Taboo: Mid-Season Review

Tom Hardy Taboo

New BBC drama Taboo is only 3 episodes into its 8 episode first season; but I’m already hooked enough to share my thoughts so far.

A collaboration between Steven Knight, Tom Hardy and his father, Taboo follows the story of antihero James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a mixed-race outcast who has returned home to London after over a decade in Africa. Presumed long dead by those who knew him, his arrival ruffles more than a few feathers as he confidently asserts himself as a new major player on multiple stages — from the personal and familial in the wake of his father’s death to the political.

Indeed Delaney, despite (or perhaps as a result of) being viewed almost unanimously as a “savage” outsider, poses a serious threat to the status quo in both of these spheres. We shortly learn of the first of many of the “taboos” referred to in the title as Delaney upsets the balance between his half-sister and her villainous caricature of a husband like a quiet, calculated whirlwind tearing through their marriage. Meanwhile, much of the story hinges upon a piece of American land left to Delaney by his late father. The Nootka Sound is of vital strategic importance for the drawing of boundaries, and as such is highly coveted by both the British and the Americans in their post-revolutionary rivalry.

It’s an interesting premise that fully embraces winding political intrigue in the tensions between the British Crown, the East India Company and the Americans; focusing on the conniving, backstabbing and chess-like manoeuvres of each side in their attempts to wrest power from their competitors. Delaney is caught in the centre of this feud. However “caught” is hardly the adequate term, as so far, it rarely seems that Delaney is anywhere except where he means to be.

Tom Hardy continues his inimitable run of outstanding performances, bringing his usual energy to the role. Indeed this feels like something of a “type-cast” role for Hardy: the man of few words, simmering with a terrifying charisma that embraces the darkness of humanity and the clarity of madness. Yet one never seems to tire of seeing Hardy in such roles, as he manages to convey so much with such a minimalist approach to dialogue.

And it’s Hardy’s deftness at portraying the animalistic, brooding nature of Delaney that saves the show from becoming a dull parody of itself. Taboo runs narrowly close to falling off the cliff that separates meaningful darkness with pointless moodiness — but despite the long silences, the penchant for seeing Hardy covered in dirt and soot and mud and blood, and lingering on scenes for uneasy pauses, it still has a momentum to it.

Whilst it is definitely not an action-oriented show, Taboo does not shy away from violence or gore, maintaining a tension that is the culmination of exploring (without descending into glorification or revelling in) the sufferings of humans and their often-publicly-disdained outlets from such suffering.

Taboo is a show about outcasts. It paints a picture of degenerates and deviants, living against the social norms and expectations of the world around them. This manifests in unsurprising ways such as criminality and prostitution; but Taboo also takes great pains to paint the so-called elites as no different. The EIC are corrupt to the core, led by the power-hungry Stuart Strange (the wonderful Jonathan Pryce). They scheme and plot with their spies and nefarious agenda, and are just as prone to partaking in the socially scorned practises of the time, such as crossdressing — showing that even these so-called nobles partake in what they themselves decry savagery and deplorability. Mark Gatiss is near unrecognisable as the slovenly and sickening fool that is King George IV, and the American spies are just as ruthless and bloodthirsty as the British.

None of the three powers is depicted in a good light, and as such we find ourselves rooting for Delaney as he stands up to all comers, despite his own clear evils. Indeed, we know that Delaney hails from a dark past; one that includes slavery, torture and cannibalism. A former employee of the EIC, the tale so far threatens to become too much of a straight-laced revenge yarn as James orchestrates his vengeance upon the men who he deems responsible for his misfortunes.

However, little narrative threads are continually revealed that allow me faith that there will be more to this story: revelations about murders and their perpetrators; secret incestuous relationships; new claimants to the Delaney family fortune; the seeming confirmation of cannibalism as Delaney rips the throat of an assailant out with his teeth; and the underlying currents hinting at magic and occult practises that expand upon another aspect of the meaning of taboo.

oona chaplin

This sort of tiptoeing around the outskirts of the dark occult is surprisingly effective in establishing James Delaney’s unhinged character. These magical elements are so far confined to the flashbacks and visions that haunt him, from visions of his Native American mother to being plagued by ghosts of slaves, as he mutters chants and strokes the faces of the real people around him. Because of this, we’re never quite sure if this is a world of magic or if everything is simply in the mind of the madman as a result of his torture and imprisonment for years in Africa. Delaney does however seem to know things he should have no way of knowing, claiming that his father would speak to him from across the sea before he died. Hopefully greater clarity will be revealed as the series continues, but this ambiguous setup of the magic in Taboo has proven rewarding so far.

There is an interesting contrast of extremes here: on one hand, 1814 London seems to be a network of well-informed people, where everyone knows what everyone else is up to instantaneously. This, for me, is actually quite refreshing — as it forces the dynamics of surprise and intrigue to come instead from more organic interactions and intelligent character decisions, rather than from cheap writing that paints ignorance upon characters for convenience.

Yet at the same time, Delaney’s clear instability and unpredictability allows him to keep his cards close to his chest, maintaining some semblance of mystery as to his ultimate goals. Whilst some of the minutiae and rhythms of each episode are not all too unpredictable, there is still a sense of uncertainty as to how threads will resolve themselves — and as such it actually becomes more intriguing than other recent shows that try to be too clever, running off the rails as a result (OK, yes, I was disappointed by Sherlock Season 4).

Jonathan Pryce

The triumphs become all the more satisfying for this reason. The EIC still fails to exact its will upon Delaney, despite its great knowledge and power. As he stands up to them and all but throws the middle finger at them over and over again through his actions, it’s hard not to feel a sense of smug satisfaction. Indeed the irredeemable qualities of the majority of the cast make it easier to support our antihero without having to build him up as a less terrible man himself. This is similar in his personal endeavours, where even an incestuous relationship between half-siblings ends up being rooted for; if only to see the vile husband, Thorne Geary, put in his place.

Taboo is an engrossing and dark drama that steeps itself in forbidden ritual. From sex and race to power and magic, it works hard to earn its use of salacious and extravagant material by underpinning it with a plot full of political scheming and vengeance. The acting is fantastic across the board, with lead Tom Hardy stealing the limelight in yet another unforgettable performance. Despite its inherent and intentional darkness, Taboo manages to rise above and be interesting as well. I await each new episode with excitement; to see where these relationships and plot threads will lead to next.

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