In the fourth episode of FX’s moody period piece Taboo, James Delaney (Tom Hardy) and his associates staged a full-fledged gunpowder plot, heisting essential explosive ingredients from the East India Company. James himself didn’t take part in the heist, but his evening was far more surreal: In a very different corner of London society, he attended a curious party filled with espionage, buried secrets — and a challenge to a duel.
EW spoke to Taboo co-creator Steven Knight about the arrival of science, the supernatural world of Taboo, and how the story of this season could play out across future iterations. Read that interview below, and check out the episode’s full recap here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In this episode, we met the chemist Cholmondeley, played by Tom Hollander. I found it interesting to see how you incorporated some of the advances in science happening in the world around the characters.
STEVEN KNIGHT: Tom Hollander’s character, for all his intoxication and madness, is Science. He is the arrival of Science. Things are gonna change. He’s not straitlaced, he’s not formal, he’s not an academic. He’s mad! That’s exactly how I see [science]. There are all sorts of possibilities and reactions and explosions. That’s exactly how he is. He’s got all of that chemical reaction happening inside his body. He becomes a natural ally for James.
Hollander brings such a sense of chaos to the character. Was that how you envisioned Cholmondeley initially?
Luckily, I knew that it would be him before I started writing the character. I did tailor it to be him. He does have that sort of controlled chaos about his performance. But also, he’s based on people who did that for a living. They would put on magic shows, effectively, but what they were doing was early science. It’s that mixture of the supernatural and chemical compounds.
On the topic of the supernatural, there was a sequence in this episode cutting between James and Zilpha. There are layers of flashback, but it seems clear that they are having a physical connection despite being far apart. What is it like balancing those supernatural or paranormal elements with the show’s more realistic, ground-level elements?
Any attempt to recreate a world of 1814, or 100 years before that — I think it’s important to understand that the people of the time had a different concept of what reality was. Their reality was much more haunted. There were many more possibilities for things from a different world — dimension, whatever you want to call it — to impinge on them physically. They would believe that they had been bewitched — properly believe it. It’s not like it would be a joke, or someone would think it’s a symptom of insanity.
This is very much James Delaney’s world, and some of it, we see through his eyes. When he sees supernatural things happening, maybe it’s just him imagining it. In the reality of Taboo, that’s also real. His connection with Zilpha is real because she buys into it as real. Some people have said that it represents an African voodoo thing. It’s sort of the opposite of that. It’s a very European superstition that was prevalent at the time. People were still being burned as witches. All of that stuff was very current. So, to not have it would be, I think, to impose 20th and 21st century values on people who didn’t have them.
One of my favorite moments in the episode is entirely silent, when James seems to carry on an entire conversation with his horse. What’s it like working with a character and a lead actor who have to communicate so much wordlessly?
It’s incredibly, incredibly helpful, and useful. You know that you can, without laboring the words, say in the direction, “The horse communicates with him.” A lesser actor would do that in a very bad way! [Laughs] But [Tom Hardy] feels all of that. You get that sense straight away from what he’s doing. As ever, it’s something you could dismiss as supernatural. But also, it’s a horse smelling something. Horses do sense things way before people.
The sequence that ends the episode crosscuts between the heist and a very surreal party, which reminded me a bit of the parties in Barry Lyndon — very phantasmagorical and strange. What were your intentions around staging that sequence?
There are a couple of things going on. It’s based on parties that happened, and things that were around the Prince Regent. Any party that he ever threw was just insane. You read about it and you say, “I could not possibly write that because nobody would believe it!” It’s too insane, too violent, too weird. But I tried to keep some of the stuff that really went on, to make the point that it’s not as if James has gone to Africa and seen weird things that shocked him. That’s exactly what happens in London. The increasing madness.
James arrives and everyone says he’s insane. What I want to achieve is, by the end of it, he’s the only sane person, and we realize that everyone else is insane.
What were some of the things at those parties that you were nervous about putting in the show?
It was just mad! They’d be having dancing ducks, animals would be in the house, the Prince Regent kept pigs and rabbits. It was not unusual to have all these wild sexual orgies happening. Everyone was taking whatever drug they could find, mostly because most of them were in pain a lot of the time from various illnesses. You had this great big stew of vices and the aristocracy wanting new ways to entertain each other. Into that, you throw Delaney, and in the end, he’s the only sane person there. He’s got the plans, and he knows where he’s heading.
In episode 4, Lorna says that James is assembling his League of the Damned. “Damned” usually has a negative connotation, but there seems to be a positive aspect in James’ mission, the idea of assembling these disparate people. Can you talk about how that plays into the show on a thematic level?
This is the story of how one ship that sailed to America was crewed and how the people came to be onboard. I love the idea that any ship that was sailing into Boston harbor at the time was full of people with stories as wild and as mad as this. What was happening was that people, individuals, who could no longer fit with their group, who felt themselves to have been thrown out of it — not because they were great heroic rebels, but because they just didn’t fit — they were the ones that were, for whatever reason, getting on ships and going west.
That’s what this is the story of, and I’m hoping that season 2 and 3 will continue the story of America, if you like.
Taboo airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.