Shovels, keys, and coins: The premiere of Taboo, created by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, Tom Hardy, and Chips Hardy, overflows with old secrets that refuse to stay buried, locked up, or bought off. The opening intentionally juxtaposes the epic with the grubby, the mythic with the mundane. A cloaked figure stands upright in a rowboat as a faceless rower bears him across the open water. As the boat cuts through mist, music clamors and thunder roars. This could be a dead man borne across the Styx, a mage casting a spell over the waves, a lesser god of ancient myth striking out on a mission.
It’s none of these. It’s James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy) in a grimy oilskin. In the next shot, he’s lying facedown in the mud, digging for treasure. This adventurer, his scars and his reserve belying his youth, was presumed dead ten years ago when the slave ship he was aboard sank off the Gold Coast. But here he is, returned from Africa and from death—two destinations that must seem similarly distant and exotic to most denizens of Regency-era London—just in time for his father’s funeral.
In a tale centering around a man returned from the dead, a daughter’s refusal to have her father’s grave dug deep enough is a miserly piece of thrift indeed. For another shilling or two, she could thwart the resurrectionists who prey on fresh graves. Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), James’ half-sister, defends herself to her long-forsaken brother with cold words: “He was buried to the depth of my love.” Horace Delaney’s madness late in life—his insistence on calling to the dead, and to the son believed lost—disgraced his daughter and poisoned her memories of him.
Nor is that the only toxic residue of Horace’s last years, or so the dead man’s lawyer, Robert Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson), would have them believe. There is no fortune, he tells James. “The only legacy is a poisoned chalice,” a barren strip of land in the New World, “nothing but rocks and Indians.” Nootka Sound, he warns James, is “not only useless, it is dangerous to anyone who owns it.” How suspicious, then, that Thoyt has an offer in hand for its immediate sale to The East India Company.
“People who do not know me soon come to find that I do not have any sense,” James tells Helga (Franka Potente), the madam who’s commandeered his father’s abandoned offices. “I have sworn to do very foolish things,” he confides to Brace (David Hayman), his father’s last remaining servant. But James knows more, sees more, and has more sense than anyone supposes. He knows the secret of his lineage: His mother was not Neapolitan, but Native American, bought by Delaney along with Nootka Sound for a pittance in gunpowder and beads. He knows it’s not only his father’s legacy that’s poisoned. His father’s last days were an agony of arsenic poisoning, which made him rave before it killed him. Most crucially for the EIC, he knows the importance of his parcel of land in international affairs, and its value as the fulcrum determining ownership of Vancouver, “the gateway to China.”
Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), the EIC’s formidable chairman and former commander of James’ boyhood squad, underestimates his adversary. Despite pages of records in his own hand describing young James’ talents as “exceptional” in every way, Strange cannot recall his former cadet. Though he remarks upon James’ “highly public” return to reclaim his life and his inheritance as a purposeful, strategic move, Strange still imagines James as a dull pawn, easily outwitted. Instead, James is a man of remarkable acumen, readily familiar with the importance of his small inheritance of land in the political and economic landscape, and even more familiar with the evils practiced by the men trying to bargain him out of it:
The leviathan of the seas, is it? The terrible shadow? The beast with a million eyes and a million ears? Conquest? Rape? Plunder? I studied your methods in your school, and I do know the evil that you do because I was once part of it.
In this first episode, Oona Chaplin is all sad eyes and woeful gazes, but with a ramrod-straight spine suggestive of steely resolve. All of these traits seem to run in the family. As James Delaney, Tom Hardy is most powerful in quiet moments. Promotional clips for Taboo makes much of James’ unclad savagery in contrast to the buttoned-up hypocrisy of his enemies, his wild-eyed frenzy, and his supposed occult gifts. But James’ greatest gift so far isn’t his otherworldliness. It’s his worldly acumen. He knows when to murmur, when to threaten, and when to stay silent. His eyes say as much as his words, and he’s at his most eloquent when he answers another’s bluster with a sigh, an interrogative breath of “hmm?” or “ah?” that’s somehow more statement than question.
By contrast, his scenery-chewing outburst of visions or madness (or both—Taboo hints that its world has room for both) amid the corpses of a resurrectionist’s lab may be narratively expedient, but it’s silly rather than scary. After the reserve of the preceding scenes, this kitschy descent into grand Guignol feels shoehorned in. Taboo’s sense of dread is least effective when it wallows in the supernatural, flashing on the screaming vision of a raven-clad wraith splashing around a shore or a manacled man hulking up to the ceiling of a morgue. James Delaney is haunted by apparitions of the dead, he may even count himself among them, but the thing that most haunts him is no phantom. It’s flesh and blood—his own flesh and blood.
Finally facing Zilpha as guests carouse after their father’s funeral, James brooks the most dangerous subject in a story already laced with corporate conspiracies, arsenic poisoning, communion with the dead, and rumors of supernatural resurrection. “One thing Africa did not cure… is that I still love you.” In her second, surreptitious letter to her brother—actually her half-brother, as she’s quick to remind her husband—Zilpha implores James to let the secrets of the past stay buried. Passion between siblings is an ancient taboo and a trope often invoked as half curse, half craving. Based on their chemistry alone, the limited series might just live up to its name.
There’s a danger that Taboo is too bound up in its own unspoken mysteries and its gaudier fantasies to continue in the vein of this confident first episode. Indeed, in her pre-air TV Review, Esther Zuckerman describes the first three episodes as “more invested in teasing that their characters possess secrets than letting those backgrounds color the performances and story.” But in this introduction to the series, that opacity still feels like a strength, not a failing. The seeming contradictions of character and action—when James spouts nonsense but displays quietly piercing sense, when the EIC members seem blindsided by his reappearance but not too blindsided to immediately produce his history, when Zilpha is by turns yielding, then fierce—could be inattentive writing, or they could be mysteries waiting to be revealed. If Taboo can eschew its leanings into the outré in favor of the concrete, it will have more going for it than Tom Hardy’s powerful presence.
- Nootka Sound is a real place with a real indigenous population and a real role in history. Salish, James’ mother’s secret true name, is the name of both a people and a language native to the Pacific Northwest.
- The East India Company is similarly real, and similarly fictionalized for the purposes of this series.
- Whoever designed James’ greatcoat deserves a round of applause. Its hem billows in the wake of his stride, giving even a trudge through the muck an element of swagger.
- “Do you want a cup of tea? Do you want a fuck?” asks Helga, exemplifying the tone of Taboo in one breath.
- I enjoy how easily Thorne Geary’s (Jefferson Hall) high-handed attempts to insert himself into Delaney family machinations are swatted down by all, including (finally) the wife he wishes to control.
- Less enjoyable is James, a former slave-trader, telling the vision of a man he abducted that “we are all owned and we have all owned others, so don’t you dare stand there and judge me.” I mean, there’s owning and then there’s owning.
- It’s Appleby (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), the EIC’s “delegate from Christ,” who suggest burning the inconvenient will. His unscrupulous solution wouldn’t help—the son would still retain legal precedence over the daughter—but Strange’s follow-up ruminating upon James’ “purposely public” return suggests the EIC would destroy the man as gladly as they would the will if it suited their needs, and if they could get away with it.
- Tom Hardy-est moment: James Delaney lifting Brace off his feet in a jostling bearhug and growling affectionately, “Where’s your propriety, Brace? Servant and master? Get off me.” Glimpses of intimacy like this are an excellent foil to all his somber gazing, skeptical squints, and brusque threats.