The grimy new revenge drama Taboo opens with James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), cloaked like Death and burying a sack of stolen diamonds in dark, loamy earth on the outskirts of 1814 London. It’s a fitting metaphor for the series, which wallows in buried things. As he digs out a small space in the dirt, it reflects the hollowness of the home he’s returning to, and as he fills it, the questionable wealth that will propel him in his vengeful endeavors. Wealth he wants to keep hidden.
Delaney himself is something buried–a prodigal son who everyone back home thought had died in a shipwreck. Now, he’s returned from Africa to England to see a sick father who dies before Delaney can disembark, leaving him a withering shipping company and a patch of land on the pig’s-butt end of America. The East India Company, led by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), describes the land as completely worthless while trying desperately to buy it off Delaney for cheap.
Naturally, their cheapest option might be killing Delaney, and they’re open to it because they’ve spent years negotiating with Delaney’s sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), thinking she’d be the inheritor. She’s just as shocked as anyone when Delaney turns up at their father’s funeral, professing that his love for her is still alive and hinting at an incestuous past. Yet another thing that can’t stay buried.
Delaney is a brawler with a rich, rumored mythology circling his head like a crown of gnats. People believe him to have done abominable things, and he’s happy to nurture that belief so long as fear serves his purposes. Hardy is–no surprise–effortless in this role. Delaney feels like Hardy taming Bane or reining in Bronson, crafting a tortured survivor out of smoke but rooting him in rich soil even when the character is flailing against the dead spirits that haunt him.
That supernatural element is slippery. We get clear, stunning images–like a spasm-shaken black slave menacing Delaney, to the crashing echo of angry whispers–and Delaney knows things he shouldn’t because of his “relationship with the dead,” but sorcery is the spice of the show, not the main course. It isn’t clear through the first episodes whether we’re seeing a magician at work or getting a special view into his psychosis. Besides, there are enough real-life horrors to go around.
Speaking of views, Taboo looks like you could wring most of it out into a grease trap. The scummy recreation of Georgian London is so thorough that the show should come with a free Tetanus shot. Even the aristocratic parlors and posh, butler-tended state rooms are all marked with the wear and tear of the age.
Granted, the trashy treasures might simply be a reflection of the souls using the room. Pryce’s Sir Strange is a casually, unrepentant opportunist, running a fictional version of East India that’s like the globalist cabal that conspiracy theorist fear most. It’s the largest corporation on the planet, with eyes and ears and thumbscrews everywhere. A God fueled by money. It’s also just the most powerful enemy of nearly a half-dozen that Delaney makes as he crashes his own path through London’s orthodontia-deprived underbelly.
Designed to repel and attract in equal measure, Taboo is equally happy to linger on Chaplin’s delicate veiled face, Hardy’s greasy naked form, or a vat of pig offal being prepped near the outdoor pissoir.
This is prestige television covered in grime and soot. It’s main story is also–at least at first–fairly boilerplate, as if Taboo is uninterested in unshackling itself from noir, revenge tropes beyond set dressing and a hint of voodoo. Hardy’s magnetism is a major reason the bold, brash Delaney remains compellin; in another actor’s hands, he might be just the latest in a long line of flawed dudes roughing up his enemies with preternatural confidence.
Fortunately, Hardy has more charisma in his mustache than most actors have in their whole bodies, Pryce offers his usual brand of perfection, and Chaplin plays steely even as she’s often the only woman in the room. We also get a robust rogue’s gallery of sadistic side characters who ebb and flow throughout Delaney’s field of vision.
There’s a cleverness to the show’s promise propelling it beyond any small shortcomings, but its real worth lies in taking its time to unravel Delaney’s story as it unravels his mind. Taboo is less about sprinting to the next fight scene, plot twist or mysterious nudge, and more invested in luxuriating in disgusting, filthy beauty.
4 out of 5 offal burritos
Taboo premieres January 10th at 10 p.m. on FX.