‘Taboo’ Episode 6 review: Tom Hardy’s drama has the whiff of a vanity project

The longer I watch Taboo, the more I keep thinking of that rhyme from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The one where they’re in the boat on the chocolate river:

‘There’s no earthly way of knowing,

Which direction they are going!

There’s no knowing where they’re rowing,

Or which way they river’s flowing!

Not a speck of light is showing,

So the danger must be growing…’

And six – SIX! – weeks in, there’s no earthly way of knowing the direction the show is going. Not a speck of light is showing (Taboo sculpts dinge and darkness like it’s Renaissance marble). And although the danger is clearly growing I’ve no idea what it’s growing into. Be honest, nor have you.

I’ve had a look around the bottom half of the Internet and it seems I’m not alone, to the point where I’m wondering if there’ll be an Emperor’s New Clothes moment when someone comes along and points out it’s about nothing more than an excuse for Tom Hardy to look great in a big hat and coat.

Certainly there is the whiff of the vanity project about Taboo. Each week Tom Hardy gets to growl menacingly, kill at least one man, look great in that idiosyncratic piece of Georgian get-up (you can tell he’s the lead as he gets the best costume – no one else has a big hat and swooshy coat) and we all get to watch, wonder what it was all about, and hope that next week will bring some answers.

And as ever, there are no answers but there’s plenty of…well, stuff, happening. Watching Taboo is like having a dream with titles and credits attached, but there are rare moments where lucidity breaks through and you can actually engage with what’s going on. Mr Cholmondely’s sermon on how mixing chlorate to gunpowder is ‘like adding a baby to a marriage’ is both another wonderful moment for Tom Hollander and, crucially, a part of the plot I actually fully understand.

Something I kinda-sorta have a grip on is the identity of the mysterious witch-doctor woman who’s been haunting Delaney’s dreams. It seems that it’s his mum, who tried to drown him when he was a baby. I can’t believe no one thought she might do that, what with her dressed all crazy and slathered in an inch of scary tribal make-up. ‘Darling I’m just taking the baby out for a while!’

Is that his mum though? Or is he conflating something that happened in Africa with the actions of his mum? Am I overthinking this? Taboo’s plotting is so opaque, it’s hard to know whether you’re overthinking it or not thinking about it enough.

On the same theme of murderous woman (hey, it’s nice to see both sexes getting a go), Zilpha, made all-wide eyed and empty by beatings and gropey exorcisms (and Oona Chaplin does hollowed out human incredibly well) stabs her husband Thorne to death in his bed. The same bed I’m pretty sure she later has sex with her step-brother Delaney in. Ick. And it gets a bit more ick as Delaney hallucinates visions of his mother while mid-coitus and attempts to strangle Zilpha. Boy oh boy, this show…

And speaking of getting fucked, Delaney’s plans hit a major setback as the East India Company blow up his ship full of lovely lovely gunpowder. I’m one step behind on what the East India Company want with Delaney at the minute. First they wanted him dead, then they needed him alive, and now they’re declaring war on him and making big explosions in his proximity. For an obscenely rich and powerful multinational corporation they sure are flakey.

Perhaps their mind’s just not on the job, given that they’re being investigated over the sinking of The Influence/The Cornwallis and the fact they’ve been illegally trading slaves? I’d like to have seen some more of that, but Taboo seems uneasy or uninterested in approaching racism beyond the insults that the Company men whisper behind George Chichester’s back.

His ship smithereened, his gunpowder literally up in smoke, but his hat game still on point, Delaney turns to drink, goes for a dip, and wakes up after his moonlit bender to find little Winter dead. Did he drown her like his mum tried to drown him?

Probably not. But this is Taboo. Anything can happen. Knowing that’s the easy part. Understanding it? Well, that’s a whole different coffin full of gunpowder…

Aired at 9.15pm on Saturday 11 February 2017 on BBC One.

Pre-order Taboo on DVD on Amazon here.

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