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Taboo - Episode 6 - Review

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Two episodes before the end of its debut season, Taboo has decided to start bringing its various narrative threads to a head, providing climaxes to plots that have been progressing methodically all season long. Perhaps the most notable of these occurs at the very end of last night's episode, which saw the sad but inevitable death of Winter, the daughter of Helga. From the moment Winter appeared on the show she seemed destined to meet her end at some point, and that point has been reached.

Her death may have been the most important development in last night's episode, but it's also the one I'm least sure about from a writing standpoint. The episode's conclusion was intentionally ambiguous of course, but seemed to suggest, along with the rest of the episode, that James was in fact responsible. Last night saw the show take a big step when it comes to James' mental instability. Where once it was only hinted at, this episode sees him haunted by memories of his mother, almost strangle his sister without realizing, remove even more body parts from his men, kill the man who raised his son, and maybe kill the one truly innocent character on the show.

To an extent, James has always been a slightly unreliable narrator. We see much of the show through his eyes, yet we don't really know him or trust him. He's too unpredictable, too elusive for viewers, and other characters, to pin down. And while it's unclear if he really did kill Winter (I think there may be a twist coming), this episode, in particular its conclusion, only makes the show's protagonist more unreachable, more unknowable.

Right now I don't think this hurts the show, and in the next episode or two may actually help it, as the writers will surely play with viewers' loyalties towards James, while knowing that he may have done something so terrible. But long term this may well have pushed the show into a corner. At best, James is a character viewers can't trust, and at worst he's a vicious serial killer. If all TV shows are inevitably built on empathy, from both characters and viewers, then you can see how this may one day be a problem for Taboo.

But, in fairness, this is just speculation, and the show hasn't really put a major foot wrong thus far. And on the whole this episode was maybe the show's most satisfying from a narrative standpoint, as not only did it escalate the conflict between James and East India, but it granted viewers the death of Zilpha's husband Thorne, a fan-favourite character who met his end after his wife stabbed him through the chest with a hat-pin. In the last couple of episodes that subplot has taken on a kind of gothic horror vibe, and that remained in this scene, which was equal parts satisfying and unsettling.

The immediate aftermath of Thorne's death was fascinating. In it, we saw a different side to Zilpha, temporarily, at least. Up until now Oona Chaplin's performance was very restrained, the character's immense pain in conflict with her rigid body language. When Zilpha goes to tell James what she did, she transforms, becoming almost giddy with excitement. But this scene also reversed the roles James and Zilpha have held in the show so far, with James now seeming the reluctant party, still unable to escape what Brakes told him about his mother. All of which climaxed in the aforementioned scene in which James nearly strangles his sister mid-coitus after Thorne's funeral.

This was an episode that found several of the show's characters give into darker instincts, most notably James and Zilpha. This is heavily foreshadowed in perhaps the episode's most striking image; James and co. transporting the unstable gunpowder on boats through a tunnel, a scene that made me think of Greek mythology. James and his men, sailing down the River Styx, with Hades awaiting them on the other side. At the end of the episode James is at his most vulnerable, from a business and emotional standpoint. Without a ship, losing the loyalty of his men, and likely suspected of a gruesome murder he may or may not have committed. Taboo seems poised to only get crazier.

Grade: B+

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