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‘Taboo’ Is Finally Starting to Pull Me In With Third Episode (Commentary)

After a slow, meandering first two episodes, the plot of FX’s Tom Hardy drama is ramping up — and it’s suddenly very compelling

(Spoiler alert. Major plot details for the FX limited series “Taboo” are discussed below.)

Through the first two episodes, the Tom Hardy-led “Taboo” had demonstrated a common problem with serial dramas over the last few years: it functions more like a really long movie than a TV show, and it’s first act was a bit difficult to take.

“Taboo” is a noir story, and in standard noir fashion it started out with a bunch of disparate plot threads that, we would expect, will all come together later. There’s the core conflict — the East India Company’s attempt to take control of Nootka Sound from James Delaney (Hardy) — on top of all sorts of mysteriousness from Delaney himself. Why does he have all that coin to throw around? What really happened in Africa? Who is that boy he visited? Why does Delaney have a vendetta against the East India Company? Did he used to hook up with his sister (Oona Chaplin)? His dad had this random other wife that nobody knew about?

And there are other threads in “Taboo” that are hard to keep track of because of their lack of immediate relevance. Which is not inherently bad — as I mentioned above, this is the nature of noir stories. They start slow and feature a lot of seemingly random unconnected things that all come together in the end. The bleakness of the whole thing only made that pace harder to take — “Taboo” is deep, deep in the mud. Which also is not inherently bad. But it is trying when you’re trying to stay engaged in a TV show over a bunch of weeks in a row.

It’s much easier, on the other hand, to tolerate this sort of slow, misanthropic build-up in a movie, where the entire thing is over in a couple hours. But “Taboo” is eight hours long, and its first act lasted for two of those hours. My patience was wearing thin. But events finally came to life at the end of the second episode when Delaney killed an assassin hired by the East India Company and ripped open his neck with his teeth. And that life continued on into Tuesday night’s episode, and Delaney is forced to act with a real sense of urgency for the first time.

Whereas the first two episodes were all about setup, this week was about action. Delaney negotiating with the Americans while his stab wound is patched up sans any anesthesia, then taking steps to curb the East India Company’s designs on killing him. His father’s secret wife (Jessie Buckley) making her intentions known — and seemingly making it clear that she’s simply a surprise wild card, not another nefarious factor that Delaney is going to have to contend with.

We see all the pieces in motion this week, from Delaney himself to the Crown and on to the Company, and the conflict is starting to take shape. What exactly that shape is remains murky, of course, but before this week there didn’t appear to be any shape visible at all.

And the pieces started moving fast, too. Episode 3 represented a punch beginning its forward motion after the the previous two episodes were the wind up. It’s threats being carried out, after the previous chunk of “Taboo” had been all talk

I’m very thankful for the shift — aside from the pace, “Taboo” had been impeccable. Even, from a theory perspective, it’s difficult to fault how showrunner/writer Steven Knight has structured the show. But there’s only so much noirish grime and bleak misanthropy I can handle without a clear direction. And now I can happily (in a sense) enjoy one of the biggest (to me) TV events of the year without continuing to wonder if it was ever going to get going.