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Taboo - Episode 3 - Review

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In its first two episodes, "Taboo" was mostly carried by its dark, offbeat, and ever so slightly campy tone, and the mesmerizing performance of Tom Hardy at its center. But while those two episodes mostly consisted of patient set-up, tonight's third episode saw the show's core intrigue ramp up significantly following the attempted assassination at the end of last week's episode. While in prior episodes I was watching with curiosity and hope that the show builds on its solid start, after this latest hour I find myself far more invested in the season's larger storyline.

Political machinations have been rumbling in the series' backdrop up until now, but in this episode they were front and center, as James' improbable survival and new will leaving Nootka Sound to the US in event of his death leaving Stuart Strange and the rest of the East India Company scrambling. Taboo is exploring a period in history that has been neglected by pop culture in recent years, and using the War of 1812 as a backdrop for its story is bearing fruit.

A great example of this is the episode's scene between Strange and Solomon Coop, who works for the Prince Regent (who makes another hilarious and bizarre appearance in the episode). The writing in this scene is bordering on gleeful, as both men boast about the number of spies in their employ before Coop won the battle. The scene is an example of high satire, and because it's played with such winking self-awareness it proves not only enjoyable but involving, serving to further complicate the show's ever expanding world of characters, all of whom seem to have some sort of ulterior motive.

While at first "Taboo" may have appeared to be something unique, a show that ignores many of TV's conventions (much like say, "The Young Pope"), but as the episodes have progressed it has begun to incorporate more and more familiar storytelling beats. One obvious example is last week's introduction of Lorna, an actress claiming to be the widow of James' father. In this episode Lorna has a greater presence, moving into her late-husband's house, which she claims she co-owns with James.

With this plot development "Taboo" introduces a commonly seen element in TV drama, that being two characters who don't really like each other are forced to live together for a short time. So it's to the show's credit that James and Lorna's dynamic avoids feeling familiar, the dialogue between the two filled with a tense energy that feels fresh. But her moving into the house also serves the plot, as it makes James position more vulnerable, as he fears East India or the Crown will find a sway to use her against him. As the end of the episode indicates, that may be just what's about to happen.

But while "Taboo" seems increasingly comfortable with acting like a regular, if still excitably weird, TV show, it still likes to take common TV conventions and giving them a bit of a twist. This is seen most notably in the relationship between James and Zilpha. Structured like any other will they/won't they romance subplot, the incest angle gives it a sharper edge, as it feels like something we haven't quite seen before. Yes, other series' have included incest subplots in recent years, but I don't think I've seen a show seem to actively root for an incestuous relationship quite like "Taboo".

Right now, that aspect of the show is working, much of which is due to excellent performances from Hardy and Chaplin. The latter in particular is doing a lot with very little. With limited screen-time and a very restrained character with minimal dialogue, Chaplin imbues Zilpha with a lot of humanity, conveying her character's internal struggles not with words but with subtle facial expressions and body language.

To survive, "Taboo" needs to be more than a Tom Hardy-vehicle, and this episode gave me further confidence that it can become that. With a supporting cast that is only growing more colourful, and a plot that is only getting more involving, "Taboo" is building some solid foundations for future episodes. A distinctive visual style and Tom Hardy is not quite enough to build a show on, and "Taboo" seems very aware of that.

Best line: "My servant wants to shoot you in the face."

Grade: A-

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