**Spoilers: Do not read if you have not watched Taboo episode 5**
It’s become a rule of thumb in this drama that James Delaney is not a man to be crossed.
Though thumb may be a slightly insensitive word to use around some people who associate with him… Tonight we saw what he did to that particular part of the anatomy of a man he knew (not suspected, knew) had betrayed him. And it wasn’t pleasant. He lopped it off.
The chilling thing about the incident wasn’t just the act itself. Or the fact that Delaney carried the thumb like a trophy. It was that he then warned his accomplices that he could read their minds. Given his dalliances with the magical and mystical, it was clear he meant that absolutely literally.
“I am inside your head, gentlemen, always,” he said. Good job they didn’t have HR departments in those days because that kind of boss has no right to behave like that in the workplace.
He also got the better of his enemy and half brother-in-law Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) in a duel. Not by killing him. No, it was worse. Delaney took a shot to his own heart, telling his foe that his “man” had not loaded his gun properly; then, instead of killing Thorne, Delaney despatched the interloper whom he had identified as a spy for the East India Company. He loves his surprises, does our James.
The bad news for Thorne came when his wife, Delaney’s half sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, below) reacted to the news. She couldn’t help but show her disappointment at her husband’s safe return when she thought Delaney was dead. But her punishment was to get exorcised by a very creepy cleric who seemed more intent on feeling her up than in banishing demons. What an awful scene that was.
The duel offered a dramatic start to tonight’s episode, the whole gang from the party the night before nursing what looked like epic hangovers, the possibility of death not exactly enhancing their moods or bringing much colour to their green faces. But there wasn’t much danger of our James facing the Grim Reaper. Not in the fifth of eight episodes anyway and with writer Steven Knight promising two series.
In fact, at the moment, there seems no stopping our anti-hero, who has stolen a large supply of saltpetre which he is using to manufacture gunpowder in order to trade skins with the Indians of Nootka Sound (or at least I think that’s the plan).
“We’ve screwed Maharajahs, we’ve screwed Moguls and this man is merely a London mongrel,” spat Jonathan Pryce’s malevolent merchant in chief Sir Stuart Strange.
But Sir Stuart seems to be losing his touch in the face of Jason Watkins’ slippery Solomon Coop (what a name) who is bettering him at the moment. And the Americans are also playing a good game – having learned about Delaney’s gunpowder manufacture, they strong-armed him into giving them some of the supply.
But, here’s the rub: they want it now and Tom Hollander’s arch, dry chemist Cholmondely knows that speeding up the manufacture is a dangerous thing, even if he has now acquired an assistant (pictured below).
Cholmondeley is one of the best things about this drama. Dry and honest about his enormous sexual appetite he has made no secret of fancying Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) – but will have to get round James who thinks it’s a bad idea to have one of his conspirators engaged in a sexual dalliance with the widow of his late father.
It also seems that the Prince Regent has got one over on the East India, his man Coop using the sinking of a ship illegally carrying slaves to try and get at them. And there was that astonishing scene in which Mark Gatiss’s royal was shown plotting against the East India while happening to be eating an enormous egg. Though whether it came from the stuffed ostrich in his quarters wasn’t explained.
But that is the great thing about this show – it’s gritty and brutal but moments of magic, fantasy and downright weirdness elide into the mix with seamless confidence. We’re just over half way through, and Taboo is getting a definite thumbs-up from me.