This review imparts some analysis, but is mostly a recap of the events of the second episode. The showrunners have done something peculiar where it seems episodes gain names sometime after airing, the first episode being called “Shovels and Keys.” The name of this one is currently unknown, but will be updated later. One possibility is that the names are withheld to hide spoilers, of which this review contains all.
Our second episode of Taboo begins with Mr. Pettifer (Dixon), whose feet are put to the fire by Sir Strange (Pryce). Pettifer is charged with “resolving” the situation with Mr. Delaney within two days… or his employment at the East India Company is to be terminated.
The question must be raised as to why Strange wants Nootka Sound so badly, his land-lust rising to a fevered pitch that encompasses all other activities portrayed within the company. There must be other islands up for grabs along America and Canada’s West Coast, so why Nootka? Does he know something no one else does? Or is there some geographic and economic reason that he has kept to himself?
Meanwhile, James Delaney (Hardy) ventures to the countryside to retrieve a lockbox, and upon returning home arms his servant Brace (Hayman). James takes this moment to inquire about his father’s diet when Brace explains that Horace Delaney “lived on air and honey-beer,” the maker of this drink now dead and his wife departed. Circumstances suggest that James only half trusts Brace, as when the servant leaves, the heir privately withdraws a handful of diamonds and deposits all but three.
It’s likely with these that James is the winning bid at the following auction. The prize? A merchantman brig named the Felice Adventurero, with an impressive bid of £800. This win draws the ire of company man Wilton (Bill), who overhears that the ship shall be the property of the Delaney Nootka Trading Company. Wilton vows to Pettifer that this madman will hang for treason against the crown, a strengthening possibility as the episode goes on.
Sir Strange however, reacts very differently to the news. Astounded by the fact that James possesses this kind of money and his keen knowledge of the peace talks, Strange believes that the Americans have somehow “got to him.” Events to come strongly insinuate that the chairman is either not wrong, or not far off the mark.
Upon exiting the auction however, James finds his horse gone and a note that simply reads “Atticus.”
Seeking his lost ride, James comes to speak to his old acquaintance, played by Stephen Graham. An unusual man who prides himself on knowledge, he deflects James Delaney’s demands in favor of questions regarding the largest and smallest things he has seen in Africa. The course of the conversation reveals Atticus feels he is owed £20 for turning down an offer to kill Horace Delaney a year before, whom Atticus once sailed under. Needing more eyes, James hires Atticus.
The story as we know it then expands with a new thread. Solomon Coop, portrayed by Jason Watkins, ventures to give his report to the Prince Regent, played by Mark Gatiss in a fat suit (suggestively a byproduct of royal inbreeding). The exchange immediately illustrates the vapidity of the prince, who complains over trivialities regarding the admiral’s map— a map of the American blockade of the Irish Sea.
Despite Coop’s attempts to educate the Prince Regent as to the gravity of the situation, the Prince blathers on about a premonition: the Americans insulting him and his own council allowing them. Unwilling to partake in a strategically-sound siege against the Americans, the royalty demands the admiralty attack. The conversation concludes, suggesting that the Prince has no love for the East India Company… and neither does Coop.
On the way home, James is stopped by Winter (Ruby-May Martinwood), a mulatto girl who lives among Helga’s lot but is not a whore. Winter informs James that Helga has given information to a silver-toothed man who intends to kill him. In exchange, Winter hopes she can go with James to America. Although skeptical of Winter’s story, he follows her guide to the assassin’s ship, where he steals goods and sets the vessel ablaze after finding it vacant. Upon returning to the skiff, Winter is oddly gone.
The next morning, Brace tends to our protagonist in his home. James, foreseeing future problems, asks his servant where his father might have kept the Nootka treaty, which would have been written on deer skin. The servant tells his master that he has not seen such a thing, and that it would guarantee his death, all while counting Malay coins and prayer beads among the effects stolen from the assassin’s ship. Brace hints at the fear regular folks have for the company, much like any organized crime syndicate.
James Delaney, of course, does not care. While searching for the missing item, he finds a flyer for a play called “The Painted Savage” with the name Lorna Bow circled. James glances at a portrait of his father, leaving one to wonder what the canvas is made of…
His search a dead end, he changes his investigative thread and visits Helga (Potente) whom he asks about Winter. James realizes that Winter is her daughter, and changes heart; allowing Helga and her women to stay in exchange for secrets. When he asks about his would-be assassin, she reveals the silver-toothed man to be “the Malay.”
James departs to check upon his purchase of the Felice Adventurero, and discovers that it was once a slave ship. These facts prove distressful enough that he finds himself doing a kind of “spiritual cleansing” of the lower decks: stripping naked, reciting foreign words while clearing out the chains and pebbles before carving the symbol of a bird in the floorboards. He suffers flashbacks of slaves, though whether from James’ past or some form of psychometry is unclear. But the experience drains him enough that he spends the night drinking away.
The next morning James returns home again, begging the question as to if he ever sleeps. After a fast intake of tea, an apple, Brace’s disapproval and a cleaning of clothes, he departs again to visit one Doctor Dumbarton, a bone setter played by House of Card’s Michael Kelly. James uses a code phrase and requests discussion with the American president. But Dumbarton says that the name James provided is no longer trusted, and his code too old. With a gun drawn, Dumbarton escorts our protagonist out.
In a brief scene, Zilpha (Chaplin) receives a correspondence which includes a familiar diamond the size of a finger. She hides it away with nothing to suggest her husband was informed of this fortune.
We then return to James as he meets with his father’s lawyer Thoyt (Woodeson). James proves that he knows the Felice Adventurero was a slaving ship used at a distance by the East India Company, and that Thoyt has been in the employ of the company as a spy. Like Brace before him, the lawyer warns the heir of the danger he is in. But James is defiant enough to suggest that those who oppose the company go to America, and Thoyt suggests treason. Still, together they venture to face Horace Delaney’s creditors.
The hearing proves challenging. The departed Delaney accumulated quite a number of unpaid debts and the mob is unruly. Zilpha and her husband Thorne (Hall) are put out by the confirmation that they will receive nothing. After Thorne makes his threats and departs, James silences the angered men by dropping £215.17— the exact amount owed— on a table, earning silence and order.
But during the calm a woman comes forth claiming to be Lorna Delaney, Horace’s latest wife, played by Jessie Buckley. She presents a wedding certificate and promises love letters between herself and Horace as proof. James asks about any other documents, to which Lorna is confused. The two depart as Thoyt investigates these claims, but on his way out James speaks to Atticus, who confirms Thorne was the one asking about killing old Horace.
Although Thoyt said it would take a few days to inquire about the wedding with the Irish priest, he rushes to the East India Company to confirm the marriage is legitimate. Sir Strange celebrates this turn of events as Lorna would have a claim to Nootka, uncontested should James meet his demise…
That night, James goes to a concert of which Zilpha attends. Disturbed by his presence, she steps out to rebuff him, and their conversation confirms that his love for her is more than just platonic or familial. And their relations quite physical. Zilpha sends him away.
But as James departs, a man dressed as a mourning woman trails him. In the fight the ensues, this gentleman is slain, but is revealed to have a silver tooth. As James succumbs to his wounds, he has a vision of being approached by a tribal man on the savanna…