1814: Taboo centres around the exploits of James Delaney (Tom Hardy), a man who has been to the harshest places the planet has to offer. Typically, he comes back to England much changed. Presumed dead, he comes back to London from Africa to take what is rightfully his, the remnants of his father’s shipping empire. Yet, what his father left behind is tainted, and with sycophants at every corner, James must do battle with the East India Company to avoid the same fate as his father. Taboo is a dangerous game of chess between two warring nations, Britain and the United States, with the East India company acting as queen, rook and god knows what else.
Tom Hardy as James Delaney further exhibits why he should not be ruled out of the rumours of the recasting of Logan AKA Wolverine in the X-Men franchise. He has the fighting skills and gruntiness of Wolverine with the mind of Frank Underwood (House Of Cards). And he does not seem to feel pain, in body at least. The mind is a different kettle fish: add mommy and sister problems (Oona Chaplin) to his repertoire of mental issues. Delaney has to be one of the most interesting protagonists in a popular television drama since James McNalty in HBO’s cult-followed The Wire. Hardy is an acting powerhouse and I truly believe this first season of Taboo might just be the performance of his career.
Taboo has a Victorian-feel to it, though it predates the Victorian era by just over twenty years. We’re in a time when Britain and America are bitter enemies, at war. We have candlelit rooms, horse-drawn carriages and cobbled streets, as well as brutal murders in back alleys with secret meetings in whorehouses and quaint pubs. Mist simmers over the Thames, as it walks through blacked out docks, viscerally captured through breathtaking cinematography (very Peaky Blinders), as is often shown through executive producer Ridley Scott’s work. Written by Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy and his son Tom Hardy with Stephen Knight (Peaky Blinders), Taboo is in a league of its own. Dark, brutal and most importantly, realistic: Taboo can really dismiss you.
The Anglo-American conflict is winding down but there’s a third player wanting to profit, the East India Company. Or as I like to call them, The East India Crime Family (British Mafia), one of the most powerful corporations in history that make twenty-first century corporations look like child’s play. Secret battles and power struggles are Taboo’s landscape in this growing New World. They’re battles fought by corporations behind closed doors with lawyers and capital, not guns and fists. And the creatives have done a grand job at making audiences see the world for what it is. This is world-building at its best, with production design to rival Netflix’s The Crown. It looks crisp and true, whether that be the homes, costumes or even the tattoos on Hardy’s brooding exterior.
The East India Company are no mild villain. The world is run by corporations, not governments. Sure, this show is set two hundred years in the past. But as far as power as is concerned, nothing has changed. The world is still the same in this regard. Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) is the face of the company and he’s a worthy foe indeed. I’ve been watching Pryce’s work for years and this is another brilliant performance from him. I’m not sure what it is, but when upper middle-class British people swear, I find it quite amusing. This happens every episode. Whenever things don’t go their way, Pryce can be heard uttering “fuck” or other harsh expletives to convey his disdain.
Back from the dead, Delaney returns back from Africa and wants to gain revenge on anyone who has ever wronged him. With most stories of this nature, vengeful protagonists tend to have no plan or nouse to carry out their plan, as well as having some form of moral compass. Yet, Delaney is moneyed up with the mind of Frank Underwood. Be afraid, be very afraid. Also, he does things no man in a suit would dare dream of, including killing a man by sinking his teeth into his throat. Delaney puts himself against the East India Company, the British Crown and the Americans. It will take every piece of cunning and immorality to defeat them and stay alive in the process.
The dialogue is either witty, poetic, meaningful or intelligent. Clichés and predictability is rare, and quite frankly, The Hardys and Stephen Knight have written a gold standard teleplay. As the narrative starts to unravel in the final four episodes, I was witness to one of the greatest depictions of the sociopolitical aspects of the slave trade I have ever seen. We are not privy to any plantations but we are witness to real life happenings of slave ships. George Chichester (Lucian Msamati) is the man looking in to foul play regarding a slave ship. I won’t spoil, but its details are uncanny to the Zong Massacre of 1781.
Delaney was made for Hardy and Hardy born for Delaney. As London’s “nigger” plots, kills and hallucinate his way through one of the best-played games of chess I’ve ever seen, Taboo is more than just black and white. The game is a four-way match with more than just a clock to dictate who wins. Delaney is the portrait of a man haunted by his past, with half his body already in the afterlife. But he’s a man who should not be tested. If you test him, you might just wish you hadn’t. What’s more dangerous than a man back from the dead? A man who has lost everything with nothing more to lose.
Taboo is more than a dark period drama. It’s a story about family, politics and power. It discusses people’s power, or lack of. Furthermore, it shows the beasts that manifest inside each one of us. Given the scenario, any person is capable of anything. Regardless of its ace supporting performances from the likes of Oona Chaplin, Jessie Buckley, David Hayman as Brace and Mark Gatiss, Taboo is a battle between one man against a corporation-run world. Tom Hardy takes on the British Mafia, and it’s bloody fantastic to watch.
Certainly Emmy-bait, and that’s a compliment