Taboo postmortem: Co-creator Steven Knight on the explosive sixth episode
'I would say, expect the unexpected, always with this series.'
- TV Show
Warning: This story contains spoilers about FX’s Taboo. Read at your own risk.
Well, that escalated quickly.
After starting as a slow build, the last few episodes of Taboo have been shot out of a cannon that Delaney probably provided the gunpowder for. Tuesday night’s sixth episode, possibly the high point for the young series, was no exception, featuring Zilpha killing Geary, the Delaney siblings reigniting their love affair, and finally, with the cliffhanger of what exactly happened to poor Winter.
To get some answers, EW talked with Taboo co-creator Steven Knight about the current state of Zilpha, if a happy ending is possible for Delaney, and what’s to come in the final two episodes. Read the interview below, and for our full recap of the episode, go here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So let’s start right at the end. What happened?
STEVEN KNIGHT: Well, I’m not going to say a lot. But I would say, expect the unexpected, always with this series.
Was it always the plan to kill Winter? It’s kind of fitting that the person who always said she wasn’t afraid of Delaney may have just been killed by his hands.
We will see. That’s the problem; I can’t really say much without giving things away. Of course with Taboo, the line between life and death is blurred.
Fair enough. Now, Winter wasn’t the only person to presumably die. Having finally been pushed to the edge, Zilpha kills her husband. As a result of last week’s exorcism, there’s definitely something different about her. What’s happening to her?
It’s one of those things where the audience must have their own interpretation. But throughout, what I’m sort of trying to suggest is that those things that are considered bad are good and those things considered to be good are bad. Not always, but often. There’s a kind of liberation for her, which has taken place in a very unusual way, through a very unusual ritual.
When she first goes to Delaney after killing Geary, she’s excited to see him and be with him. Where he has quite a different reaction, almost one of surprise. To be with his sister has been his end goal, but was he thrown by these sudden circumstances?
Yeah. His progress again is for any audience member to judge, but his progress has been that he’s not as sure as he always appears to be of what he wants and what he thinks is the right thing. And he has changed quite a bit since he first arrived back. I’m trying not to give away too much… he never wanted her to be a part of this group that is gathering around him, he never wanted her to be one of the Damned. He wanted her to be different. And as a result of what has happened, she has now joined his group and that wasn’t what he wanted. He didn’t want her to be guilty and to know what it’s like to do that sort of thing. Now, she does, so he’s not pleased with himself. As you’ll see in the next couple episodes, there’s a kind of odd redemption coming his way as a result of certain regrets that he has.
Considering all of their history and the events of this episode, is it even possible for these two to have a happy ending? Or is this a doomed romance?
It would be possible for him to retrieve almost anything from this situation if he weren’t driven in the way that he is. So all things are possible, but I think the point of Taboo is that we are all victims of who we are, what we want, and what’s inside of us, so he’s not necessarily going to take the path to the happy ending. His version of a happy ending might be that he doesn’t think he deserves a happy ending.
Throughout the season, Zilpha has constantly been beaten or abused — mentally and physically — by the men in her life. Were you ever worried that you were punishing her too much?
It’s a question of how the character develops as a consequence of this. This was a very punishing time for everyone — men and women — but particularly for women. So it was never going to be an easy ride. When writing these things, I try not to play the role of someone who passes judgment on the events that happen to the characters as if I wasn’t in charge of it, because in a way I’m not. In a way, these things happen on the page and as a consequence of the characters behaving in particular ways. So I try not to sit back and think, ‘Well, maybe I should do this,’ because then I think you introduce rationality into it, which doesn’t help, I don’t think.
When James’ ship is blown up, he’s genuinely shocked. With everything that has been going on, did he truly feel untouchable? For the last few episodes, we’ve often heard him saying he wasn’t worried because the king wouldn’t let him hang. Did that blind spot come back to bite him?
With James, he legitimately is not afraid to die and thinks he will — and he’s not scared of that. Therefore, he’s almost invulnerable; nothing anyone can do can adjust his behavior because he’s prepared to die. So blowing up the ship is something that did affect him because it’s not killing him, but it’s thwarting his plan in a way that he wasn’t expecting. His strength comes from knowing that at any minute he could die and he doesn’t care.
I’ve found it very interesting how you’ve spaced out the introduction of the various important characters. It wasn’t, ‘Here’s the premiere and every character you will need to know.’ Lorna showed up at end of episode 2, Cholmondeley in episode 4, and George Chichester in episode 5, who seems like he will play a big role…
He’s an integral part of the whole thing.
So what was the strategy with the way you slowly brought these characters in?
I wanted to pace it in a way that isn’t like television or a feature film, but more like a novel. Eight hours is great because it gives you more time to do stuff like this, which is breaking up the normal system of doing things. One of the horribly frustrating things about writing feature films is the rules everyone applies and says, “You have to do this by the end of the first act and by the end of the second act you must introduce this.” As if there were rules to life or telling a story or the ways things happen, which of course there aren’t.
What I wanted to do with this is reflect the randomness of real life, but also to pace things in such a way where there isn’t those rules. Because I think what kills any attempt to [do] something different is everyone insists that you have to do certain things. Where if someone were a painter and they painted a painting that was acclaimed and someone came along and said, “Well, that’s a fabulous painting you did. Forty percent of the painting is blue, so in every good painting there must be 40 percent blue paint.” It would be ludicrous, no one would even entertain that. But in film and television, people appear to feel very comfortable with pronouncing that there are rules and that you have to stick to them, but you just don’t; you can do what you want. So introducing a pivotal character late on, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what you can do, so why not do it.
The story and action have really ramped up the last few episodes. Is that just the nature of creating and establishing this new world, that it takes some time to build to that?
The attempt is to change the ways these things are done as well as tell this story. So at the beginning, I think establishing certain things quite relatively gently is important. It’s a bit like Peaky Blinders — perhaps it’s a little more extreme than Peaky Blinders — where you establish new rules first and then once those who want to have accepted the new rules, then you can start doing other stuff that is probably more familiar. And as you’ll see in seven and eight, it becomes even more… not familiar territory, but I think people will feel more comfortable in a more conventional plot. But we’ve already established that nothing is more normal here, so you can relax into it. I think, again, it’s like trying to take the pace of a big novel rather than a 90-minute or two-hour feature film. It’s allowing yourself the freedom to have that time to establish a character and keeping characters as unsympathetic for quite a long time before you redeem them, if you do redeem them.
Tom is giving such a physical performance and so much of it is in his expressions and his reactions, not in the words that he’s using. Can you write to that or is that just what you discover as you watch Tom play this role?
Because I’ve worked with him on other things and I knew that it was going to be him playing this role, you sort of know how he’s going to portray the character. There’s going to be a sort of brutal simplicity, which isn’t simple at all, it’s quite sophisticated. But it would appear to have a straightforward brutal simplicity, so you can hold back a bit on dialogue. When he chooses to divulge, when he chooses to talk, it can be in an odd way. Through the whole thing, I’ve tried to use dialogue in a more heightened way. It’s more as if you were hearing people sing instead of hearing them talk. So I’m trying to develop a way of doing dialogue. Everyone tries to do naturalistic dialogue these days since about 1965. It’s meant to be how people really talk, but it isn’t. Any dialogue in any film isn’t really how people talk anyway — no one has achieved that because it’s always written in a particular way. It’s not like you’re betraying natural speech; you’re betraying the way that natural speech has been portrayed for 50 years.
Without spoiling anything, what would you tease about what’s to come in the last two episodes?
This whole first season is about America. A lot of unexpected things will happen and a lot of things that people have predicted won’t happen. But this is the story of misfits and America.