Saturday evening on the BBC: I think the polite term here is “fluffy,” full of appointment-viewing that you’re not exactly heart-broken to miss. (Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing are on the better end of the spectrum, some weeks anyway; then you have perpetual hanger-on Casualty, a show that’s lasted longer than most of its patients.) Whatever some Whovians might insist (that’s the word, right?) it’s not that usual to find something meaty, substantial and enthralling on the Beeb of a Saturday night.
But that’s enough about Tom Hardy, I should probably talk about the show.
Taboo brought sex and ultra-violence to Saturday viewing for a whole eight weeks, and on an evening usually reserved for fluff, the show tried hard to give Game Of Thrones a run for its money. It’s a comparison that isn’t entirely deserved: Taboo stood out on its own merits, but there were enough beats and faces that at least someone on the production office had to know what they were doing.
Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a shaven-headed disheveled brute returning to London in 1814 for his father’s funeral. Presumed dead, James hasn’t been seen in the best part of a decade and is the sole beneficiary of his father’s will, much to the consternation of half sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, previously Talisa in Game Of Thrones) and her conniving husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall.)James takes up residence in his father’s house, alongside man-servant Brace (David Hayman.) James’ presence scuppers the plans of the East India Trading Company and Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, or the High Sparrow) who expect to take over the elder Delaney’s business deals after his death: amongst those deals is land on the peninsula of Nootka Sound, the easiest point of trade between China, the United States and the Commonwealth.
That’s just one element of the story here: Nootka Sound is also the home-land of Delaney’s mother, a woman-of-colour (taboo the first!) who was bought by his father (slavery! Another taboo.) Neither of James’ parents were in compos mentis; the issue of mental health is laboured and becomes yet another of the taboos of the title: James regularly visits his mother’s room in Bedlam Asylum, and is haunted by her ghost and the ghosts of many a ship-mate from his travels. The show uses its visuals and audio to suggest that these ghosts are very real, but as the series embraces and explores James’ mental state, it becomes more obvious that even if there are ungodly forces in this world, James, like his father, is still batshit regardless.
The series suggests that James has learned some forms of witchcraft during his travels in Africa: his body covered in tribal tattoos, his guttural mumblings seeming to affect the world around him and communing with the ghosts. Aside from an almost preternatural awareness (or James just has a keen eye and is a good judge of character) James does not appear to have any manifest pour.
Except for the ability to give his sister a good time.
That’s right: Taboo dips into that same world of Game Of Thrones by dropping some casual incest: we’re stacking up on taboos here, remember. Zilpha is horrified by the siblings’ past relationship, but that horror is only because of her current place in society: in private, she still longs for James’ touch. It appears that James visits her in their dreams, pleasuring her as she sleeps, although their trysts may just be the outward expression of their shared madness. Thorne is titillated by his wife’s excitement and arousal, taking advantage of James’ work to have his own way: he’s precisely aware of their past, and although he acts horrified, clearly the taboo isn’t as great as the title suggests. Thorne is clearly jealous of the relationship that Zilpha and James have shared before him, not to mention the child that she has borne.
Yep, an illegitimate bastard and, although the show doesn’t explicitly state that this child is a result of the siblings’ relationship, Taboo is one of these shows that expects you to use basic mathematics when adding various multiples of the number two.
So you’re still keeping up, right?
Well, now we can add in George IV (at the time Prince Regent, played by Mark Gatiss) a corpulent man trapped in political war against the East India Company; Helga (Franka Potente) the hooker who has set up a brothel in the old Delaney offices (not to mention her dark-skinned daughter, Winter (Ruby-May Martinwood); Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley), the actress who may have married Delaney senior in his later years (or who may be a hooker herself.)
Most interesting amongst the lot are Godfrey (Edward Hogg) the cross-dressing clerk of the East India Company: Delaney uncovers his secrets and Godfrey becomes a willing helper in Delaney’s plot. Godfrey holds some attraction for Delaney (it’s Tom Hardy, who wouldn’t?) and it may even go further than just a passing attraction: it’s certainly something that Delaney is happy to manipulate.
Taking place in the early 19th century, it’s unclear exactly how deep the gender politics go here: is Godfrey a gay man, forced to cross-dress in order to act on his impulses? Or is he a transgender character existing in a time and place wherein that isn’t fully understood? As an interesting aside, Godfrey is accepted by Delaney into his privy council and although his colleagues at the East India Company are horrified when the truth is revealed, Godfrey is implicitly accepted by Delaney’s other compatriots.
And what is Delany’s plot after all? Of that, I’m still not entirely sure: he wants to play everyone against each other, using the confusion to get himself out of England. It looks like maybe he just wants to get the fuck out of dodge, and maybe bring his sister/baby-mama with him…alongside anyone else who helps him on his way.
Delaney is an anti-hero, a brutal killer with a heart of gold who’ll care for the beaten and the downtrodden. It’s little wonder that Tom Hardy would create such a character for himself, creating the series alongside his father, Chips Hardy (his name’s Edward, but if that’s what you’re going to put in the credits, that’s what we’ll call him.) Delaney is tender and gentle in his dealings with characters that deserve his sympathy: potential-stepmother Bow is treated with respect (she’s also terrified and attracted to him. TABOOS!!!!) but James is simultaneously capable of splaying the innards of the random goons who go after him. If Taboo were set at the other end of the 19th century, I’m sure Hardy and the other producers could have found some way of turning James Keziah Delaney into Jack The Ripper himself. (Or maybe James would use his hoodoo to extend his life and live another few decades and really will be Jack The Ripper…nope, wait, that’s the Doctor Who coming in again.)
Hardy, as can be expected, is immensely watchable as a character created for himself: he is at once terrifying and adorable, the type of serial killer that adds an element of understanding to all those true-crime programs about the love lives of killers that are also on the TV on a Saturday night. But Tom Hollander and Stephen Graham steal the show (even from Tom Hardy himself) playing a lascivious chemist who joins Delaney’s voyage of the damned and a gruff thug with the soul of an artist.
The show flirts with themes of drowning throughout, from its opening credits through reveals on Delaney’s past and the ultimate fate of at least one of the characters, with the show fully prepared to dive deep in order to fully explore those themes in favour of realism. The show’s visual style is impressive, mirroring its narrative pace: the show cuts away from moments of intense violence or sex only to brutally return to them later, as if BBC were aware of a watershed around 9:30, midway through the episode *the show is airing in FX in the US who have shown something of a similar approach towards sex and violence in other shows.) This steady hand of directors Kristoffer Nyholm and Anders Engstrom adds significant power to these moments, allowing the tension to build significantly (my personal favourite is the build-up to James and Zilpha’s on-screen consummations and the brusque dialogue that Delaney barks at her.)
The show provides eight episodes of this build-up and reward, and although an amazing viewing experience, the final outing feels a teeny bit flat, more like a set-up for a future season than truly offering any closure on the significant groundworks its laid. As a character study, the show is an immense piece of storytelling, and is testament that Hardy can do a hell of a lot more than just act: but it’s somewhat disappointing that by its close, Taboo insists on turning into a straightforward narrative that will return in the future.
But when it returns, I’ll be excited to see it rising above the fluff.
Originally published at Brave Gods.