Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The brainchild of frequent collaborators Steven Knight and Tom Hardy, Taboo might just be the fraternal twin of the pair’s Peaky Blinders, which was just renewed for a fourth and fifth season. With parental guidance from Chips Hardy, Tom’s father, who’s also credited as a series creator, and the big name draw of executive producer Ridley Scott, one mustn’t strain themselves when searching for motivation to tune in for the premiere this coming Tuesday.
The show is set in 1814 London, in the thick of the War of 1812 between Great Britain/Canada and the “15 United States of America.” The East India Trading Company, whose tyrannical depiction in the series ignited a bit of controversy prior to the show’s release, are attempting to monopolize trading routes on both coasts of America. Standing in their way is Nootka Sound, an inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, owned by James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), bequeathed to him by his recently deceased father.
Delaney, a man believed to be long dead, has returned to London to attend his father’s funeral. Having spent the last decade or so in Africa, participating “in darkness that you cannot conceive,” he’s (rightfully) thought to be out of his mind. That’s unfortunate for his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), who had hopes of securing a hefty payout from the EITC in exchange for the territory.
Although James’ endgame is foggy after just three episodes in (unsurprisingly), it’s clear he’s unwilling to part with the inheritance for his half-sister, the East India Trading Company (who represent the British Monarchy in the show for all intents and purposes), or even the United States for that matter, which is rather unexpected considering his shrugged approach to treason. Devoid of all sense, Delaney opts to navigate an ocean of tripwires and will go to great, deplorable lengths to carry his plan to fruition.
While we’ve seen but a glimpse or two of the “horrors” and “foolish things” James has supposedly experienced, partaken in and sworn to replicate, Taboo has yet to fully deliver the utter mayhem and blood and guts it’s promised, even three episodes deep. However, haunted by manifestations of deceased slaves and the memory of his native mother, in addition to a complex political narrative and a charismatic performance from Tom Hardy, the show still manages to reel you in despite the vagueness of its direction.
A costume drama with a certain air of swashbuckling, Taboo shows hints of where it derived its title from early on and it is perhaps the series’ most interesting tangent. Also intriguing is the relationship between James and his half-sister Zilpha, which slowly unfurls throughout these first three chapters but is held back just enough to incur a forbidden, leisurely depiction of the events leading up to their estrangement.
While there are still uncertainties about the plot at this stage, if there’s one thing that’s for sure, it’s that Taboo is a visual feast, plundering eye-candy from both the decadence and the squalor of Georgian era Britain. The rancid meat, perpetual muddiness, and just general uncleanliness is palpable, as if stink-lines protrude from the screen, pungent and tender like exposed bone. Conversely, you can’t help but get caught up in the fanciness of it all; the cloth embroidered with lace and brass-buttoned pockets, powdered wigs, and the abundance of ornate teacups and unnecessary doilies. If anything, Taboo can survive its early instalment jitters on costume and set design alone.
As for Hardy, who rarely vacates the focus of director Kristoffer Nyholm’s lens, he busts out his trademark scoffs and grunts, which (somehow) remain remarkably effective. His frightful intensity and unbound prowess for depicting crazy (Bronson, Mad Max: Fury Road) are the driving force for a character who sparsely requires a sympathetic shoulder. The actor’s unwavering, insipid, petrifying glare could stop a charging lion dead in its tracks, and it makes his Delaney utterly magnetic.
Similar to Knight’s Peaky Blinders, which didn’t really gain traction until halfway through its first season, after three episodes Taboo doesn’t exactly knock your socks off. That being said, its promising start has certainly laid a solid foundation for what could eventually unfold. Led by a typically menacing turn from Tom Hardy and holding a slew of unanswered questions that will no doubt be resolved by season’s end, viewers will definitely find themselves sticking around to see how Taboo turns out.
Brimming with all the sex and violence you'd expect from this aptly titled historical costume drama, Steven Knight and Tom Hardy's Taboo appears poised to deliver the promised goods well beyond its suppressed introductory episodes.