In the premiere of Taboo, Tom Hardy’s new project on FX, his protagonist James Keziah Delaney marches in from the past, secrets and grudges trailing his mud-stained coat. Taboo itself feels like something of a ghost as well. TV is no longer flooded with taciturn, tortured antiheroes of James’ ilk, and the limited series struggles in its first three episodes to justify why we should care about this man by deliberately obscuring his intentions. This tale sometimes feels like what might have happened if Sweeney Todd went after the East India Company, but it’s weighed down by less-than-thrilling characterization.
Hardy created the show alongside his father, Chips Hardy, and Steven Knight of Peaky Blinders and Locke, and it caters to the younger Hardy’s talents. The actor is known for his glowering, mumbling cinematic turns in the likes of The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road, and he’s not stretching here. James is a man of few words and the ones he does speak are delivered in—surprise—a gruff manner. The action gets underway when this top-hatted man returns to London in 1814 from Africa upon his father’s death to claim a prized piece of land in the Pacific Northwest, Nootka Sound. To James, the land holds personal significance; to the East India Company, it’s of national import given its location and the fact the British Empire is about to undergo negotiations with the newly formed American government regarding the Canadian border. All the while, James is plagued by visions seemingly related to his mother, his time in Africa, and his voyage on a doomed slave ship, which he may have survived at the expense of the others aboard. And then, of course, there are those persistent rumors about his alleged misdeeds, which swirl around him.
Hardy’s performance is mostly rooted in his imposing physicality, and his virility is drawn in stark contrast to the sideburn-donning officials surrounding him. His deep V looks like it belongs on a runway; his antagonists are all wearing high collars that poke into their jowls. These stuffy schemers don’t initially get to do much other than sneer haughtily. Chief among them is Jonathan Pryce as Stuart Strange, the chairman of the East India Company. Pryce always has a wry energy about him, but here he’s mostly deployed for his general air of menace. His fellow Game Of Thrones alum Oona Chaplin plays James’ half-sister and object of obsession Zilpha with a quivering chin raised perpetually high. (Women, for the most part, are little more than plot devices here.) As her husband, Thorne Geary, Jefferson Hall has one note: priggish. The only members of the cast who truly seem to be having fun are an unrecognizable Mark Gatiss as the bloated, bloviating Prince Regent and the wily Stephen Graham as James’ lowlife accomplice Atticus. Hardy has said that he got the idea for the series after he played Bill Sikes in a BBC version of Oliver Twist. Only he and his team forgot to infuse the denizens of Taboo’s world with the lively spirit found in Charles Dickens’ novels. If Gatiss and Graham have gotten the message, it’s in spite of everyone else.
Part of the problem is that the Hardys and Knight are more invested in teasing that their characters possess secrets than letting those backgrounds color the performances and story. This in part is an atmospheric choice, but it’s also a frustrating one. On one hand, it makes you want to keep watching just to see if the reveals will be worthwhile. On the other, it’s likely to make many throw up their hands. Still, its visuals are finely crafted by Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm, handsomely employing grime, and the history is intriguing. James is in the center of the machinations of the East India Company coming into conflict with the crown while American spies lurk nearby. Every so often the wheels of the narrative churn to unveil a nugget of information that makes engaging with Taboo’s dense mystery rewarding, but whether that pays off is anyone’s guess.