.
• If we don't find out how the fuck Delaney knows everything and has all of the money, I'm going to flip a table or two.
• Delaney's preferred move in a fight is the ol' stab-and-tear. Gets 'em every time.