Taboo: Steven Knight on the bird symbol and 'the modern individual'
This week, the third episode of Taboo delved deeper into James Delaney's past, with the tantalizing appearance of a bird symbol tied to his mother. Meanwhile, the three-ring circus of political madness swirling around James was further complicated by his dealings with an American spy. And of course, James kisses his half-sister Zilpha in a church. EW spoke to Taboo co-creator/writer Steven Knight about the episode's mysteries and the show's arc going forward.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Episode 3 marked the full arrival of Lorna Bow, James' "stepmother." She's such a disruptive presence in the show's narrative and even visually, with her red hair and her red clothes. What led you to bring that character into the series at this point?
Her arrival complicates things for James. He thinks she's a weakness. Visually, she is something different. Because she will be, potentially, a route to redemption for James. And whether or not he follows that route is to be found out. She offers something gentler for him, even if she, as a character, is not particularly gentle.
James found a bird symbol carved into a fireplace in his mother's room. He also has that same image tattooed onto his body from his time in Africa. What is that symbol?
It's called a Sankofa, in the mythology of Africa. He is discovering symbols from where he's been and also where he's from. The mythology that interests him is partly from the mythology of other cultures, partly his own invented mythology. He's on a journey to cure himself, if you like, and has been on that journey since he left London and went to Africa. Put very simply, that symbol represents, "You must look back to your past to find out about your future." But that's putting it very, very simplistically.
You will see as the series develops the relationships between James and the mythology of the Pacific Northwest, because that's his mother's culture. There are certain concepts and themes that appear in all mythology — Norse mythology, African, Native American — which seem to exist in those mythologies simply because they represent something very profound and fundamental to human beings.
Had you studied Pacific Northwest mythology before you worked on Taboo?
I was a very odd child. From the age of about 9 or 10, I have been obsessed with Native American history, culture, mythology. I'm interested in various aspects of it, but the Pacific Northwest is a particular interest for me. Over the period of much of this season, but maybe more, the importance of that region and that culture will be increased. Just as the Nootka political situation is the catalyst, so [the culture] is also gravitationally pulling him towards that place.
In that sequence, there's an interesting moment between James and Brace, and the idea that Brace knows more than he is telling.
There is much that will be found out in that relationship. Obviously, I can't really give any of that away, but it will have much deeper consequences. Throughout the whole of the series, I'm trying to do something which particularly English writers don't normally do, which is looking at history not through the prism of class, but of commerce. The relationship between Brace and Delaney is ostensibly master and servant, but that is totally irrelevant in their situation. In this period, the temptation is to see everything in terms of class.
This episode also focused more on the actions of the Americans, specifically the spy played by Michael Kelly. Can you talk about your perspective on the role of the Americans in the landscape of Taboo?
As the series develops, the importance of America as a destination increases. If you take this season as a whole, it's about how America came about. Who the people were who jumped on ships and went there. You'll see how James becomes a center of orbit of people who, since they can't fit in with the society they're in, find themselves gravitating towards him and towards his ambition to move west.
In my opinion, 1814, 1815, 1812, that period was interesting in that the American revolution and the French revolution had happened. It took awhile for the ramifications to settle. Around this time, what we would think of as "a modern individual" began to emerge. People were separating from their religions, their congregations, and setting themselves up as individuals. Which for us, I think, is difficult to conceive. The American ideal of the individual, which developed over the rest of that century, was just beginning.
[James] has isolated himself from everyone, from his own country, the crown, the Americans. His allegiance is to himself. I think he's a precursor to the industrialists, the Industrial Revolution, people who suddenly set themselves up and did stuff without being controlled by a greater entity.
Toward the end of that episode, there was that delightful and strange scene between James and Zilpha. Can you talk about your decision to stage that scene in the church?
It's sort of an anti-wedding, if you like. They're in a church. They're on opposite sides of the aisle. This is the opposite of a union in a church: a separation in a church, with the consummation happening just before it all falls apart. Which is a very Delaney way of doing things. [Laughs.] It's two people who are not conforming to the regulations of the time. They are not part of the congregation. There's no priest there to tell them what to do. I wanted the idea that certain scenes [in Taboo] represent the separation of the individual from the organization, the group, the company, the crown, the church.