Taboo caught my attention the old fashion (but atypical for me) way: a TV promo. It looked to be chocked full of the mystical, the disturbed and maybe, just maybe (if we’re lucky) utter mayhem. Now, I freely admit that I am absurdly enamored with Tom Hardy; after watching him rise inexplicably from what appeared to be a river covered in paint, I had not the first damn clue what in hell I’d just viewed. I was also absolutely certain I’d be watching when the show aired on FX…
To give myself some standing before trying to drag my less-Tom Hardy obsessed friends into possibly watching along with me, I did go looking for a show synopsis: Taboo is a grim tale of a man, James Delaney, whose reemergence (from the dead) into English society coincides with the death of his father. It seems the “civilized” world believed he perished when a ship on its way to Africa sank. His reappearance in 1814 London coincides with Britain’s not so successful battles with its former colonies in American over independence and territory (think American Revolution and the War of 1812). As he makes moves to take control of his father’s crumbling shipping business intent on establishing himself he must navigate personal trials and political machinations to seize control of a piece of property included in his inheritance that of interest to the warring nations.
With an unmistakable swagger, and amidst rumors of depravity and savagery, James Delaney saunters into his father’s funeral upsetting both the ceremony and the plans the very powerful East India Company has for his father’s estate. He seems to have information he shouldn’t – given his long absence from England and its affairs – an utter lack of regard for his standing as a servant of the Crown, a deep-seated antipathy for explanation and more than a bit of shadowy menace emanating from his palatable aura.
His interpersonal relationships have their own… challenges. By the end of episode one, it’s obvious Delaney’s attachment to his half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), is rather unseemly and one she appears – I don’t believe it – to want no parts in. By the end of episode five if you don’t want her husband, Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) to die a slow, miserably painful death then you need to think really hard about your life priorities. Piece by piece each episode brings together a cast of characters unique in their appearance and seriously deep in the game being played.
It’s a political intrigue wrapped in hyper realistic revenge story often hallucinogenic in its presentation. I don’t know exactly which Orisha’s Delaney’s calling on when he turns the way of the mystic but I’d say he and they put a power behind his agenda yet to be fully revealed. I watch. I listen. I learn more as the story unfolds and damned if still don’t I have the foggiest clue who can be trusted – seriously I got questions for Brace – or what the actual hell is going to happen next1.
Taboo is a many layered macabre drama unfolding its mystery with a deliberate viciousness and at an unhurried pace just possibly designed to drive me mad. It’s a grim semi-fantastical journey into the life of James Delaney and his escapades told with an eye to revealing the base nature of man – he’s got with a wide violent streak and acts only according to his closely held sense of ethics. He’s crazy; the kind of crazy you really want to see you as an asset rather than an obstacle. And God help you if he thinks you’re his enemy.
Five episodes in and I can’t look away.
Things to know:
Taboo makes no bones about its intention to reflect the 19th century in all its unvarnished grotesqueness. London is dirty, the language is foul, and the paradoxical nature of man is on full unflinching display. It’s not for the faint of heart or those who like their period pieces to be a constantly rosy or whitewashed a bright shining comfortable expression of a booming aristocracy. If you can’t deal with shows that don’t tip-toe around blunt racial references, questionable familial relationships (both period authentic – don’t lie to yourself), let alone blood, death, and violence, give this show a pass. It’s not the London you’re looking for.
Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Set in 1814, Taboo follows James Keziah Delaney, a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself. But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice, and with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.