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Taboo - Episode 7 - Review

19 Feb 2017

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For its first six episodes Taboo has kept viewers at a distance when it comes to its protagonist. As I touched on in last week's review, we as viewers are constantly unsure of what James is thinking at any one moment. Thus far, the series has portrayed him as more of a force of nature than a fully formed and grounded human being. While his humanity has shone through at certain moments, particularly when thinking of his mother, James has remained an elusive figure to the audience, with much of his past and his motivations still shrouded in some mystery.

At all times James carries with him a near-supernatural (maybe without the "near") omniscience, appearing to us and the other characters to be one step ahead of his adversaries. This season has seen him conduct a sort-of guerrilla war with both the Crown and the East India Company, and though the threat of execution has always hung over him, James has never seemed too concerned by the prospect, seeming confident about his survival and success.

This episode sees that aforementioned omniscience taken one step further. An episode that saw James' efforts begin to crumble as the season's myriad narrative threads began to collide, his casual demeanor was proven to be justified, as his arrest and subsequent torture was shown to be all a part of his large, convoluted plan. On the one hand, this is a little unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. For most of the episode, it seemed as if James, for once, didn't have the upper hand, giving the drama a little more tension, raising the stakes a bit.

But on the other hand, this episode did give James a more definitive motivation for his actions in the series thus far: guilt over his responsibility for the deaths of the slaves on the Cornwallis, and anger at those who were responsible for putting the slaves on the ship in the first place. By grounding James' motivations and making them clear to viewers, not only does it make this episode's conclusion more satisfying, but it also lends much of this season a more tragic weight.

It's interesting that Taboo followed up last week's episode, which showed James at his most monstrous, with an hour that seemed dedicated to humanizing him in the eyes of viewers. That's not just seen in his first scene with Chichester (who is quickly becoming one of the show's best characters), but throughout the episode. It's seen in the kindness he shows Godfrey, one of the series' more tragic figures, or his obvious horror at the possibility that he was responsible for Winter's death (though it is later revealed that it was the East India who committed the act). Last week I was concerned about Taboo's long-term viability due to its nebulous protagonist, but this episode was certainly a step in the right direction.

But this episode was a pretty satisfying hour outside of the solid work done with the man at the show's center. While it's perhaps understandable to have qualms with James' omniscience, this hour was extremely efficient in bringing the season's long-running narrative threads to a head, a process that had already begun last week. Helga's betrayal was inevitable, and Winter's death only made it more so. Also inevitable was the reveal that Brace was the one who poisoned James' father, showing the depth of that character's madness and tragedy.

An example of good storytelling is providing narrative payoffs that feel both surprising and obvious in retrospect, the result of careful character work and narrative trickery. Taboo has been a slow burn for much of its debut season, but here it was ruthless in its momentum, determined to knock down the status quo it had established. Despite clocking in at nearly an hour, the same length as every other episode, this penultimate hour felt more lean. Gone now is the exposition, and everything is ready for a finale that might truly live up to the show's promise.

Grade: A-