James Keziah Delaney returns to 1814 London after 10 years in Africa to discover that he has been left a mysterious legacy by his father. Driven to wage war on those who have wronged him, Delaney finds himself in a face-off against the East India Company, whilst playing a dangerous game between two warring nations, Britain and America.
Taboo is a historical series perched somewhere between the utterly baroque, the intensely theatrical, and the routinely expositional. Tom Hardy (who co-created the series with Steven Knight and his father, Chips Hardy) plays the exquisitely named James Keziah Delaney, a man we first see sailing into London at the head of a small boat, obscured by an ashy cloak that likens him to an earthy grim reaper. It’s 1814 and Britain is at war with the fledgling 15 United States for the latter’s independence. Which is to say that this London doesn’t appear to benefit from a robust and focused budgetary infrastructure, as it’s defined by Knight as a city of mud and Dickensian squalor, of whores, rotting teeth, and men tatted up to the nines and brandishing hidden daggers and muskets.Like most tales of strangers blowing in from the past, Taboo is about a protagonist who offers a catharsis to his corrupt society, turning its greed on itself. The series is sporadically exhilarating for its unapologetic luridness, suggesting that its makers have learned the right lessons from Deadwood, which was less occupied with encouraging our retroactive superiority to history than with erecting an alternative, highly figurative emotional realm that resonantly collides with our present reality. As in that series, there’s little concern in Taboo for lifelessly courting costume-drama prestige, emulating whatever we think the setting in question was actually like.
This sensational emotionalism often takes viewers to uncomfortable places, as when James has visions of slain African slaves and Native-American tribespeople that frequently court clichés of savagery, which simultaneously affirm and critique profound white guilt. As in the best seasons of American Horror Story, Taboo dares to spin an ultraviolent, cartoonish, pointedly capitalizing tapestry out of real atrocity, discarding distancing reverence for free-associative tonality. And like Dickens’s best work, the series prods classist tension with melodramatic excess.
The dialogue, in particular, is archly poetic, understood to be as much a weapon as conventional instruments of destruction. James is a fantasy of the virile man who’s credible both in a boardroom, among the white-collar traders who collude with the British kingdom to establish caste systems still at play in that country and the United States, as well as in the dark, dank, and dirty streets, fraternizing with bounty hunters and madams. Hardy often appears to be chewing his lines, swishing them around in his mouth like tactile cud.