From Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Tom Hardy (Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road) and his father Edward “Chips” Hardy comes Taboo, a miniseries that mixes the macabre and the vengeful into one. Because this is the first episode, this review assumes that the events are not meant to be viewed as spoilers, but plot hooks to the rest of the series.
The year is 1814, and the war between the forming United States and Great Britain is coming to an end. In London, the infamously mad Horace Delaney has died, a relief to his son-in-law Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) and daughter Zilpha (Oona Chaplin). But just before they could cash in on their inheritance, James Keziah Delaney (Hardy) returns from Africa, and supposed death, to claim what is his.
Delaney’s “resurrection” bodes ill for the machinations of the East India Company. With no alternative available despite considerable research, company chairman Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) offers the same deal to Delaney as he had the Gearys; to purchase Nootka Sound, an island off the west side of Canada near Vancouver.
The complication however is that James Keziah Delaney is… a very, very unnerving man.
Who knows things he ought not to know.
Who sees things he ought not to see.
And who suspects, rightfully, that there is a conspiracy afoot.
The cast seems to be the right mix of new and old. With Hardy and Pryce bringing up the billing, Taboo carefully shares the spotlight with its lesser known talent, giving each enough camera time to glow with intrigue. Chaplin, best remembered from her brief role on Games of Thrones, succeeds in portraying the dichotomy of an anxious, two-faced character. Hardy’s old butler Brace (David Hayman) is the most sympathetic and likable chap for his loyalty to the Delaney family, while Jefferson Hall, Franka Potente, Leo Bill and Richard Dixon depict characters who shine with the luster of utter slime. Judgment of Pryce’s Sir Strange shall be reserved until he can stand apart from his minions.
But it’s Tom Hardy’s name alone that brings a great deal to the table. Unwilling to ever wear the same mask twice, Hardy turns James Delaney into another true character: the manifestation of something primal, a reminder of how thin is civilization’s veneer. A brutal man who has witnessed truths lying on the other side of death and thus thinks so little of it.
Taboo relieves an itch left in the wake of Penny Dreadful’s recent and unexpected completion. Both are drama-meets-horror pieces set in the 19th century. Both star actors firmly committed to their roles, and both follow a honed formula of giving the audience enough to keep watching while concealing plenty.
But there are key differences, lying first in the fact that Taboo follows fewer threads. Penny Dreadful had a handful of main characters, each with exclusive goals. Taboo carries a main plotline involving Delaney’s inheritance while carefully touching other points that at least unveil more details of his past, but more likely open future subplots.
Another important difference between Taboo and similar costume dramas like Downton Abbey is that there is no focus on class but rather the economic. History too seems to be more of a direct driving force, as opposed to letting its effects be felt from a distance. However, the show clearly stays in the realm of dark fantasy, and is unlikely to let the past hijack what it is.
Taboo’s first episode succeeds in carefully laying the groundwork for something grand and entertaining. Try it. As of this writing, it can be seen for free on Amazon. It is a show not to miss.