Okay, it’s time to decide on a name. Taboovians? Taboo-hooers? Tabooskies? Better do it quickly, because the first and second episodes of the Tom Hardy–led FX/BBC drama Taboo just aired and the details are rolling in fast. Prepare to get butt naked in the hull of a ship and grab some story gems.
It’s 1814 and England is in the midst of its second war with the Americas, the War of 1812. The mysterious James Keziah Delaney (Hardy) has returned from Africa to bury his father, Horace, and collect his inheritance. All that stands between him, his money, and his land is his half-sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), the East India Company led by chairman Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) and, well, England itself.
The show hints at some big mystery that has something to do with what James dealt with in Africa. From his numerous haunted flashbacks of a woman covered in white paint and the rain-soaked locked hulls of slave ships to his mention of “seeing” the dead, one can only assume it’s supernatural and/or voodoo-like in nature. Not ruling out the idea of werewolves, either. That would be cool.
“Episode One” does what a pilot should do: introduce the main characters, explain their relationships and, most importantly given the show is hurtling toward some dark revelation, keeping the interest alive. The performances, for the most part, are strong from the get-go, especially the character trifecta of Hardy, Chaplin, and Pryce. All three dive into their roles with full abandon.
It isn’t altogether positive, however. There are too many mysteries, and the story can get wrapped too tightly, suffocating its characters in the process. Taboo’s main mystery might be worth it in the end—maybe—but with the recent online rumor mills correctly guessing major plot points of two other dramas, Westworld and Mr. Robot, the writers of Taboo seem to be protecting their big secret by burying it under a pile of smaller ones.
As far as Taboo’s production goes, “Episode One” looks as bleak and dreary as its subject matter. The show’s look is defined immediately with long shots of London’s misty waters, slow rowing boats and dark shades of gray. The costumes are well worth the price of admission—especially James’ attire, which resembles what a vulture would wear if he were to suddenly become human.
The episode ends with James denying the West India Trading Company a sale for Nootka Sound, a plot of land in the Pacific Northwest he inherited from his father. This does not bode well for him. Strange’s associate at East India Company, Edmund Pettifer (Richard Dixon), eludes to James’ past in Africa. Just the tip of this odd little iceberg of a show.
In Taboo’s second episode, many more characters are introduced, a slave ship is bought on auction and, for the most part, everyone is out to get James for purse or his head. James’ past, though not fully explained yet, does come to the forefront.
There’s also a deeper look into what could be James’ treason to England. He knows how to signal an American spy, Dr. Dumbarton (Michael Kelly), even if his method is a bit outdated. Though only present for a brief conversation with James, Dumbarton’s introduction adds a new historical layer to Taboo, one that further entrenches viewers in the War of 1812. Prince Regent of England George IV (the heavy-set, gout-ridden royal played by Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss) also makes his first appearance. This begs new questions introduced in this episodes: has James committed treason? Is the real reason for his return to help the Americas? Strange, in the role of perceived antagonist, is asking himself the same questions. The fight between two nations can’t be ignored as a side plot, but it does, again, distract from the small part James has in it so far.
If there’s anything to glean from “Episode Two,” it’s that James is being hunted. Not only does he have the East India Trading Company on his tail, but there’s another assassin (code-name “the man with the silver tooth”) sent by the brothel’s madam, Helga. Oh, and Thorne swears death and revenge on James after learning he has no claim to Horace’s will. So, that’s at least three entities after the main character.
Near the end of the episode, the Delaney’s family lawyer, Robert Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson), holds a public reading of Horace’s will with James, Zilpha, Thorne and others in attendance. James agrees to pay all of his father’s debts by dumping a box full of silver on a table but is then taken aback by the unexpected arrival of American actress Lorna Delaney née Bow (Jessie Buckley). She claims to have been married to Horace and intends to sue James for all of Horace’s money and property, including Nootka Sound. Smells like another plot led by the sneaky Strange, or if not, then at least a negotiating point for the East India Company. It’s no doubt a bigger plot line in the next episode.
Taboo-bservations from “Episode One” and “Episode Two”
- What’s the language that James keeps mumbling in?
- Who wouldn’t watch Tom Hardy as James Delaney? It plays to most of his strengths as an actor (gruff, grumbly strongman with a heart) and despite being a bit touched, he’s a compelling anti-hero to follow.
- There are plenty of questions surrounding Winter, Helga’s bi-racial, illegitimate child who escapes the row boat in “Episode Two” without a sound. Ghost? Maybe?
- There was a serious lack of Zilpha in the second episode. Outside of another nod to incest and an appearance at the reading of the will, her presence was missed.
- A new character, Atticus (Steven Graham), surfaced in “Episode Two” as James’ watchman-to-be and provided some much-needed levity. He shows signs of the late Bob Hoskins’ Smee in Hook with the similar accent and look. And that’s a compliment!
- The title sequence is fantastic. It might not be intentional, but there’s an eerie vibe of The Night of the Hunter in the pale skin and underwater shots.
- The relationship between James and his father’s servant, Brace, is surprisingly effective, even after just two episodes. I can already see a sitcom-style spin-off.
- The use of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 pairs nicely with the stabbing of the “man with the silver tooth.”
We take the Feliz Aventurero to Taboo’s third episode next week. Check the preview above. Until then, remember: Calm. Pretty. Certain. Fragrant.