‘Taboo’ Episode 5 review: Each week is a bizarre feast for the senses

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I know we’re talking about tonight’s episode, but hold on a mo and answer me the following…

If I told you that next Saturday’s episode of Taboo features Tom Hollander’s Mr Cholmondely vigorously masturbating into a batch on gunpowder, and a backroom orgy during a cockfight, would you believe me?

Yes? No? Maybe just one of them? Maybe neither of them?

Admit it, you can’t be sure. You can’t be sure of anything in Taboo except that you’ve no idea of what you’ll see when you dive in. Each week is a bizarre feast for the senses. This week is no exception. Exorcisms, violence, an unrecognisable Mark Gatiss eating a soft-boiled ostrich egg, the mental image of Tom Hollander having a wank… Taboo is very close to becoming a parody of itself before its first season has even finished.

We begin with a duel between Delaney and whiny Thorne – pistols at dawn – in a scene that reminded me more of the duel between Rene Artois and Monsieur Alfonse the undertaker in ‘Allo ‘Allo than it should have. Probably because it had the same amount of jeopardy. You know Delaney’s not going to come off worse.

So it’s a surprise when he seemingly gets shot and shrugs it off. Are the dark supernatural powers of some mysterious African ritual protecting him? No, it’s the even darker powers of the East India Company, meddling with the duel in order to keep Delaney alive.

But James Delaney is not a man who tolerates others meddling in his affairs. Thorne’s second in the duel, the Company man, is the first in a succession of meddlers and goons to meet unfortunate bloody consequences.

Delaney slashes and stabs another man following him (it’s not clear whether he’s from the Crown or the Company but Delaney doesn’t care), chops off the thumb of a traitor in his dirty little band of scoundrels, and has a Company man who asks after him killed. The message is clear: don’t fuck with James Delaney. You’d have thought people would’ve learned that by now.

Taboo has a ruthlessly violent streak to it. It’s never too gratuitous (certainly not when compared to it’s godparent show Peaky Blinders) but it is deployed readily, and that keeps the audience on its toes.

It seems that he’s got the world on a string, or rather, he’s got the world by the balls and is willing to squeeze at any time. But suddenly a problem emerges. The Americans want some gunpowder and they want it soon. Off to see Mr. Cholmondely the chemist (when you say it like that he sounds like a forgotten character from Trumpton or Chigley).

And y’know, it’s a good job that this show got Tom Hollander to play Cholmondely, because I don’t think any other actor in the world could deliver the line ‘Not only is she in the large group of women I would sleep with, she’s also in the smaller group of women I would masturbate over’, and pull it off. Figuratively speaking, I mean.

Gunpowder can be made quicker, Cholmondely tells him in between the onanistic thoughts, but to do that chlorate has to be added to the mix, which will make it very volatile. So expect the BBC Explosions Department to be at work in a future episode. I’d quite welcome an explosion in such an artfully dingy show actually. Taboo is a world in which primary colours are a rarer commodity than gunpowder and tea.

Slightly less explosively, in the physical sense anyway, after again catching his wife Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) having another of her erotic dreams, Thorne calls a priest – well a ‘priest’ – to rid her of whatever’s causing her to writhe around in pleasure and get the bed sheets all messed up. She’s tied down and subjected to a horrible gropey exorcism, which has to be one of the more unpleasant things this show has featured, and I say that fully remembering the fact that a man got disemboweled last week.

Of course, if you told me last week there was going to be an exorcism/sexual assault in Episode 5 of Taboo I’d have believed you, because this is a show where anything can happen. Beneath the dark exterior and the carefully placed and oh so British performances, there’s a fiery energy of unpredictability. It’s makes it impossible to ignore once you’ve watched an episode.

And despite what I said at the start, there’s no gunpowder onanism or cockfight orgies in next week’s episode. I made that up. But there could be. That’s the thing with Taboo. There could be. It’s that bonkers.

Aired at 9.15pm on Saturday 4 February 2017 on BBC One.

Pre-order Taboo on DVD on Amazon here.

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