‘Taboo’: We Finally Know What James Delaney Is So Mad About

As Steven Knight’s grimy historical opus starring Tom Hardy nears its end, It’s starting to become clear what exactly James Delaney’s whole deal is

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(Major spoilers ahead for the seventh episode of the FX limited series “Taboo.”)

“Taboo” has been, for long stretches, infuriating for it’s seemingly inexplicable weirdness. James Delaney (Tom Hardy) has been an absolutely crazy person since the start, and the show was slyly holding back why. For a lot of viewers it’s been too much to bear as Hardy’s madman — who, as Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) noted a few weeks back, is someone we’re really incapable of truly knowing — has navigated this bleak world of 1814 London.

It was simply Delaney’s animalistic drive that kept me watching. The way he matched wits against the East India Company was certainly entertaining even if we didn’t really know why he was doing it. Maybe he had a death wish and was just trying to take these rich jerks down with him. That sort of nihilism on its own would have been fitting as the current era of troubling global politics kicks off in earnest.

But Delaney, it turned out, was not simply motivated by some kind of nihilistic rage. No, James had a very personal and very specific reason for taking on this fight against the Company. After this seventh episode, his true motivations have been laid bare.

I’d been harping on George Chichester (Lucian Msamati) for the last couple weeks, knowing he’d be important to the show’s endgame — but even I underestimated just how important he would be. It would appear based on this last episode that Chichester is something of a secondary protagonist for “Taboo” behind Delaney, because Delaney was the lone survivor of the illegal slave ship Chichester had claimed was intentionally scuttled by the Company.

As you’ll recall, Chichester entered “Taboo” because he had been lobbying the British Crown to investigate the sinking of a Company ship called the Influence (originally the Cornwallis), which Chichester said had been sunk intentionally in 1804 to hide the Company’s involvement in an illicit slave trade. Delaney was on that ship as a deckhand, we learned this week, and he had been ordered by the captain to nail the hold shut so none of the slaves being transported could escape.

The Influence then went down, taking everyone aboard down with it except Delaney — though apparently that was a near thing judging by his regular drowning-related nightmares which we can only assume are inspired by the ordeal with the Influence. James is also generally haunted by the whole thing. You’ll also recall Delaney’s hallucination of a dead slave that he counted among his past “victims.” That waking nightmare from the beginning of the series was more literal than we could have realized at the time.

So Delaney, left for dead off the coast of Africa a decade before the beginning of the series, apparently went native before eventually making his way back to England (what happened to him after the shipwreck remains unknown). Since he came back he’s essentially been carrying on the same personal quest that Chichester has, but carried out in drastically different fashion. Chichester, as a political activist with the Sons of Africa, wanted the justice for the slaves killed on the Influence to be carried out officially — Delaney, in contrast, is carrying out a personal vendetta.

Both Delaney and Chichester know who’s to blame for the fiasco with the Influence/Cornwallis: Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), who had commissioned the illegal slave deal to deliver laborors to his brother’s sugar plantation in Antigua. Whereas it seemed Delaney’s quest was one against the Company as a whole, it now seems that it’s more pointed, at Strange himself.

Being haunted and generally messed up the way Delaney is, the revelation that his vendetta is so specifically personal explains much of his actions this week. He’s willing to suffer the torture from Solomon Coop’s (Jason Watkins) torturer because taking down Strange is his end-game.

And Delaney clearly has one more move up his sleeve before this is all over (there’s only one more episode remaining), and I’d bet that move is already in motion. I suspect, for example, that Coop’s torturer — whose face was covered — is actually Delaney’s friend Atticus. It seems unlikely that could be coincidence or irony, given Delaney’s apparently omniscience.

Regardless, we’ll find out next week.