Stay on target
Of all the midseason premieres we were looking forward to, Taboo was the most intriguing. Tom Hardy doing a TV show with the creator of Peaky Blinders? You have my attention. With every trailer leading up to last night’s premiere, the series almost looked too big for TV. Sure enough, Taboo features big screen production values and talent not normally seen in a basic cable miniseries.
Tom Hardy plays James Keziah Delaney, a man returning to England from Africa after the death of his father. Nobody is altogether too happy about Delaney’s return, especially his sister. During their father’s wake, he grabs her by the arm and says he still loves her. She is clearly uncomfortable, suggesting his love isn’t so much brotherly as it is, um, taboo. While at the wake, Delaney is approached by his father’s lawyer, who informs him that he is his father’s sole heir. Delaney has inherited a strip of land in America that the lawyer downplays as worthless.
We soon learn that the lawyer is working with the East India Company, who wants the land that Delaney now own. As is revealed over the course of the episode, the land, Nootka Sound, is a contested strategic point in the ongoing War of 1812. It will also serve as a gateway to China for the East India Company if Britain has control over it.
Jonathan Pryce as the probably villainous Sir Stuart Strange, an executive of the East India Company. (Photo: Screenshot via FX)
We also learn a little bit (but not too much, the show cuts away before we hear anything too juicy) about Delaney’s past. He worked for the East India Company and was an excellent employee for his first year. He didn’t take well to seeing the horrors the company inflicted upon native people. He fought bears, sought treasures that may not have existed and eventually ran off to Africa on a slave ship. After the ship had sunk, Delaney was presumed dead until he showed up in Britain again ten years later.
The rest of the episode is pretty much just Delaney meeting with people and establishing his life in England. Almost every meeting serves to drive home just how much of an antihero he is. He forcibly (by way of threat) takes his father’s company offices back from the prostitute he lost his virginity to as a boy. He pays a man for taking care of a boy who is ostensibly his father’s youngest son. Though, given Delaney’s reaction upon seeing the boy, he may actually be his son. With his sister. When asked if he’d like to meet the boy, Delaney replies that he’s not fit to be around children. Yeah, we kind of got that.
He also has a coroner dig up his father’s body to examine the contents of his stomach. The scene shows us the man digging through the dead body in graphic detail while Delaney hallucinates outside. He speaks to the imagined body of a dead slave, saying he has no guilt or fear for him. This is a show that wants us to be uncomfortable, and it succeeds. To what end? That’s still a little unclear, but damn if it isn’t effective. The coroner finds out that Delaney’s father was poisoned, presumably setting the stage for Delaney to take his revenge.
In his hallucinations, Delaney has literal blood on his hands. (Photo: Screenshot via FX)
The first episode does a great job of setting the tone but falters when it comes to the story. It goes out of its way to avoid revealing anything to the audience, and as a result, it’s hard to say what’s going on. It seems to be building up to something, but after one hour of TV, I have no idea what. The only thing that seems certain is that it’s a revenge story. What shape that revenge will take is still a mystery.
Don’t get me wrong; I love a good mystery, but you have to let me know what the mystery is. Give the audience some idea of where the show will take them. Everything about the production is fantastic. The cast includes some of the best actors you’ll see on TV right now, the cinematography is stunning, the imagery is disturbing and uncomfortable, but what is it all for? What story is it telling? That’s still unclear. Taboo‘s first episode feels less like a TV pilot and more like the intro to a movie in dire need of some editing. It’s like the first twenty minutes of a film were stretched into an hour of TV.
All that said, it’s too early to abandon the series just yet. It’s not bad; it’s just taking too long to find the plot. Besides, most shows deserve at least a couple chances to find their feet. Despite its story problems, it is a well-made series. The acting and production design make for a mesmerizing show. It draws you into the harsh world of 19th century England. If only it had a good story to tell once you’re there.