We Need to Talk About Taboo‘s Woman Problem

(Episode 1.05)

TV Features Taboo
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We Need to Talk About Taboo‘s Woman Problem

This week, we must delay all talk of progression in Taboo’s overarching plot to discuss its most unsung characters: The women. You may wonder why the series has cast Oona Chaplin for the sole purpose of being acted on by desirous men, whether James, whose hunger for Zilpha would maybe feel aggressively sexy if it wasn’t so straight-up wrong, or Thorne, who literally gets off by abusing and fetishizing her at the same time. You may also wonder the same about Jessie Buckley, whose work as Lorna Bow, James’ stepmother, has come to rival Tom Hardy’s own, though Lorna has not been so routinely put through the ringer as Zilpha. If you are still on board with Taboo, you unfortunately will have to keep wondering at both.

But in a stroke of good news, you may not have to wonder for much longer. This applies more to Zilpha than to Lorna, whose very introduction shifted the course of Taboo’s narrative in “Episode 2; where she makes her first appearance with a surplus of swagger and sly cunning. To see Buckley smirk and charm her way through scene after scene, even when forced into playing the damsel in distress in “Episode 3; is to be utterly captivated by her talent, but Taboo doesn’t give, or has yet to give, the impression that it has any use for it. The same may be said of Chaplin, who is mostly called on to act through her eyes (and, on that note, can she ever; she communicates volumes just by widening her eyelids).

And what about Franka Potente and Marina Hinds? They, at least, have the excuse of receiving less screen time than either Buckley or Chaplin, but if we stop to consider Taboo’s action for a moment, it’s clear that, compared to the male members of its troupe, the ladies have far less to do. It’d be insulting to describe them as window dressing in light of the many iniquities dealt them, but they do feel like that: Elements of design rather than characters. It may not be Taboo’s intention to so under-serve its actresses. The offenses they suffer may be meant to highlight the unequal and unjust treatment of women in 19th-century England, the same party line held by shows like Game of Thrones. But Game of Thrones offsets those offenses by letting them participate in the story. Taboo, by contrast, doesn’t quite.

Maybe that’ll change as we turn the corner into the final three episodes. Zilpha, it seems, has had more than her fill of Thorne’s maltreatment, culminating in one of the most uncomfortable exorcisms recorded for a TV show in recent memory, wherein Zilpha is tied to the floor and groped by the priest carrying out the ceremony. Her relationship with Thorne is and always has been fraught; you can tell as much from “Episode 1,” when we meet them in the church pews at Horace Delaney’s funeral. Her relief upon learning that Thorne has survived his duel with James feels shockingly genuine, but then, so does the final shot of “Episode 5,” with Zilpha fondling a very large, very pointy needle as Thorne lies groggy in bed just feet away from her. It’s a shame that we haven’t seen their conflict dramatized in more depth, but at the very least we can maybe look forward to decent payoff for all the crap Zilpha has endured from the beginning.

Lorna, for her part, is warming up to James, which at least represents something resembling an arc; there’s a scene toward the end of “Episode 5” where she walks in on James burning papers from his father’s trunk, which he’s sought after for a couple weeks now, and her reaction is surprisingly pained. If Taboo ever gave us a reason to doubt her honesty, this particular beat should purge those doubts. She looks heartbroken at James’ callous disregard for the beauty of his father’s letters and drawings, to the point that it isn’t unfair to ask whether the series is trying to turn the audience on James ever so slightly. Not that he’s ever really looked like a good guy, per se. But his anti-hero qualities are starting to lean more toward the “anti” than the “hero” at this rate.

How so? Well, apart from his dickish behavior with regard to his father’s effects, he brutalizes not one but two men at knifepoint, conscripts his son to assist Dr. Cholmondeley in the preparation of gunpowder, and forces Cholmondeley to seek chlorate to speed up the process, which is kind of a horrible idea, as the pervy, Shakespeare-spouting chemist is too happy to tell us. (And how appropriate for Taboo to quote Shakespeare, since so much of its dialogue is so poetic in character.) Chekhov’s gun is a thing, and maybe Chekhov’s unstable chemical concoction will turn out to be a thing, too, which would just make James even more of a villain—though not as much of a villain as Stuart Strange.

Slavery and racism have been two background plot elements in Taboo thus far, but the crown’s investigation into the East India Company’s sordid past pulls both to the forefront. Hard to be a worse human being than a slaver, and so James, cruel though he may be, remains the man to root for even as he takes steps to corrupt his soul further. Watching him fall from grace on purpose is fascinating; watching him do so in a series better balanced around all of its characters would be even more so. Taboo knows what it wants to do with its protagonist, but by now it should have figured out what it wants to do with its supporting players, too.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.