I get a little bit excited when I come across a show that I can’t quite describe, usually because it means that it’s doing something different. And Taboo is certainly…different. On the surface it shouldn’t be, 19th century London is a frequent hangout for BBC historical dramas and the shows production value is up to the usual high standards viewers can expect from the Beeb and FX. But Taboo just feels different from other productions, and that’s mostly down to it thoroughly embracing its own weirdness.
Just like its protagonist James Keziah Delaney, Taboo oozes darkness and danger. The London on display here is a hive for prostitution, murder and gangland violence, none of which the show steers around or away from. In addition to these fun topics, Taboo also throws in incest, sexual identity, cannibalism, slavery, corruption, racism, insanity and black magic.
Following his father’s death James Delaney (Tom Hardy) returns to London after a decade doing…something in Africa, we’re never told quite what, just that it’s most definitely bad. His return is much to the surprise and dismay of his sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) and her sulky husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall). Delaney quickly sets about making some underworld contacts and generally being rude to everyone he meets. Delaney finds himself in the cross hairs of both the Crown, the USA and the East India Trading Company having inherited a strip of land on the west coast of the North Americas that could decide key trade routes.
Tom Hardy’s performance as Delaney is a gripping combination of the physical menace of Bane and the mental instability and grunt talk of Mad Max. Stomping around London’s docks in a long dark coat and top hat, Hardy’s physical presence on screen emanates strength and violence. Communicating mostly via growls, threats and angry stares, Delaney is a fascinatingly dark character with a boat load of demons behind him. Whilst he would probably fit the description of an anti-hero, Delaney is most definitely not a good person. Hardy definitely gets all the best lines, too many to quote here, but I imagine there are many managers out there who will now be issuing commands to their staff preceded by the line, “I have a use for you”.
The show plays its cards close to its chest with Delaney’s past, revealing just enough to keep you watching but never really telling you anything about why he seems to have such supernatural talents (presumably saving that for another series). But that’s not to say that over the course of eight episodes we’re not given a tale worth being told. From start to finish Taboo is engrossing, with strong performances across the board featuring a plethora of British talent, including a particularly enjoyable expletive filled performance from Jonathan Pryce as Sir Stuart Strange and an almost unrecognisable Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent.
One area of the show I did find to be a tad weak was Delaney’s sister Zilpha. She has a tendency to flounder wide-eyed at the side of the plot never really amounting to much more than an addition to the strangeness of James Delaney than a definitive character in her own right. And whilst Taboo wraps up the main narrative fairly satisfactorily there are a lot of unanswered questions which may frustrate some, particularly given the frequency with which strange hallucination and ritual sequences appear.
But on the whole this is a strong start to what could turn into a bold new collaboration for the BBC and FX. There’s dark, gritty weirdness aplenty with plenty of narrative road left to run and I for one would like to see the BBC find a use for James Delaney in the future.