I’ve read that we should view the gritty FX series Taboo as a chess game, with all the pieces in place from the beginning of the show, and I guess that metaphor would work if you love chess (I do) and if you also did not know from the start of the “game” that Tom Hardy’s James Delaney was predestined to win (and that he would break most of the chess pieces just because he could, so there…).
I know that the East India Company has been portrayed with extreme historical inaccuracy and prejudice, and not just because every single person who worked for the villainous Sir Stuart Strange, especially the bunglers Wilton and Pettifer, was unbelievably stupid and incompetent, nor because everyone in the East India was so irredeemably wicked that the audience cheered when one of them got killed (oy, talk about bad writing and one-dimensional characters, even if it was slightly emotionally satisfying to see the bad guys eventually get knocked off).
I knew James was going to somehow “escape” or negotiate his way out of the Tower of London, if only because the Prince Regent has been portrayed as one of the most disgustingly grotesque and inept characters in television history, and because his man Coop, for all his political power and threatening demeanor, has proven himself an incredible amateur, even with an experienced torturer-executioner doing his nefarious bidding, and with the prisoner James arrested for treason and confined in a prison as historically escape-proof as France’s Bastille.
If you’re a man on Taboo, i.e., if you’re a man who has also been helping James throughout the season, I know that you’ve already won a coveted spot on James’ new boat, commandeered by the East India expressly for James in exchange for the coveted Nootka Island & Sound, and that you’re going to acquit yourself admirably in the finale’s big and explosive Shoot-Out At the Docks.
I knew, after the opening scene of the finale, that if you’re a woman on Taboo, you’re meat for the grinder, or food for fishes, as they say, no matter how much James Keziah Delaney claims to love you and no matter what he does to rescue you from someone else’s clutches.
I knew that James Keziah Delaney was going to be on that boat (no matter how he ultimately got one) headed for America at the end of the Taboo season finale no matter what happened to him in the series — assassination attempts, duels, torture, waterboarding, seizures, hallucinations, visions, betrayal, etc. — because he was the star, I mean, the STAR of the show and not just because he was played by Oscar-winner Tom Hardy who is also one of the producers and whose father “Chips” helped write the series.
How do I know all these things?
Because they are some of the weaknesses in Taboo’s writing, present during the entire season, but magnified exponentially in the finale.
Despite its flaws and weaknesses, Taboo was intense and intriguing enough to make me look forward to it every week, albeit in the hopes of an emotionally satisfactory finale that might reveal some strong historical political commentary (e.g., on slavery, the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism), some startling moral commentary (e.g., on incest, madness, slavery, imperialism, colonial rebellion, war), or some impressive exploration of the metaphysical (i.e., James’ visions and his ability to “hear the dead sing”) and the relation of the spiritual, metaphysical world to the physical one (e.g., that James and Winter were actually both ghosts who were able to significantly impact the physical world around them).
Unfortunately, Taboo didn’t deliver in the areas that most interested me. Instead, the finale deteriorated into a predictable, although well done, Shoot-Out on the Docks, with James and a chosen few of his (mostly male) comrades finally heading off to Nootka on a ship that replaced the British Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes because everybody on board was somehow transformed miraculously into “Americans” with a Safe-Passage extorted (by James via “stepmother” Lorna) from the spymaster Countess Musgrove.
But before we get to the important questions that didn’t get answered in Taboo’s finale, which made both the finale and the entire series ultimately disappointing, let’s recap what happened to all the characters.
Representing King and Country
The Prince Regent
(Mark Gatiss, in prosthetics and extreme padding)
Still eating (almost always with his fingers, it seems), last we saw of him.
Sir Solomon Coop
Penultimately seen cursing aloud to himself as he walked down the royal hallway into the presence of the Prince Regent to inform him that all their plans were bust.
Last seen just standing there while his Highness made pronouncements, between bites of food, about hanging the traitor James.
Sons of Africa Attorney Chichester
Last seen standing alone in James’ bedroom attic, holding two now-useless testimonies against Sir Stuart Strange, whom he wanted to prosecute on behalf of the Crown for (illegal) slave-trading.
Representing the American Colonies
Dead. Stabbed by James after he revealed that he knew Dumbarton was, in reality, a spy for the East India, which no one — and I mean, no one at all — saw any evidence of before the finale.
Spymaster Countess Musgrove
Probably returned to playing cards and drinking with her society lady-friends after giving Lorna the Safe-Passage for James et al.
Downtrodden & Unfortunate
Dead. Murdered by Pettifer of the East India after being one of the few truly likable characters in the show.
Dead, killed in the Shoot-Out after being “rescued” from the East India.
Representing James’ Cohorts
Last seen on the ship bound for Nootka after admirably acquitting himself in the “rescue” of Helga and companion, and in the Shoot-Out at the Docks.
The womanizing but still charming chemist (& medical doctor) Cholmondeley
Dead, hoist by his own petard (i.e., killed by an explosion of his own gunpowder), during the Shoot-Out on the Docks, though he was carried onto the boat before he expired.
Representing the Oh-So-Wicked East India
Family attorney Thoyt
Dead. Shot in the head after delivering the East-India-commandeered boat to James and his men.
Dead. Killed by Atticus after allowing Helga and the other whore to be “rescued.”
James’ childhood companion, the “Molly” Secretary Godfrey
Last seen huddling onboard (below-decks, I think) with James et al, headed to Nootka.
Sir Stuart Strange
Dead and splattered as he sat behind his desk in the East India, cackling with glee as he opened what he presumed was the deed transferring Nootka from James to the East India (in exchange for the rescued whores and for the boat).
Representing James’ Family
Dead, though we don’t know when or how.
Dead. Poisoned with arsenic by servant Brace because… because Old Man Delaney was wearing makeup? because he wasn’t a Christian any longer? because he was wearing makeup and because he wasn’t a Christian anymore? Brace’s motive wasn’t made entirely clear.
Loyal family servant Brace
Last seen alone, sobbing in the dark, abandoned in the family home with an aging doggie, presumably because he poisoned James’ father with arsenic, and despite his poignant pleading with James to be allowed to accompany him to Nootka.
Stepmother Lorna Bow
Last seen Unconscious on the boat to Nootka, shot in the shoulder or upper arm after proving herself not only the sole developed female character of the series but a serious Bad-Ass besides since she could fire a gun with the best of the men in the Shoot-Out on the Docks. I assume her character lived.
Brother-in-law Thorne Geary
Dead. Killed with a hat-pin through the heart as he lay sleeping, by his spouse-raped wife Zilpha.
Son, by incest with his sister Zilpha, Robert
Last seen on the boat to Nootka with James.
Supposedly belovèd sister Zilpha
Suicide by jumping into River Thames in the finale after James cruelly abandoned her and cast her off himself in the penultimate episode.
Or, as Vulture reviewer Sean T. Collins wrote, “tossed off a bridge by writers who couldn’t figure out anything more interesting to do with Oona Chaplin.”
Killed by the writers in a ridiculously stupid move that takes all the “taboo” out of Taboo.
Alas and alack, some of my most important questions, which were raised by Taboo itself during its first seven episodes, never got answered, not even in the finale.
• Is James Keziah Delaney dead, resurrected, or was he just born with a really strange ability to hear the dead “sing” to him?
• What are all the dark things James did that are so much worse than what the East India obviously did?
• What, exactly, did the East India do to James that made Sir Stuart state that “this was all about revenge” and make Sir Solomon Coop ask, “My god, what did you do to him, Stuart?”
• Did Sir Stuart and the East India sell James into slavery? If so, did Sir Stuart, who owned the sunken ship on which James was the sole survivor, sell James into slavery because he refused to cooperate in the drowning of the slave “cargo” bound for Sir Stuart’s brother’s plantation in Antiqua?
• Was James a slave himself?
• What happened to James’ mother?
• What did James’ father regret so much that he stood on the banks of the river calling to James in Africa?
• Did James’ own father sell him into slavery for incest with his sister Zilpha?
• Does James really love his sister or does he just like having sexual relations with her?
• Did James cast Zilpha off for her own protection while he dealt with the murderous East India and the Crown’s Sir Coop-ster, or was James really that much of an SOB?
• Is that single tear the sole evidence we’re going to get of James’ grief over the death of his belovèd sister? I mean, come on, now, you writer-guys…
• Is James really and truly a ghost and is that why no one in Great Britain, emphasis on Great, can kill the boy?
• What in God’s name is so important about Nootka that everyone and his brother will commit the 7 Deadly Sins and break all the 10 Commandments in order to have that silly little island?
And why didn’t we get to see more of the gorgeously buff-to-the-max Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney in this kind of scene?
SERIOUS TRIGGER WARNING HERE
Do Not Say I Didn’t Warn You
Proceed At Your Own Risk
The Boy is Obviously Nude
And this one?
And this one…
(which, I admit, looks like it was clandestinely taken by a Taboo crew member or extra since it doesn’t look like anything that FX could have shown here in America but which could have been in the original BBC production and then cut from the US show which really annoys me if that’s what happened because we’re all adults here and… I’m just saying…)
Now that Zilpha is dead, and I can only assume that she is, indeed, dead since she “kissed” brother and love-of-her-life James “good-bye” in his vision of her body underwater, there’s no more “taboo” in Taboo and it doesn’t look like anyone much cares if there’s going to be a second season any ol’ way.
Taboo’s finale, though action-packed during the second half of the hour, neglected to answer any of the most intriguing moral questions it posed during the season.
Because the writers also killed off the woman who was half of the “taboo” relationship, the finale was ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing.
Tom Hardy & FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good
No Spoiler Review
FX’s Taboo: Is the “Cunning Savage” Noble, Too?
4 Responses to Dead, Dead, BOOM: Taboo’s Disappointing Finale
New topic, but same topic.
As a writer, one is cursed with smelling bad writing a mile off, which sours (most) television-watching experiences. For example: In “Falling Skies” I learned there’s a 20% chance of a new alien species being introduced this episode because what else are the few survivors of Earth going to do today? Also, that if you are a teenage girl, you are literally a monster and will get shot, oh, 5-6 times, because this happened only to every teenage girl in that series.
On the other hand, when you see good writing in action, you want to stand up and applaud! Like with Sneaky Pete, you know the cons, you see them coming, but still, the writing is delightful in the trip that you take getting there, and what enamored me to this series is that 1) the little moments between the characters were precious and sweet and heartfelt and credible 2) there was room in the writing to have these little moments and to take the time to savor them. I enjoyed Sneaky Pete more for the family time around the house and around Bridgeport, CT than any of the cons being run.
There’s something in what you wrote and what I’ve seen: when characters are sacrificed because the show must go on, it stinks of writing taking shortcuts on the characters and on us, but when characters are allowed to be themselves, we connect better with them and enjoy the story that much more.
Can you … let Hollywood and TVwood know this? I’d really rather not waste my time watching a good show sink itself when the writers give up on tough situations by taking the easy way out, over and over again.
Nice, detailed, cutting review Taboo and its failing. Looking forward to reading about the gems you find along the way.
What wonderful comments about Falling Skies and Sneaky Pete. Now I know which to watch and which to avoid.
I agree about bad writing in Hollywood and TVwood, and get so annoyed or disappointed when writers don’t do their jobs properly, for whatever reason, leaving fans feeling cheated. I was even willing to overlook Taboo’s production flaws (e.g., all the mumbling and incoherent dialogue) because the storyline was so strong, and because I was really excited about seeing just how far Taboo would push the taboo of the love and sexual relationship between the siblings.
When the writers killed off Zilpha, after leaving her the least developed character in the show, I was upset, then outraged (talk about using a woman for one’s own ends, you writer guys), then confused since the taboo is now gone from Taboo. Some of my friends are still convinced that Zilpha is alive and hidden somewhere on the boat with James et al heading for Nootka and the brave new world.
If Zilpha is alive, will that be more “bad writing” or will it be a plausible plot development?
I haven’t decided yet.
Thank you for the compliments, and happy to have you along for the ride.
And still….Taboo was a wonderful weird journey! I’ll miss it….
Just because I was disappointed in the finale, especially in its killing off two main female characters, doesn’t mean I won’t miss the show. I loved Taboo, and just wish we’d gotten more of it. Easily could have gone 15 episodes for first season, at least.