There is a scene in the third episode of Taboo (the final one available for review out of eight total) that sums up the series nicely. There sits Tom Hardy, co-creator (along with his father Chips Hardy and writer Steven Knight) and star, as an adventurer with a dark past, James Delaney. He’s tattooed, pantless, and wearing a tattered old shirt that hides an assassin’s knife wound which he is still recovering from. He’s painted from head to toe in ash from a fireplace opposite which he now sits in a baroque styled room, mouth agape, staring at it with exceptional intensity because of a pattern he has recently exposed. His butler/confident, Brace (David Hayman), enters the room, takes a look at him, and deadpans, “Your eggs are getting quite cold, sir.”
Taboo is a strange and slow-burning journey of revenge that sees James returning to London, after spending a decade in Africa, in order to claim his father’s estate. All that is left of that estate is a parcel of land on the west coast of North America, Nootka Sound, which happens to be a key place for trade with China. That means it is coveted by Britain’s crown, the seemingly all-powerful East India Company, and the fledgling United States of America.
Despite this grand international tapestry on which Taboo is painted, the story itself is very intimate. London of the early 1800s is cold, grimy, and dangerous, and many conversations take place in drafty rooms by candlelight. Hardy mumbles, as he often does, but James’ plan is clear enough — he wants to set these powerful forces against one another while keeping himself alive and indispensable (thanks to a newly crafted will regarding the land). As the head of the East India Company later muses to his cohorts, borders in America will not be drawn by battle, but by lawyers.
But don’t mistake Taboo for some kind of dour legal drama; there’s grave robbing, arsenic poisoning, spycraft, incest, cannibalism, and ghosts (of James conscience from a murky engagement from the slave trade) that haunt him mightily. He’s also haunted by a love for his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), who was cut out of their father’s will and whose husband wants James dead. Well, he can get in line. But throughout the first three episodes of the series, James builds up a spy network for his protection and the protection of others he sees as weaknesses that could potentially be used against him. It’s him against the world, quite literally, “and if anyone is mad enough to take it on it’s James Delaney.”
FX has had such a winning track record with its series in the last few years that it’s easy to forget its follies, the most primary one of late being The Bastard Executioner. Before Taboo, it was the network’s only foray into an immersive period piece (The Americans, set the 1980s, doesn’t require quite the level of set building and costuming that these others do). But unlike Bastard Executioner, Taboo feels like a polished BBC production (the BBC co-produced it, naturally), one with a clear sense of itself and its purpose, with a pace that may be a little slow to start for some, but where an investment seems wise.
Hardy is Hardy here, giving a performance that suggests a quiet power with a tinge of madness. Speech in the series is minimal and deliberate, and there is a sly humor to it that saves it from being too serious. Hardy is also surrounded by a great cast that will be familiar to Anglophile viewers and those who have a good memory for character actors (or can spot a disguised Mark Gatiss), many of whom came from Game of Thrones — most notably Jonathan Pryce. (Unsurprisingly, casting wizard Nina Gold was at the helm of this production as well).
The Killing’s Kristoffer Nyholm, who directs the first half of the miniseries (Jordskott’s Anders Engström will direct the second) keeps the camera close to the plethora of scars, skin conditions, and bad teeth that populate the production. The series also has a restless energy to it, and Nyholm often shoots scenes from a low angle that feels, somehow, conspiratorial. The series may also feel familiar in tone to Knight’s (who wrote the series) other recent TV work, Peaky Blinders, though Taboo’s restricted episode number keeps it moving at a faster clip.
Yet so farTaboo — despite its name — is mostly, perhaps mercifully, restrained. It’s weird and occasionally overwrought, but violence is effectively minimal (particularly a scene where James fights off an attacker and adds a flourish at the end I won’t spoil), and sex is mostly suggested rather than shown, even though a great deal of time is spent in brothels. The show is smart, but not beyond comprehension, and it layers a foundation of adventure, mystery, and solid drama that is ambitious but never boring. Despite its desire to show the dark and gritty aspects of Georgian London, it also has a style to it that is all its own.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Taboo premieres Tuesday, January 10th on FX