In many respects, my first reaction to seeing that actor Tom Hardy had thrown body, mind and soul – and a lot of income – into a BBC period drama was one of complete surprise. I mean, coming fresh off the success of Mad Max: Fury Road, then swapping the big rigs for horse-drawn carriages is a sizable shift; why would he, alongside his father and co-creator ‘Chips’ Hardy, take such a strange turn, or risk such a big gamble? Critics have also raised the question: The Guardian was quick to sneer at Taboo, dismissing it as “silly”, but having watched – and enjoyed – the first series, I think I get it. Although (presumably) hundreds of years and miles apart from Hardy’s most recent success on-screen as ‘Max’, Taboo builds on what Hardy now clearly knows he does very well. He’s bloody good at being dark and ambiguous and he’s equally good as a vital underpin to a story, though, as it turns out, both men are dependent on a number of other miscreants in order to properly rally against powerful forces which do far worse things than they, in terms of scale and magnitude. James Kaziah Delaney and Max have been spat out by the machine and they have done dreadful things along their route back to freedom; this makes them problematic, but perhaps all the more engaging for it.
Taboo is also notable for the way that it hacks away the veneer of polite society with a hand-tool – levelling aim at Regency England in a way that is unusual to say the least. We’re reasonably used to drab and desperate Victoriana – The Crimson Petal & The White bears some similarities to Taboo in terms of how it handles its subject and setting – but the Regency has never borne the brunt in the same way. A score of Jane Austen adaptations down through the years have barely shown us a pauper and even Lizzie Bennett’s petticoats ‘inches deep in mud’ are held up as a quirk of an intellect which never ultimately strays too far. Delaney’s London, however, is inches deep in mud all over. Every surface, every character is ingrained with filth; bodies are scarred, or beaten; people bleed; duchesses and whores sport the same paints and even hold the same earthy conversations. The whole thing is like a Hogarth engraving retrieved from the banks of the Thames itself.
Against this grotty backdrop of excess, we start our story with the death of Delaney Snr, apparently poisoned, and apparently survived only by daughter Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, Robb Stark’s short-lived wife in Game of Thrones). That is, until his son James (Hardy) arrives at the funeral. James Delaney, a sailor by trade, had been presumed long dead by drowning at sea, but has returned having gleaned the news about his father. He thereafter claims his father’s estate, thus pitching himself into battle with that burgeoning economic superpower the East India Company, and particularly its director, Sir Stuart Strange (‘High Sparrow’ Jonathan Pryce, who uses taboo language in this series with such flair that it brings a tear to my eye.) See, amongst his father’s possessions is a deed for a contested spit of land in Canada called Nootka Sound: both the Americans and the British want it, as it’s key to the furtherance of their colonial aims, and the East India would have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for Delaney’s return. Delaney not only makes it clear – well, reasonably clear – that Nootka is not for sale or exchange, but openly defies the EIC, who are here positioned somewhere between Machiavelli and Satan. As tongues wag about his alleged sinful, strange behaviour in Africa, and as forces gather which wish him extremely ill, Delaney becomes embroiled in a strategic battle to retain what is his, and also to avenge his family.
Are the different strands of this plot easy to follow, or predict? In a word, no. One of Taboo’s flaws is that the fabric of the story can be stretched extremely thin in places, either because the surprising amount of paperwork it depends upon can be hard to follow, or simply because Delaney plays his cards so close to his chest than none of us really get to see them; his repeated refrain of “I have a use for you” can travel across episodes before we know what that use is. The redemptive quality of the final episode is grand, admittedly, though still leaves us hanging – and I wouldn’t feel safe to presume that there will ever come a point in a future episode where everything comes together neatly.
But it’s all so spellbindingly busy and gritty that I was completely swept along anyway. Hardy is fantastic as the almost-superhuman Delaney, glowering his way through the streets, outwitting and overpowering people who have all the advantages of money and class, even surviving torture in order to get what he wants. You can believe he has a plan. He seems to have a plan. Even when people are finding themselves on the wrong end of a gun, you trust in the plan. His supporting committee of itinerants, prostitutes, actresses and criminals are equally great fun, with a particular nod to Atticus, the sailor with a compass tattooed on his head (how would that work?), Lorna Bow, an actress with one foot squarely in the gutter, but someone who seems positively pure compared to the rest of the crew, and George Chichester, a black man seeking justice for the drowning of a shipful of slaves – he doesn’t seek it, as he’s asked, for the sake of ‘his people’, but for the sake of ‘people’, and as one of the only truly honourable souls in this story, he deserves the outcome he receives. The only real misgiving I had with a character was, sadly, Zilpha Geary – Delaney’s half-sister, pinioned between a ‘respectable’ (read: bloody awful) marriage and a sexual affair which is off the scale in terms of scandal. Probably entirely reasonably, given her sex and her situation, she seems to pinball through a series of calamities before leaving so quietly that barely anyone notices. Though, at least, she had one moment of rebellion which seemed to be her own. The happiest women in this story are by far those who have openly ‘fallen’.
As already suggested, Taboo has been a huge gamble. To paraphrase a line from the last episode, it ‘walks the tightrope’ between many things: between the use of proper legislature and the application of brute force, between realism and supernaturalism, between predicted outcomes and sheer glorious silliness. It splatters its chiaroscuro with gore and it showers us with expletives. Historians would probably like to take turns praising it for dispensing with the customary pomp and then berating it for caricature. But then, as a period drama, it’s been entertaining and engrossing. After all, we live in a world where members of political dynasties can be assassinated by a woman wearing a shirt that reads ‘LOL’ and where a reality TV star is now in charge of the Free World. We like silly, we know stupid, and we love some bold escapism. Taboo, for that, is perfect.