In its first three episodes, FX’s period drama Taboo has played it coy about the exact nature of James Delaney’s (Tom Hardy) magic. The show has danced between being a straightforward drama about the 1800s shipping industry and a Penny Dreadful-esque tale about a dude with mysterious tattoos, vague powers, and a dark past that involves the occult. The show’s fourth episode finally clarified some of its supernatural elements. It turns out, Delaney has magical sex dreams, and they’re even more complicated than they sound.
Delaney has done a lot of vaguely magical stuff already, yelling at ghosts, biting people, and apparently returning from the dead. Because the show always pulls back from its supernatural aspects right before committing to them, Delaney’s full powers are hard to pin down. Is he a zombie because he came back from the dead, and because zombies are part of voodoo culture? Is he a vampire because we saw him bite someone? This fourth episode offers an alternate theory: He’s an incubus.
An incubus is a variety of demon that wouldn’t feel out of place if it were suddenly confirmed as a part of Taboo’s world. Delaney keeps having visions of a ghostly female figure, after all. In the middle of the fourth episode, we see Delaney crouching in front of a fire, chanting, and smearing himself with white powder in a ritualistic manner. As the camera cuts to his sister Zipha (Oona Chaplin) in her bed, writhing in pleasure as she dreams, it becomes apparent that Delaney is magically having dream-sex with her. She wakes up and says a biblical verse out loud, which again, signifies that something demonic is happening inside Delaney.
Later in the episode, Delaney refers to the visit as breaking in. “You feel me when I break in, don’t you?” he says. “And I could come more often but I spare you.” He further explains that he learned to hone his dream-sex-magic skills abroad in Africa. “I thought I was mad when I left London,” he says. “They taught me how to use it and now it’s a gift.”
In mythology, an Incubus visits a woman in her dreams and has sex with her. Its female counterpart is a succubus. Both incubi and succubi use sex to drain life force. Delaney’s “but I spare you” comment fits that part.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Taboo intends to remain vague about Delaney’s true nature. It’s possible that he’s simply a human man with magic sex powers. But, Taboo has kept us on our toes about whether he’s a vampire, zombie, or something else entirely — and so far, all the evidence stacks up behind incubus.