The internet is abuzz with fascinating theories and speculations concerning Taboo's enigmatic James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy. Is he a character with access to the supernatural or just a regular human? Atticus poses the question in Episode 6:
"Two possibilities; he sold you out because you cut off his thumb or you cut of his thumb because you knew he was going to sell you out. Possibility one: reason. Possibility two: witchcraft."
The vast majority of viewers seem to lean toward "possibility two." However, I believe "possibility one" deserves more attention — the evidence is mounting that James Delaney is no devil; it's much darker than that.
He is a man twisted not by the supernatural, but by the world people built around him. He is a victim of abuse, and an abuser. He has seen the worst brutality humans have inflicted, and he's come to reflect it. As Tom Hardy himself told Esquire:
"Once we meet and greet the characters, it's actually not what it seems. I want to urge people to continue through that. It's designed to slow burn. By Episode 8, it's actually not what you think you're watching at all."
I believe the twist, or rather the shift in tone that Hardy referred to, is beginning to take place. Episode 6 has revealed to us that Taboo is not the story of black magic we believed; instead, the dark heart of the show is nihilism, the brutality of colonialism and the psychotic and moral damage of racism and abuse.
The rest of the series will be more concerned with the grayness of Delaney's morality, whether he is a crusader or a self-aggrandizer.
A Brutal Businessman, Not A Cannibal?
Taboo may be taking its obsession with rumors to an ingenious level. Perhaps the series is playing a game with its audience, showing us the power of rumor and carefully constructed presentation. Rumors and uncertainty create opportunity for mysticism and misinformation, which Taboo utilises to convince us to abandon rationality despite our greatest sources of evidence being the racial slurs and fears of company men and Leuightenant Geary.
Cannibalism does occur in various places around the world — however, the narrative of African cannibals was largely fictitious, part of a racist rhetoric that was used to justify colonialism. We have heard a lot of people say Delaney eats human flesh, but we haven't seen it. I'm not saying he's a nice guy; we have seen him cut out a man's heart and bite out a man's throat. Delaney's mixed heritage, time in Africa and brutal capability is simply triggering the racial beliefs and fears of colonialists.
Delaney cultivates these rumors with his clipped dialogue, intimidating persona and — most of all — with his theatrical murders. However, there is nothing ritualistic about them, as much as he's happy for it to be seen that way. The marauding East India Company is certainly responsible for more deaths than Delaney and far more brutality. But he recognizes that fear could serve him well.
When Lieutenant Geary says "you can now buy a song about the devil, Delaney, the cannibal who is going to eat the Prince Regent" to Lorna Bow in Episode 6, she proves that she has heard the song before and tells him, "They were singing that song long before Delaney returned." Fear of the other permeates colonial society; it is the foundation for the justification of abuse. The poem is attached to Delaney as he becomes the topical symbol of otherness, but he commits the same crimes the crown and the company commit, just on a far smaller scale. The general population has been made to see one as a devil, and the other as working for God.
Taboo unleashes the power of rumor, suggestion and othering on its audience. It is so good at what it does, it is even able to make us question whether Delaney can control the weather — in Episode 6, as his sister's husband is laid to rest and the heavens open, we begin to imagine. Of course he can't. This is a conclusion drawn from a famous logical fallacy; there is correlation but no discernible causation.
The careful dissemination of information in Taboo, aligned with abounding rumors, invite the audience to jump wholeheartedly into another such philosophical pitfall: confirmation bias. We are so often told that Delaney is a devil, that he practices witchcraft or voodoo, that we are looking for evidence to support that theory and not to debunk it. So much so that even the racist overtones and unfounded nature of the claims do not entirely unseat its claims. Then all it takes is some stylistic editing and we're sold.
Delaney Is Suffering Mental Scarring, Not Practicing Voodoo
From the outset, Taboo has had an atmosphere of dark mystery, due in large part to seemingly supernatural montages peppered throughout. The strangeness of these stylistic and symbolic images is increased by the use of frantic editing and intense synthesized sound.
Until now the images, which all seem to revolve around a woman in a lake, meant little to us. As such, it is easy to interpret them as belonging to another realm. Some have theorized that Delaney is speaking with his mother, or even seeing the future. These moments usually occur while Delaney is performing ritualistically, often in front of the fire, suggesting he is calling on them. What if his strange behaviors are just the rituals of a mentally ill man?
In Episode 6, the flashes were more frequent. It was particularly interesting that one occurred during the final sex scene between Delaney and his half-sister, Zilpha. As these flashes occur more regularly and are less rooted to James' activity in the fire, it seems reasonable to assume that James is not in control of these flashes.
This week also revealed that Delaney is not as knowledgeable about his mother as we may have once thought. Brace appeared to genuinely disturb and upset James when he told him that his mother had once tried to drown him. He may have also just confirmed that these flashes are not supernatural at all; they are psychotic episodes, flashbacks to a moment of childhood trauma.
The other more surreal moments in Taboo are centered around Delaney's time aboard the sunk slave-ship, the Cornwallis. There is nothing unnatural or supernatural about Delaney's fixation on these events; they are grotesque images of abuse.
One of the most compelling arguments for Delaney's magical abilities are his nighttime visits to Zilpha. It seems he is leading her to frenzied sexual satisfaction in her sleep. Again we have seen correlation, not cause. And now, as Episode 6 seemed to demonstrate Zilpha's descent into madness, there is a far darker but far more logical explanation: her dreams are the result of her own struggling psyche, a response to her life of abuse.
Early on in the series we were told of her father's cruelty and, we have seen ourselves, the savagery enacted upon her by her husband and the patriarchal world that confines her. Similarly it is possible that James' desires were abuses visited upon his sister. She seems tied in his mind inextricably to his mother, perhaps nothing more than a sordid cycle of abuse spurred on by the twisted nature of colonial society.
This does not explain his tattoo, a replica of his mother's mark (found both on his back and in the fire grate). Similarly, his knowledge of his parents that seems to astound Brace appears to be mystical. If Delaney isn't a supercharged sadistic superman, then he must have been back in the country for longer than he claims.
This is perfectly plausible given that he disappeared from a sunken slave-ship in the Atlantic. Presumably he survived (though some contend he is resurrected) and returned to England — where, given his trauma, the 1800s attitude to PTSD and his lack of papers (on account of being in a shipwreck), he may well have been incarcerated in a mental asylum. Both his mother and father have spent time in such institutions. Did he meet them there?
Delaney Is Making Dark Plans, Not Black Magic
Admittedly in Episode 5, when Lorna Bow waded out to Delaney's duel, it seemed as if his fireside visions may be premonitions. His explosive visions also came to fruition in this episode. However, something else could be going on here.
Perhaps the events that took place at the duel were not the result of premonition, but planning. Delaney is clearly incredibly intelligent and capable. His forward-thinking mind has been proven by his ability to go up against the most powerful organizations in the land. In this episode, we saw him stopped and searched. Just as it seemed the game was up, his son was revealed to be concealed within the coffin, and corroborated his story. This is more indicative of prediction that premonition, as was his attempt to dull his surprise when Zilpha tells him that she has killed her brother. His opponents simply can't accept that they have met a reflection of their own darkness and capability.
Chess With The Devil
Delaney is a Sherlock-esque character: he, like the East India, is playing chess. He is trying to stay ahead of the game, but he doesn't know the next move. As Sir Stuart Strange says, "Chichister is their bishop, the King is safe, Delaney is a horse, and Prinny is their Queen. I think its time we started moving some pieces."
Taboo is a phenomenally intelligent program; it has held its audience rapt and invested in its riddles. It will soon reveal something very powerful: that we are quicker to expect magic, astral planing, telepathy, life after death or voodoo magic than we are to recognize the chilling truth that the darkest, most dangerous and damaging aspects of this world are manmade.
James Delaney is not a devil, but a man. A man with a twisted mind due to living in a twisted, manmade world — not because of experience with the occult. Take it from Zilpha, sliding a metal pin through her top hat, screaming tantalizingly, "There's no magicians here, no rabbits in the hat."
Is James Delaney magic or just messed-up?