Taboo is so ridiculous
So why does it take itself so seriously?
FX's new historical drama Taboo is, to put it mildly, excessive. Created by Tom Hardy with his father Chips Hardy and Steven Knight, this is the story of James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a threatening sort with strange tattoos, flashbacks, and hallucinations who returns to London for his father's funeral in 1814, having been changed by some disturbing experiences he had during his 10 years in "Africa." His return creates problems for the mega-powerful East India Company which, in the years he's been gone, has metastasized from a trading company to a dangerous global power. They want an island Delaney's father owned and planned to acquire it when he died. Not so fast! says Delaney — whom everyone, save his father, believed was dead.
But Delaney is not dead, he is complex: A pragmatic type who brooks no nonsense — he peremptorily orders his father's creditors to form an orderly line so he can settle their bills — Delaney is also a rumored cannibal. And if he's remarkably well-versed in the ways that Nootka island lines up with British vs. American trade interests, he also enjoys talking to himself in a weird language, carving birds with painfully bent necks into wood, and hanging out naked on ships with colored stones that may or may not be gems while reflecting on the horrors of slavery.
I would move on, but I can't, because Delaney's back story is too much. No 19th-century Englishman returns from Africa without uncut diamonds, and James Keziah Delaney does not disappoint. An excellent swimmer, he sports a cross-shaped scar under his left eye and says things like "One thing Africa did not cure is that I still love you." His father bought his mother from a Native American tribe, he's in love with his sister, he almost died on a slave ship, and both his parents were insane.
A colorful character, no question. A campy character, arguably. But the show does not agree; it takes Delaney seriously, and suggests that we should too.
The surprise of Taboo, then, is that it manages to make the East India Company more interesting than Delaney himself. "The prince regent fears it," Delaney's solicitor Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson) explains. "No government in the world dares stand up to it. It owns the land, the ocean, the f--king sky above our heads. It has more men and weapons and ships than all the Christian nations combined." Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), the head of the East India, presides over an assembly of evil, tea-drinking functionaries played by a slate of terrific British actors.
The East India scenes have it all: juicy intelligence reports, malicious plots, and beautiful documents through which we learn, among other things, that Delaney excelled in the East India company's own military seminary when he was 11. He was a gifted cadet until he started setting navy boats on fire, fighting bears, and experimenting with "oil and mashed potatoes while drunk."
If the East India's meetings are great fun to watch, the same can't quite be said for Hardy: He plays Delaney with all of Jack Sparrow's swagger but none of his humor. He strides and glowers and speaks in a vengeful, monotonous purr, clad all in black. We're meant to understand him as a loose cannon, a renegade freed from society's taboos. But the effect onscreen is "relentless and tormented and grim." One wishes a little for a glimpse of the scamp who experimented with oil and mashed potatoes; at least that version of Delaney had a sense of play.
Still, he is compelling. In an early confrontation with the East India — Sir Stuart makes Delaney an offer and warns that the company "does not ask twice" — Delaney implies he could become a whistleblower, the Amy Jellicoe to the East India's Abbaddon Industries. "Oh, the Leviathan of the sea," he says of the East India. "The beast with a million eyes and a million ears. Conquest, rape, and plunder. And I do know the evil that you do, because I was once part of it." He gazes at Pryce, pointedly. It's great silly drama peppered with a usefully legalistic explanations of the commercial stakes of Nootka Sound: "Whoever owns Nootka has a legal entitlement to the entire island of Vancouver, which is the gateway to … to China," Delaney says, his voice trailing dreamily off.
The point of the scene is to prove that Delaney is a man of the world, but the show takes that rather far. At certain points, Delaney seems to be channeling every form of historical trauma. Despite looking white, Delaney is frequently referred to as a "savage" or "n--ger." This may be a function of his heritage and his travels, it may be hinting at the 19th-century stereotype of Englishmen "going native," but either way, the show seems to be using racial trauma mostly as Delaney's mood music. Three episodes in, it's still not clear whether Delaney is in sympathy with the slaves and his Nootka mother or whether he considers himself one of them. That's a key difference, and some Delaney flashbacks suggest the identification is troublingly personal: that Delaney himself is somehow channeling both Native American and "African" suffering.
Let's hope the show justifies these choices, because it's one thing to explore the real horrors people of different races endured as a result of the East India's activities; it's quite another to use that suffering as background to make a character more exotically mysterious.
As for the "taboo" for which the show seems to be named — Delaney's sexual relationship with his enigmatic married sister Zipha (Oona Chaplin) — it receives surprisingly little screentime. Three episodes in, I'm not quite sure what Delaney hopes to accomplish, or from what, exactly, he's suffering.
This is the trouble with the show overall: It's just not clear, even after three episodes, what the fascinating James Keziah Delaney wants. Does he want to avenge his father's death? To redeem his mother's suffering? Does he want to save his family's shipping company? Destroy the East India? Does he want to marry his sister? Kill her husband? Join the spies? Become an American? Reconnect with his people in Nootka? Avenge slavery? Get rid of societal norms? All of the above?
We don't know. The East India's aims are clear; Delaney's are not. A character with a back story this massive will sink under its weight unless it's aggressively managed. But rather than manage it, Taboo adds to the confusion via suggestive underwater scenes and hints of voodoo and visions of painted women. Hardy moves through filthy corrupt London with menace and purpose and drive, but why? To what end?
Here's hoping Taboo tells us soon.