[Editor's Note: Basic plot details of Season One of Taboo
are discussed below.]
Taboo’s tales of old empire corruption, oppressed underclass, occult tourism and last week’s immersion into torture porn hasn’t been family fare, to put it mildly.
And yet, the series has continued to fascinate with its exquisitely constructed storyline and the dark beauty of its art direction, a kind of Nine Inch Nails video turned up to eleven.
That’s not to imply that the FX series, which concludes its first season tonight (Tuesday, February 28, 10 p.m., ET) has served up only prettified nightmares, although that ingredient stands well enough on the age-old Gothic horror genre on which it is built.
The show, co-created and written by star Tom Hardy, has also been an instructive history lesson (with strong contemporary notes) as it excavates the soon-to-crumble19th-century British empire and the financial and military stakes at risk – those that broke a Colonial world power.
Taboo’s story of Hardy’s character, James Keziah Delaney, who has returned home from Africa to claim his family's fortune after his father’s demise has been incredibly haunting and tightly wound for a show that has had just an eight-episode run.
Tonight will reveal the results of Delaney’s own intentional capture by the Prince Regent’s henchmen and his ugly plight in the King's dungeon. His far-off adventures seems to have given him the ability to become impervious to pain, and water-boarding, for that matter.
Well, almost. He does suffer. But he hasn't capitulated yet.
Delaney’s ugly plight aside, what a ride it has been. Presumed drowned at sea on his way from Africa to the Caribbean (he may have had involvement in the slave trade), he has been the target of a scheme to swindle away a family-held land claim – an island port crucial to a China trade route off the coast of Canadian territory in Vancouver.
Delaney’s time in Africa is essentially a blank to viewers of the first season of the show although some of that has appeared in fevered flashbacks and more might get revealed in the season finale. (BBC has not yet committed to a second season for the import.)
Most of the story has focused on his return to Britain. He’s been a mysterious and tortured sort, covered in tattoos and grime and stalking through old London in a floor-length trench coat and a John Bull hat that’s become his trademark, menacing silhouette.
To fend off agents of the British Crown after his land, led by the proudly foul-mouthed head of the East India Company Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), Delaney’s also enlisted a team of society's cast-offs – prostitutes, cross-dressers, and orphans – his so-called “League of the Damned.” (Edward Hogg as Godfrey, secreted male courtesan and Delaney's spy inside the East India Company, right.) With them, he has had his few moments of care of compassion.
But those have been fleeting, as Delaney, also forced financially into collaborating with the American enemy, has been as dark and as ruthless as any other lead character in recent memory, a Dickens character gone very Dexter, going at his opponents with a short skinning knife, or as two weeks ago, with a pair of meat hooks. (This winter at the TCA press conference, Hardy discussed Delaney as based on Dickens’ Bill Sikes, from Oliver Twist, but from the upper class.)
As such, Hardy’s delivered up one of the all-time great antiheroes, leaving Walter White, Don Draper, and Omar Little as quaint, second-tier wannabes next to Delaney’s blend of guile, benevolence and hair-trigger mayhem. (He recently cut off the thumb of one of his crew he thought was leaking to the British government.)
None of that has been easy to watch, including his not-so-secret affair with his half-sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin).
If you’re still reading, thinking this all might prevent you going back for a binge on Taboo, it shouldn’t.
Hardy’s vision is not simply stuck in the salacious. While graphic, Taboo has been set upon a rich backstory of the west on the verge of change at the dawn of industrialization. The conflict and danger for Taboo characters are clearly the results of failing colonialism, a persecuted underclass with legal rights on paper only, female subjugation, the institutionalism of torture, eco-terrorism – to name just a few.
Hardy has woven them all together into yes, a nightmarish vision, but one that’s been epic in its cinematography and editing, a dim and gray rendition of the pre-industrial past as compelling as any 19th-century engraving.
That’s an achievement that has been as provocative as it has been, at times, off-putting.
Tonight should be no exception.
And of course, there’s that haircut, a kind of old-school jar-head hatchet job that looks like Delaney’s done it himself after one of his benders… without a mirror.
He’s obviously had a few things more important on his mind.