*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Episode 4 of Taboo.*
Calling a television programme Taboo gives viewers a placard that clearly states: Don't be surprised by what you see. The new BBC and FX show is guaranteed to include its share of controversy, but even for those braced for the unthinkable, a recent scene — showing James Delaney (Tom Hardy) using ritualistic voodoo magic to commit remote, incestuous sexual assault — is a serious test of the audiences' resolve.
Taboo does, of course, rely on the audiences' resolve. After all, Delaney is a peculiar protagonist, a man likened to the devil, a man who will resort to barbaric violence in his quest to maintain control of his father's business. Although we've been told Delaney is dangerous and forever changed by his excursion to Africa, Episode 4 gives a further, disturbing insight into how lethal Delaney is.
In particular, the extent of his ability to exercise ritualist magic is revealed in lurid detail. While the first few episodes of the series strongly alluded to the incestuous nature of James's relationship with his half-sister, Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), the taboo sex scene is arguably one of the most controversial to appear on television.
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The Shocking 'Taboo' Sex Scene
#Taboo is unique in its concept, it's a period drama with a difference, infusing the mystical and supernatural with the backdrop of 19th century London. Delaney is a man who can see ghosts (with many appearing subtly in each episode) and talk to the dead. In fact, after being aboard a slave ship that washed ashore en route to Antigua, there are many who believe Delaney has returned from the dead himself.
Although there have been a few disconcerting, supernatural scenes to date, this week sees the most bizarre yet. While performing tribal magic at his home, Delaney chants mystic messages while throwing white powder into a fire, in a similar manner to what he did at his father's funeral.
Amid a combination of apparent flashbacks and hallucinogenic visions, these scenes merge with Zilpha, who is shown having sex with a creepy masked figure in a dream-like sequence. In reality, all of this is going on while she sleeps. Later, Delaney approaches Zilpha at the party hosted by the Americans, telling her in a seriously creepy way:
"You feel me, don't you, when I break in? And I could come more often, but I spare you. After I left England, I thought I was mad. But they taught me to use it: now it's a gift."
Is There More To Delaney's Relationship With Zilpha?
The scene is the accumulation of a relationship that makes Jamie Lannister and Cersei Lannister's affair in Game of Thrones look tame. From the opening episode, it has been made clear the pair share a questionable past; Delaney professes his love for Zilpha following their father's funeral, and they later exchange impassioned letters, in which Zilpha begs Delaney to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret.
Despite Zilpha distancing herself from the relationship, the pair still retain a strong onscreen chemistry, something that hasn't gone completely unnoticed. In a true act of the show living up to its name, Zilpha's husband, Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) even approaches Delaney, telling him that he knows Zilpha thinks of him when they have sex, but it doesn't phase him. Each to their own.
There's more to the relationship than we currently know, too. The mysterious boy who appears in Episode 1 is referred to as the son of Delaney's father, however, his age ties in with the time when Delaney left for Africa, in 1802 (the show is set in 1814).
It's possible that the boy was the result of his relationship with Zilpha, or, darker still (somehow) conceived after Horace Delaney raped Zilpha. Either way, whatever happened may've caused Delaney's madness, and certainly motivated him to leave London, and to give the child enough money to cover his past, present and future.
Delaney Will End Up The 'Sanest' Man In The Room
Either way, the truth will eventually have drastic consequences. At the hedonistic, free-for-all party Delaney and Zilpha attended, Delaney made reference to the Americans knowing their "secret," a possible references to the boy that they may use against Delaney in their attempt to usurp the East India Company and wrest Nootka from his control.
How this pans out remains to be seen. Taboo continues to surprise and shock as Delaney's master plan unfolds, and as things stand, the voodoo inspiring protagonist still has the audience on his side. If his behavior becomes even more erratic, there is a danger of viewers losing faith in Delaney. However, #TomHardy has promised that although the character initially seems crazy, "we find out he's actually probably the sanest, most honest man in the room."
Following on from the voodoo sex scene, that'll take some doing.
Was the voodoo sex scene in Taboo too taboo for you?