Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney.
Guess who just got back today? That wild-eyed boy who’d been away. Hasn’t changed, haven’t much to say, but man, I still think that cat is crazy.
From Thin Lizzy’s lips to Tom Hardy’s ears. Taboo, the eight-episode miniseries in which Hardy serves as both star and co-creator (alongside his frequent collaborator Steven Knight and his father Chips Hardy), tells the story of James Delaney, a boy who’s … well, back in town. That town is London, circa 1814, a muddy, cloudy pre-industrial hellscape in which only the opulent office of the sinister East India Company emerges from the muck.
Delaney, a veteran of the EIC’s imperialistic misdeeds, came to rue his involvement during a decade-long disappearance in Africa and had returned to claim the land left to him by his late insane father. It’s a small, desolate strip on the Vancouver coast — but it has suddenly become invaluable in a geopolitical tug-of-war between England and the United States. Clad in black from head to toe, surrounded by rumors of Heart of Darkness–like depravity during his time among the dreaded “savages,” and possessed of seemingly genuine powers of clairvoyance, Delaney rebuffs all attempts to buy him out. By the end of the episode, he appears ready to take on all comers physically as well as financially, even as he wades hip-deep through dark family secrets that include sexual slavery, adulterous incest, hereditary madness, and murder most foul. As Phil Lynott put it, the drink will flow and blood will spill.
But that’s all in the future. (The blood, anyway; enough brandy has already been quaffed to send Delaney’s boat back to sea.) As of this premiere episode, Tom Hardy himself is the best thing about Taboo. He’d better be, since he’s pretty much the only thing about Taboo. Everyone and everything else on the show simply reacts to his menacing presence.
What a presence it is, though. Your mileage may vary regarding Hardy’s mumble-mouthed machismo, but I find the way he carries himself a delight to watch. As Delaney, Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away. Call it “brute casual,” a trait that he’s got in spades, and Taboo allows him to dole it out by the shovelful. (In fact, Hardy created the character himself, with Knight and his father tailoring the story around him afterward.)
If anything, this episode is over-reliant on Hardy’s intimidating swagger. Scene after scene depicts Delaney showing up someplace and scaring the daylights out of people with a few well-chosen words and his thousand-yard stare. Which is fine — he’s certainly convincing enough in that regard — although it can edge into overkill at times. The way people carry on when Delaney unexpectedly crashes his father’s funeral, you’d think he was wielding a chainsaw while wearing armor made from human bones.
The bigger problem is that he’s all talk (well, all growling) and no action. Other than issuing colorful threats and grabbing one or two hapless figures by the collar, Delaney doesn’t actually do much of anything to put his muscle where his mouth is; his dangerous nature is conveyed through reputation and implication alone. Considering the amount of period-appropriate gore present in this episode (from butcher shops to autopsies), not to mention the inevitable violent confrontation between Delaney and the agents of the East India Company toward which everything in the series points, it’s hardly as if Taboo has a principled objection to violence. A single well-deserved beatdown or thwarted assassination attempt would have gone a long way toward establishing the character’s clout, and would have made this initial hour less monotonous viewing.
And it is monotonous. In addition to the peripatetic plot — Delaney goes someplace, says something, frightens someone, then leaves to rinse and repeat — Taboo suffers from completely predictable stock characters. Custy peasants with terrible teeth abound, as do arrogant and ineffectual toffs with fussy hair and weathered old rich guys working for Delaney’s ruination. Foremost among these is Sir Stuart Strange, the fabulously named archvillain who runs the East India Company. Played by Jonathan Pryce in full High Sparrow mode, Sir Stuart is fond of strategically deployed F-bombs for emphasis; it’s unclear whether these are meant to be taken seriously as a sign of rage or as an indication of the character’s bluster. Pryce’s fellow Game of Thrones alum Oona Chaplin co-stars as Delaney’s half-sister and potential love interest (!) Zilpha. Her importance to the plot is instantly obvious, since she and Hardy are the only two young and presentable people on the show; this makes even the incest angle easy to see coming. However, nothing these characters do or say to one another is surprising in the slightest.
What’s more, Taboo suffers from the dull, expensive look that’s endemic to prestige TV generally and its period-piece iteration specifically. Director Kristoffer Nyholm, late of the original Danish version of The Killing, captures a few magical moments on the muddy, sun-streaked London riverbank, but beyond that, you could swap entire sets and shots with Penny Dreadful or The Knick or Peaky Blinders and only students of historical fashion would be the wiser. Moreover, the show shares its rich yet sickly “realistic” lighting and color palette with everything from The Night Of to any scene involving gangsters on Marvel’s Netflix shows; you get the sense it looks this way simply because this is how TV shows look now. (I’m no fan of The OA, but how refreshing was it to watch a drama that was brightly lit?) There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
But if you like that sort of thing, then Taboo is definitely the sort of thing you’ll like. Hardy’s gruff charms, Pryce’s plummy power-playing, Chaplin’s wide-eyed intensity, and the refreshingly minimal string-based score by composer Max Richter are all enjoyable enough on their own terms. Questionable imagery involving Native American shamans and zombielike undead African slaves offer some cause for alarm, but Delaney’s description of the East India Company as “the leviathan of the seas” and its methods as “conquest, rape, plunder” indicate at least a surface-level critique of colonialism that may well help the show sidestep the Mighty Whitey trap. It’s simply too soon to tell, which for Taboo is both a blessing and a curse. The show hasn’t even gotten to its first fight scene yet. Whether you stay tuned will come down to just how much you want to keep watching Hardy, dressed to kill, driving all the old men crazy.