EPISODE ONE: SHOVELS AND KEYS
The first episode of Taboo opens with a rain soaked Hardy arriving back in the England following news of his father’s passing. Throughout the 55-minute premiere we get a slew of questions, which will leave us with plenty to wonder about prior to episode 2 and hopefully will stir up everyone’s favorite TV pastime, a theory-based frenzy on Reddit.
Regency Era London
The show takes place in 1814, in the heart of the Regency Era, which lasted from 1811 to 1820 and was characterized by Great Britain’s ruler, Prince Regent, who took over for an unfit King George III.
London was considered the “most civilized place in the world” at this point in history, but like all great establishments it had a rather considerably… dark side.
While, as expected, those who found themselves outside of the city’s elite resorted to unfavorable means to get by such as looting (hence why Delaney wanted his father buried two feet deeper), but even the prestigious participated in extremely suspect behavior.
Think of 1800’s London like 1980’s America: Sex, drugs, alcohol and more sex.
Sex clubs and orgies were commonplace, which opened up the potential for the estimated $2 billion prostitution business and even welcomed some of the first instances of BDSM with the rich shelling out stacks to get whipped.
People, hygienically, were also fucking disgusting. For some reason full body washing was deemed unhealthy and the sugar content in diets were so high that aristocrats would pay £100, or $100,000 in today’s dollars, for the teeth of a dead soldier.
Also, the scene showing their meat prep is enough to get you to consider being a vegetarian.
East India Company
Here is the shadowy enterprise serving as our villain:
What you need to know right off the bat is that the East India Company is basically the evil empire lead by Sir Stuart Strange (Johnathon Pryce) and his henchmen.
“the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA, and the biggest, baddest multinational corporation on earth, all rolled into one self-righteous, religiously motivated monolith.” - Steven Knight (creator) describing the EIC
The EIC was an unregulated entity that was afforded the ability to seize land, mint money, begin wars, and form their own army among other privileges we couldn’t imagine a privately held company possessing today… well I guess until Trump gets into office.
The company for all intents and purposes was the British Empire during this time period and made its fortunes importing tea, spices and textiles from China and its control over the subcontinent of India.
This wealth was used to bribe politicians in order relax trade restrictions and even to loan money to the Treasury in times of need.
During the period in which Taboo takes place the Company’s army exceeded 260,000 men, twice the size of the British army, and would use this power to takeover virtually the entire subcontinent of India in due time.
Described by William Dalrymple as a “dangerously unregulated private company,” it serves as the perfect adversary for Hardy/Delaney.
The dark nature described in the pilot certainly did exist to a degree, which was especially obvious in the purposeful promotion of Chinese addiction to opium that the company orchestrated that eventually lead to the Opium Wars.
However, it may not have been quite as sinister as the show suggests, or it could just be British people coming to the defense of their abusive history of colonialism…
James Keziah Delaney
“In temperament, he takes after his mad mother.”
Our protagonist gives us an awful lot to unpack, like that mom who spent £2,000 on Christmas gifts level to unpack.
Let’s attempt to tackle this chronologically:
1798: At age 11 he enlisted as a cadet or “Company boy” in the East India Company in England and served under Sir Stuart Strange while collecting exemplary marks in all disciplines.
1800: “His confidence allowed his true savage nature and mother’s madness to emerge.” He broke the necks (this is slang, not literal murder) of officers, burned a Navy ship in a drunken experiment, lead a rebellion against the cooks, fought a bear (what the fuck?) and attempted to recruit fellow cadets to venture to India in search of fortunes, treasures, pursue trade with the “Red Indians” and take gold from the Aztecs.
The term “Red Indians” was used to describe American Indians by the British during this era, which suggests Delaney was in America, as does the reference to the Aztecs.
However, there are some definite holes in the timeline/terminology that makes his whereabouts difficult to track.
1802: He left and headed to Africa, first to Cabinda on the Cornwallis then on the Influence, a slave ship, to Antigua. But the Influence never completed its route as it sank off the Gold Coast, thus beginning rumors Delaney had died.
There’s a few ships named Cornwallis that fit the time period, but none with particularly interesting histories and any search of the Influence in reference to ships just gives you a whole lot of text on the literal influence on ship building…
Fast forward to the present and James Delaney has returned to London and with him comes tons of questions.
Delaney’s middle name is Hebrew and comes from the Book of Job in the Bible and was the name of Job’s second daughter. The name is associated with cinnamon in addition to female equality.
Job is presented as a prophet throughout Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Almost immediately Delaney is seen burying a pouch upon his arrival back in England and frequently references his means when offering to help his sister and then proves said wealth when he pays for the past, present and future care of his brother/son/nephew.
So, clearly his time in Africa was very fruitful, whether in the form of currency or diamonds, but it remains a mystery as to what he did to obtain such worth.
The aforementioned child is definitely one of the primary mysteries for the series.
Coincidentally his age seems to be in line with Delaney’s time away and Delaney’s affection for his sister and her stressing that he is her half-brother along with her urging him to “keep the secrets of the past buried, buried in a deeper grave” suggests they may be even closer than first thought. Like the incest kind of close.
The whole reason James returns in the first place is because of the news of his father’s passing. A father whom we find out was poisoned in “heavy doses over a short period of time” and who had been labelled a mad man as his time came to an end.
Foul play by the East India Company is the obvious first thought, perhaps in cahoots with Thoyt, his lawyer, who attempted to buy the Delaney Shipping Company for the past 3 years and is seen delivering news of James’ return to the EIC.
However, this doesn’t explain why the recently passed Delaney hadn’t been to the company’s office at the docks in 8 years…
There are two, potentially three instances of visions in the episode.
The first being a man down by the shore near a bonfire that Delaney sees when he is in his father’s study, presumably a vision of his father as he was calling out to James before his death.
Shortly after that we are exposed to a woman in water covered in tribal markings with a shrieking sort of laugh. This could potentially be his mother, but any searches of the Nootka Tribe do not return any results similar to that, but if I had to guess I’d still say it’s his mom.
The final vision was much more intense and showed Delaney pretty obviously communicating with a slave from the ship he was on that sunk.
During this interaction Delaney defiantly states:
“I did as others did and as others had me do and we are all owned and we have all owned others.”
Which, suggests he had a role in the sinking of the ship and there is some evidence that could lead in that direction, such as the vision of a hammer coming down on a grate which appears to be locking people below deck.
The supernatural potential emerges from the confidence he exudes when he says he could hear his father from the shores, the timing of his arrival and the knowledge he returned with (particularly who his real mother is), all of which at least raises the question of this possibility.
There is an emphasis throughout the episode on the word “gunpowder” each time Delaney mentions how his father acquired the Nootka Sound, perhaps suggesting that a trade involving gunpowder with Native Americans was frowned upon or maybe something more sinister.
All the characters seem very skeptical of Delaney’s time in Africa and their concerns only heighten when he is seen mumbling in an African(?) language.
Hardy’s inspiration for the character will potentially give some insight into James’ past:
So, basically a mix of violence, adventures, cannibalists, detectives and conquistadors lead to our protagonist.
The hardo Brother-in-law of the century mentions how merchants told him that James ”would kneel down beside” fallen soldiers, seeming to imply necrophilia.
So, a protagonist whose past may involve any combination of cannibalism, voodoo, incest and necrophilia along with immense violence creates a breeding ground for questions, theories, and a need for us to consider our level of support for what may become of TV’s more difficult characters to root for.
This seems like just the beginning of what we will learn about James as the series unfolds.
The Nootka Sound
“The Nootka Sound is a curse. It will bring the King and Empire down upon your head.”
Delaney’s father purchased the land over 30 years ago, along with James’ mother, in exchange for the aforementioned gunpowder among other things.
With peace talks to end the War of 1812 commencing shortly in Ghent (Belgium) between the United States and Great Britain the owner of the piece of land will be entitled to ownership over all of Vancouver Island.
This piece of land will be extremely valuable when the war officially concludes as its position will enable whoever owns it to possess the “gateway to China.”
In history the Nootka Crisis occurred between Spain and Great Britain in 1790, but it appears this piece of history will be ignored for the sake of the show.
The scribe that works for the East India Company definitely rubs me the wrong way. He has numerous long, lingering looks at James during the episode’s final meeting and quite a bit of nonverbal communication seems to occur.
Not sure if they have some sort of past or not, but if I had to guess I’d say he has a role to play this season, perhaps of the backroom dealings persuasion.
When speaking to Strange Delaney references the “Leviathan of the Seas, the terrible shadow, the beast with a million eyes and a million ears.” The Leviathan is an ancient sea monster, but it seems more that he’s using it as a metaphor for the EIC’s reach and influence, but you never know…
Delaney’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting. We know that he lit a ship on fire while drunk and he declines it twice when meeting with the EIC and says that they mustn’t discuss his mother while drinking. This could just be smart thinking or it could imply James has a dangerous relationship with adult beverages.
All I know for sure after episode one is James Delaney said he’s got some foolish things to do and Sir Stuart Strange basically put a hit out on him, so shit is most certainly going to hit the fan in some form or another in the weeks ahead.