Created by Tom Hardy and his father Chips, along with the help of former “Peaky Blinders” collaborator, Steven Knight, FX’s newest series “Taboo” is anything but. The show isn’t entirely bad, there are way worse series out that get full season orders (ahem, “Ice”), but “Taboo” doesn’t appear to be much more than a gothic He-Man wish-fulfillment fairytale — like a steampunk, unironic “John Wick.” Hardly shocking to learn there was only one woman on the writing staff, credited with assisting a single episode: This is a man’s man’s world of basic fantasy.
Also making it the quintessential Tom Hardy show, as much as we all like to project and imbue him with all the sensitivity and depth of feeling those eyes and lips seem to imply. As James Keziah Delaney, Hardy portrays his signature role: A deeply disturbed, mostly affected character on the hunt for vengeance.
Between his upbringing as the son of a British trader, and later in life discovery that his mother was of American Indian descent, Delaney has become a brooding, wacky army of one. A man who talks mostly with grunts, lingering stares, and tells a woman who’s threatened to have him beat up, “You send me 12 men, and I’ll send you 12 testicles… In a bag!”
The premiere kicks off in 1814 London, just as Delaney makes a prodigal return for his father’s funeral after being MIA in Africa for over a decade. Long thought to be dead, his presence sends shock waves through town, especially for half-sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin), her husband Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), and the head of the East India Trading Company, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathon Price). Before Delaney arrived, Zilpha and Geary had a deal with Strange to sell the small bit of land they were meant to inherit…
But Horace Delaney left Nootka Sound to his son, and the lawyer confirms it can’t be contested. Intensifying the matter, this spot of land — a place that actually exists on Vancouver Island — has become insanely valuable. It’s perfectly located between American and British territories, which could be a huge asset to whichever side gets ownership, deep in the throes of the War of 1812. Delaney’s refusal to honor the deal his sister’s husband made to sell it to Strange, even after receiving the offer of a hefty price hike, is not sitting well with anyone.
Needless to say, nobody’s really happy to see Delaney alive — but the truth is that most of what happens in the premiere, happens “needless to say.” It’s all either shrouded so far in mystery no one could possibly have any clue as to what’s really going on, or it’s so obvious you have to cringe. The hope is always that subsequent episodes will blow your mind, but a show this satisfied with its own surface story — and the style, admittedly beautiful, which which it’s told — seems as much a guaranteed hit as it is less than suspenseful…
Having said that, we’ll be damned if that young boy isn’t a love child between Delaney and his half-sister. It’s obvious the love between the two is much more than a sibling kind of affection, and Delaney’s insistence on never seeing “his own blood” ever again, yet ensuring his future momentarily without a fight… It’s hard to think another why this supposed plot mystery could be driven home.
Except, it is. There’s Zilpha’s gasping reaction when Delaney first enters the church, and her reaction when her husband refers to Delaney not as brother — like that makes it less gross — but unlike Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones,” Zilpha’s character is not fleshed out. She has no power or agency, merely a pretty woman defined by her male counterparts in classic “Chinatown” mode: She’s ashamed of her dalliances with her half-brother, hated her father, and tries her best to pretend that her husband isn’t a complete tool.
Since the incest is so obvious, there are sure to be many more taboo subjects poached throughout the season. Flashbacks to whatever hell Delaney was party to in Africa will be terribly violent, what he’ll do in order to keep control of Nootka Sound will have no bounds — Delaney sees protecting this inherited land as a way to atone for not saving his father from being murdered, and never knowing his mother. And of course at some point, the reveal of just how this tall dark glass of manly ale can speak with the dead, or hear people talking thousands of miles away, is sure to be be thoroughly disturbing.
It’s easy to feast your eyes, and get lost in Hardy’s icy stare… If you can get past his laughably large black hat, a scene stealer during many a dramatic moment. It’s fun enough, watching the ultimate bro terrorize his way through what looks to be the darkest and gloomiest area in 19th century London. Hardy has a fierce command of an audience, and there are few moments he isn’t onscreen. But if you’re worried certain mysteries will never be solved, or the payoff at the end won’t be great, there’s little we can say to offer comfort. That doesn’t really seem to be the point, as yet.
“Taboo” airs on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FX.