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Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum: A Spoiler-Free Review of The Handmaid’s Tale by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

#NoSpoilers
Review of  The Handmaid’s Tale season 1
by Guest Lydia Schoch @TorontoLydia

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a speculative novel about a woman who was kidnapped and forced into reproductive slavery after the U.S. government was overthrown by a group of religious extremists called the Sons of Jacob. Last year, I was thrilled when I found out that it was going to be turned into a TV series.

Today I’m going to tell you what season one of The Handmaid’s Tale was like and what I thought of it without giving away any spoilers for it. Let’s begin with the introductions of the main characters and a brief summary of the plot.

O.T. Fagbnele as Luke, Jordana Blake as Hannah, and Elisabeth Moss as Offred (Photo: George Kraychyk © HULU)

June was the protagonist. Before the United States government was overthrown, she was married to a man named Luke. They were one of the dwindling number of families who had been able to successfully have a healthy child. They named their little girl Hannah.

Unfortunately, this family’s happiness was short-lived. Fertility rates dropped so much in the place formerly known as the United States that it became rare for any pregnancy to lead to a healthy, viable baby. The Sons of Jacob, an extremist movement whose political platform was based on harsh, literal interpretations of certain passages from the Bible, believed that this widespread infertility was a curse from God.

When they gained power and formed Gilead, they passed punitive laws aimed to strictly control marriage, fertility, gender roles, and how people were allowed to live in an attempt to win God’s favour again.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale © Hulu

As you might have already imagined, fertile women were highly sought after in this new society. June and her family was no exception to this rule. June was prized because she’d proven herself fertile, and Hannah was prized because there were far more families hoping to adopt than there were children of any age or race who could be placed for adoption.

After being captured by the authorities, June was torn away from her family and assigned to be a Handmaid for the wealthy and powerful. That is, her only duty in life now was to bear children for couples who couldn’t have their own.

Rather than keeping her own name, June was renamed at every posting. Offred — or “of Fred” — became her new identity after she was sent to live with Fred Waterford, a top-ranking Commander of the new government.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu ©

His wife, Serena Joy, was a wildly unpredictable mistress whose sole desire in life was to be a mother. Her jealousy of June’s fertility is only matched by her hatred of this arrangement.

Offred had a limited amount of time to conceive a baby with Fred. If she failed to become pregnant, she would be sent to a work camp to die a slow, agonizing death. While she waited to see if the monthly sexual assaults from Fred will result in a baby, she also quietly worked to find out what happened to her husband and daughter.

Are they still alive? Will she ever be able to see them again? Even saying their names was forbidden, but this didn’t stop Offred from fantasizing about what it would be like to be her family again.

Roughly translated, nolite te bastardes carborundorum is supposed to mean “don’t let the bastards grind you down.” It was a phrase she found scratched into the wood of one of the pieces of furniture in her room at the Waterford’s home. While Offred waited to see what would happen to her next, she had to figure out how to avoid being ground down to dust in the process.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1st edition)

Analysis

As someone who has been a huge fan of the book for nearly 20 years, I was quite happy with how this story was translated to the small screen.

Gilead was a violent and dangerous place to live for anyone who stepped out of line, and the screenwriters weren’t at all afraid to show exactly what happened to people who broke the strict rules there. While I can’t go into any details about that part of the plot without giving away spoilers for everything after the first episode, I will say that this portion of the storytelling was exquisite.

There is a massive difference between maintaining the appearance of a virtuous society and actually constructing it in a way that benefits the very people it was originally meant to help.

Some of my favorite scenes were the ones that showed the stark difference between the outward appearance of someone’s life and the quiet reality of it behind closed doors. While most of the villains were at least outwardly pious, what happened when they thought no one was watching them was much more complex than following or breaking specific rules.

One of the other things I loved about this season is how it handled the character development. No one in this world was completely evil or good, including people who really did seem like they could be boxed in by these labels when I first saw them.

There were times when the good characters made decisions that I detested. In other scenes, characters who had been violent or cruel showed moments of mercy.

This is not to say that a single act of kindness can wipe away even the worst crime or that good people should be forever judged by their worst mistakes in life. All of these characters are a mixture of faults and virtues just like real people are, and that has permanently endeared them to me.

The science fiction in this universe has a very light touch. If this is not a genre you typically watch, know that The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t like most other scifi shows. Other than the mysterious origins of the infertility plague, everything that happened in this show could really happen in our world. Indeed, much of it already has happened at various times and in many different places.

By the end of the season finale a question lingered in the air. Would we let something like this happen to us if we began to see the signs of a real-life Gilead beginning to form?

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is tentatively scheduled to be released in April of 2018. Until then, I hope you will mull over this question and come up with your own answers to it as you enjoy season one.

The Handmaid’s Tale won several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Elisabeth Moss, as Offred), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Ann Dowd, as Aunt Lydia), Best Guest Actress in a Drama Series (Alexis Bledel, as Emily), Best Directing for a Drama Series (Reed Dowd), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (Bruce Miller).

Elisabeth Moss at 69th Emmy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter, Getty Images ©

The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu (free one-month trial subscription, $11.99 with no commercials, $5.99 with limited commercials), Amazon ($1.99 SD, $2.99 HD per episode, or $14.99-19.99 for season), and, for similar purchase prices, on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and GooglePlay.

Lydia Schoch is a science fiction author and longtime fan of Margaret Atwood’s stories. Lydia blogs at Lydia Schoch, tweets at @TorontoLydia, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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on The Handmaid’s Tale
by Lydia Schoch
#Spoilers

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Introducing Offred’s World

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Gender Treachery

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Faithful

The Handmaid’s Tale:
A Woman’s Place

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Other Side

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Jezebels

The Handmaid’s Tale:
The Bridge

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Night

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Dead, Dead, BOOM: Taboo’s Disappointing Finale

Serious Spoilers

Tom Hardy as James Delaney © FX

I’ve read that we should view the gritty FX series Taboo as a chess game, with all the pieces in place from the beginning of the show, and I guess that metaphor would work if you love chess (I do) and if you also did not know from the start of the “game” that Tom Hardy’s James Delaney was predestined to win (and that he would break most of the chess pieces just because he could, so there…).

Two of the bumblers from the East India Company © FX

I know that the East India Company has been portrayed with extreme historical inaccuracy and prejudice, and not just because every single person who worked for the villainous Sir Stuart Strange, especially the bunglers Wilton and Pettifer, was unbelievably stupid and incompetent, nor because everyone in the East India was so irredeemably wicked that the audience cheered when one of them got killed (oy, talk about bad writing and one-dimensional characters, even if it was slightly emotionally satisfying to see the bad guys eventually get knocked off).

The Prince Regent © FX

I knew James was going to somehow “escape” or negotiate his way out of the Tower of London, if only because the Prince Regent has been portrayed as one of the most disgustingly grotesque and inept characters in television history, and because his man Coop, for all his political power and threatening demeanor, has proven himself an incredible amateur, even with an experienced torturer-executioner doing his nefarious bidding, and with the prisoner James arrested for treason and confined in a prison as historically escape-proof as France’s Bastille.

Atticus and James © FX

If you’re a man on Taboo, i.e., if you’re a man who has also been helping James throughout the season, I know that you’ve already won a coveted spot on James’ new boat, commandeered by the East India expressly for James in exchange for the coveted Nootka Island & Sound, and that you’re going to acquit yourself admirably in the finale’s big and explosive Shoot-Out At the Docks.

I knew, after the opening scene of the finale, that if you’re a woman on Taboo, you’re meat for the grinder, or food for fishes, as they say, no matter how much James Keziah Delaney claims to love you and no matter what he does to rescue you from someone else’s clutches.

James, having a vision, © FX

I knew that James Keziah Delaney was going to be on that boat (no matter how he ultimately got one) headed for America at the end of the Taboo season finale no matter what happened to him in the series — assassination attempts, duels, torture, waterboarding, seizures, hallucinations, visions, betrayal, etc. — because he was the star, I mean, the STAR of the show and not just because he was played by Oscar-winner Tom Hardy who is also one of the producers and whose father “Chips” helped write the series.

How do I know all these things?
Because they are some of the weaknesses in Taboo’s writing, present during the entire season, but magnified exponentially in the finale.

Despite its flaws and weaknesses, Taboo was intense and intriguing enough to make me look forward to it every week, albeit in the hopes of an emotionally satisfactory finale that might reveal some strong historical political commentary (e.g., on slavery, the slave trade, imperialism, colonialism), some startling moral commentary (e.g., on incest, madness, slavery, imperialism, colonial rebellion, war), or some impressive exploration of the metaphysical (i.e., James’ visions and his ability to “hear the dead sing”) and the relation of the spiritual, metaphysical world to the physical one (e.g., that James and Winter were actually both ghosts who were able to significantly impact the physical world around them).

Unfortunately, Taboo didn’t deliver in the areas that most interested me. Instead, the finale deteriorated into a predictable, although well done, Shoot-Out on the Docks, with James and a chosen few of his (mostly male) comrades finally heading off to Nootka on a ship that replaced the British Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes because everybody on board was somehow transformed miraculously into “Americans” with a Safe-Passage extorted (by James via “stepmother” Lorna) from the spymaster Countess Musgrove.

But before we get to the important questions that didn’t get answered in Taboo’s finale, which made both the finale and the entire series ultimately disappointing, let’s recap what happened to all the characters.

Representing King and Country

The Prince Regent © FX

The Prince Regent
(Mark Gatiss, in prosthetics and extreme padding)
Still eating (almost always with his fingers, it seems), last we saw of him.

Sir Solomon Coop © FX

Sir Solomon Coop
(Jason Watkins)
Penultimately seen cursing aloud to himself as he walked down the royal hallway into the presence of the Prince Regent to inform him that all their plans were bust.
Last seen just standing there while his Highness made pronouncements, between bites of food, about hanging the traitor James.

Chichester © FX

Sons of Africa Attorney Chichester
(Lucian Msamati)
Last seen standing alone in James’ bedroom attic, holding two now-useless testimonies against Sir Stuart Strange, whom he wanted to prosecute on behalf of the Crown for (illegal) slave-trading.

Representing the American Colonies

Dumbarton © FX

Dr. Dumbarton
(Michael Kelly)
Dead. Stabbed by James after he revealed that he knew Dumbarton was, in reality, a spy for the East India, which no one — and I mean, no one at all — saw any evidence of before the finale.

Countess Musgrove © FX

Spymaster Countess Musgrove
(Marina Hands)
Probably returned to playing cards and drinking with her society lady-friends after giving Lorna the Safe-Passage for James et al.

Representing Society’s
Downtrodden & Unfortunate

Winter © FX

Winter
(Ruby-May Martinwood)
Dead. Murdered by Pettifer of the East India after being one of the few truly likable characters in the show.

Madame Helga © FX

Helga
(Franka Potente)
Dead, killed in the Shoot-Out after being “rescued” from the East India.

Representing James’ Cohorts

Atticus © FX

Atticus
(Stephen Graham)
Last seen on the ship bound for Nootka after admirably acquitting himself in the “rescue” of Helga and companion, and in the Shoot-Out at the Docks.

Cholmondeley © FX

The womanizing but still charming chemist (& medical doctor) Cholmondeley
(Tom Hollander)
Dead, hoist by his own petard (i.e., killed by an explosion of his own gunpowder), during the Shoot-Out on the Docks, though he was carried onto the boat before he expired.

Representing the Oh-So-Wicked East India

Thoyt © FX

Family attorney Thoyt
(Nicholas Woodeson)
Last seen???

Wilton © FX

Wilton
(Leo Bill)
Dead. Shot in the head after delivering the East-India-commandeered boat to James and his men.

Pettifer (foreground) © FX

Pettifer
(Richard Dixon)
Dead. Killed by Atticus after allowing Helga and the other whore to be “rescued.”

Godfrey © FX

James’ childhood companion, the “Molly” Secretary Godfrey
(Edward Hogg)
Last seen huddling onboard (below-decks, I think) with James et al, headed to Nootka.

Sir Stuart © FX

Sir Stuart Strange
(Jonathan Pryce)
BOOM!
Dead and splattered as he sat behind his desk in the East India, cackling with glee as he opened what he presumed was the deed transferring Nootka from James to the East India (in exchange for the rescued whores and for the boat).

Representing James’ Family

James’ mother, in a vision © FX

Mother
Dead, though we don’t know when or how.

James’ father © FX

Father
(James Fox)
Dead. Poisoned with arsenic by servant Brace because… because Old Man Delaney was wearing makeup? because he wasn’t a Christian any longer? because he was wearing makeup and because he wasn’t a Christian anymore? Brace’s motive wasn’t made entirely clear.

Brace © FX

Loyal family servant Brace
(David Hayman)
Last seen alone, sobbing in the dark, abandoned in the family home with an aging doggie, presumably because he poisoned James’ father with arsenic, and despite his poignant pleading with James to be allowed to accompany him to Nootka.

Lorna © FX

Stepmother Lorna Bow
(Jessie Buckley)
Last seen Unconscious on the boat to Nootka, shot in the shoulder or upper arm after proving herself not only the sole developed female character of the series but a serious Bad-Ass besides since she could fire a gun with the best of the men in the Shoot-Out on the Docks. I assume her character lived.

Geary © FX

Brother-in-law Thorne Geary
(Jefferson Hall)
Dead. Killed with a hat-pin through the heart as he lay sleeping, by his spouse-raped wife Zilpha.

James’ & Zilpha’s son Robert © FX

Son, by incest with his sister Zilpha, Robert
(Louis Serkis)
Last seen on the boat to Nootka with James.

Zilpha © FX

Supposedly belovèd sister Zilpha
(Oona Chaplin)
Dead.
Suicide by jumping into River Thames in the finale after James cruelly abandoned her and cast her off himself in the penultimate episode.
Dead.
Or, as Vulture reviewer Sean T. Collins wrote, “tossed off a bridge by writers who couldn’t figure out anything more interesting to do with Oona Chaplin.”
Dead.
Killed by the writers in a ridiculously stupid move that takes all the “taboo” out of Taboo.

Taboo’s Big
Unanswered Questions

Alas and alack, some of my most important questions, which were raised by Taboo itself during its first seven episodes, never got answered, not even in the finale.

• Is James Keziah Delaney dead, resurrected, or was he just born with a really strange ability to hear the dead “sing” to him?
• What are all the dark things James did that are so much worse than what the East India obviously did?
• What, exactly, did the East India do to James that made Sir Stuart state that “this was all about revenge” and make Sir Solomon Coop ask, “My god, what did you do to him, Stuart?”
• Did Sir Stuart and the East India sell James into slavery? If so, did Sir Stuart, who owned the sunken ship on which James was the sole survivor, sell James into slavery because he refused to cooperate in the drowning of the slave “cargo” bound for Sir Stuart’s brother’s plantation in Antiqua?
• Was James a slave himself?
• What happened to James’ mother?
• What did James’ father regret so much that he stood on the banks of the river calling to James in Africa?
• Did James’ own father sell him into slavery for incest with his sister Zilpha?
• Does James really love his sister or does he just like having sexual relations with her?
• Did James cast Zilpha off for her own protection while he dealt with the murderous East India and the Crown’s Sir Coop-ster, or was James really that much of an SOB?
• Is that single tear the sole evidence we’re going to get of James’ grief over the death of his belovèd sister? I mean, come on, now, you writer-guys…
• Is James really and truly a ghost and is that why no one in Great Britain, emphasis on Great, can kill the boy?
• What in God’s name is so important about Nootka that everyone and his brother will commit the 7 Deadly Sins and break all the 10 Commandments in order to have that silly little island?

And why didn’t we get to see more of the gorgeously buff-to-the-max Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney in this kind of scene?

SERIOUS TRIGGER WARNING HERE
Do Not Say I Didn’t Warn You
Proceed At Your Own Risk
The Boy is Obviously Nude

And this one?

And this one…

(which, I admit, looks like it was clandestinely taken by a Taboo crew member or extra since it  doesn’t look like anything that FX could have shown here in America but which could have been in the original BBC production and then cut from the US show which really annoys me if that’s what happened because we’re all adults here and… I’m just saying…)

Zilpha & James © FX

Now that Zilpha is dead, and I can only assume that she is, indeed, dead since she “kissed” brother and love-of-her-life James “good-bye” in his vision of her body underwater, there’s no more “taboo” in Taboo and it doesn’t look like anyone much cares if there’s going to be a second season any ol’ way.

Taboo’s finale, though action-packed during the second half of the hour, neglected to answer any of the most intriguing moral questions it posed during the season.

Because the writers also killed off the woman who was half of the “taboo” relationship, the finale was ultimately unsatisfying and disappointing.

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FX’s Taboo: Is the “Cunning Savage” Noble, Too?

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FX’s Taboo: Is the “Cunning Savage” Noble, Too?

I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.

John Dryden
The Conquest of Granada

1672

Spoilers

Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney © FX

From the time of Tacitus (c 98 CE), who was describing the conquered peoples of Germania under the rule of the Roman Empire, writers and philosophers have admired indigenous peoples and used the stock character of a “noble savage” in essays and fictional stories to condemn the writers’ contemporaneous society, a society found corrupt, effete, and otherwise morally flawed. As one uncorrupted by civilization, the indigenous person, portrayed virtually always as a male, was an “outsider” who was assumed to be “innately good.” Thus the term “noble savage” came to represent an ideal merely because the indigenous person was untainted by civilization.

Clearly, at the time the term originally appeared, “savage” did not have the negative connotations that it later acquired during the Industrial Age, when advancing technology caused imperial societies to look down upon and pity the “uneducated” and otherwise “uncivilized” indigenous peoples, the “savages” whose land and resources the white societies wished to plunder. Writers using the stock character of the Noble Savage were assuming that anyone who represented civilization — themselves excepted, of course — was corrupt and wholly “evil,” while any native was “innately good,” without any negative traits whatsoever. For these writers and the readers who liked their works, it was assumed that the Noble Savage had no negative traits until he himself was corrupted by his contact with said imperialistic society.

Hardy as Delaney © FX

In FX’s new show, Taboo, produced and co-written by star Tom Hardy, the Noble Savage is James Delaney (Hardy), a British citizen returned from a long absence in Africa, to claim his inheritance after his father’s death. Despite the fact that James was born in England to a somewhat affluent father, and despite the fact that James was born a privileged white male, James has clearly been considered more “savage” than civilized from birth, if only because his mother was a Native whom Old Man Delaney brought back from North America as his wife. From the beginning of the show, James has been set up as the “outsider,” the “Other,” and the “Noble Savage.”

Taboo is about the return of the repressed, but also the suppressed, with Delaney serving as a vessel for social commentary about the species-wide violence and corruption wrought by imperialism, racism, and capitalism… Delaney’s travels and missions brought him in contact with the genocide against Native Americans and the horrors of the international slave trade; his back is inscribed with tattoos from his time in Africa, and he’s haunted by ghostly visions… (Vulture)

James Delaney is “the other” because he is part Native American, but he is also an “outsider” because he opposes the institutions and countries which represent imperialism, conquest, and subjugation. He does not abide by civilization’s morality, hence his love for his sister, Zilpha. Though cunning and dangerous to his “civilized” opponents, the “savage” in this drama seems to have a streak of morality and nobility that virtually everyone around him lacks. Those character traits make him, symbolically, a Noble Savage, though he is not a stock character by any means.

Opposing the Nobel Savage, attempting to steal his inheritance (Nootka), and representing the corrupt and powerful British imperialist civilization are frustrated and foul-mouthed Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), Director of the The East India Co,

Jonathan Pryce as Sir Stuart Strange © FX

and the corpulent and grotesque English Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss).

Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent © FX

The British and Americans are both viciously competing for the island and for Nootka Sound, and this trade war is historically accurate. Why Britain and the newly independent American colonies want Nootka has not yet been made clear in Taboo, but after the East India attempted to kill James, he made out a will leaving Nootka to the Americans in the event of his death, causing Sir Stuart to observe that “the savage boy” —  not man — “is cunning, too.”

Sir Stuart’s map of Nootka, with his markings “The James Delaney Kink” © FX

In episode 3, James claimed to be willing to part with Nootka for trade monopolies. James told each side that he wanted a different trade monopoly, however. He apparently intends for his corrupt and imperialistic opponents to battle each other instead of him. What could be more “noble” than enticing two imperialistic powers into baiting and warring each other, rather than stealing from the “outsider”?

Jefferson Hall as Thorne Geary © FX

James Delaney is clearly not the villain of this tale, though almost everyone in the show believes James to be morally contemptible. His brother-in-law Geary (Jefferson Hall) said that James had been on a slave ship which sank, implying that James was a slave trader, but it seems more likely that James himself was sold into slavery.

James, un-shuttering his dead mother’s locked room © FX

After he broke into his dead mother’s locked room, James painted his hands with her makeup,

James, with his mother’s makeup © FX

then meditated on her, causing her to appear, once again, in visions.

James’ mother, in visions © FX

These visions haunt James frequently, and most often involve his mother. The  visions further reinforce James as the “outsider” because he can see things that others do not. After the vision in his mother’s room, he tore off the boards from her fireplace and found this symbol,

The symbol in the fireplace © FX

which he showed devoted family servant Brace, saying that the same symbol in the fireplace was the same as the one carved on James’ upper back “after I was taken prisoner in Africa.”

The symbol on James’ upper back © FX

Brace (David Hayman) did not seem to see the symbol in the fireplace, leading us to question the nature of James’ visions, but the servant certainly saw the mark on James’ back, asking him, “What does it mean?”

If James was taken prisoner, then he may have been sold into slavery, and that would make him one of the captured and imprisoned slaves, not a slave trader. James is covered in tattoos, symbolizing his “savage” nature, but he doesn’t know what this symbol on his back represents. That means he didn’t have it put there himself, and that it may have been put there against his will. There is a very good chance that James was a slave.

Old Man Delaney could have sold his own son into slavery. That would explain James’ mother’s “madness,” which would then be grief over the loss of her son. Called “mad,” the mother was not allowed to speak to anyone outside the house, and eventually she was not only locked in her room, but was physically restrained. What was everyone so afraid James’ mother might reveal? The incest with his sister? That his own father sold him into slavery?

If the father sold his son into slavery, Old Man Delaney may have believed he had good reason to do so. James might have been sold into slavery to hide the fact that he and his sister Zilpha had an incestuous sexual relationship. It might have been to hide the fact that the two had a child together. If the child from episode 1 is, in fact, the offspring of James and his sister, then their father could have sent James away to protect the daughter from losing her marriage prospects, to protect the family from shame and ostracism, and to punish James since he, as the male, would have been considered the seducer.

Whether James was sent to Africa by his father and then imprisoned (i.e., sold into slavery), or merely sent away to serve in The East India (and later imprisoned in Africa), James would have been separated from his sister Zilpha, something a “civilized” man like Old Man Delaney would have wished. Separated, though, James could not have taken care of his own child.

If the child is James’.

Isn’t there a possibility that the child is the offspring of Old Man Delaney? Zilpha is constantly referred to as Jame’s half-sister, which means that Delaney had relations with at least two women, yet two wives are not mentioned. Since it appears that Zilpha returns James’ love and passion, she was obviously a consensual partner in their sexual relations. But she may have been the victim of incest on her father’s part, and this could have happened before or after he discovered his children’s love and passion for each other. Since James loves his sister, he would have been outraged that their own father impregnated her, and his outrage (and fear of violent retribution) could have caused Father Delaney to get rid of his sons, by selling the older one into slavery, and by farming the younger one out to a caretaker.

If the child is, in fact, the offspring of Old Man Delaney’s, then James is more moral than his father, something that fits the image of the Noble Savage. In episode 1, the man taking care of the child told James that he had never been paid for the child’s upkeep. James was sent away, so he could not have supported a son. Because Old Man Delaney remained in England, where he ran a shipping company affluent enough to have its own ships, docks, offices, etc, Old Delaney could have supported his son/grandson. He didn’t. Instead, it was James who gave the caretaker enough money to make up for the decade of care, as well as for the rest of the boy’s life.

Family servant Brace told James in the premiere that Old Man Delaney used to stand on the banks of the river, shouting things to his absent son.  James answered that he knew because he heard his father. This is another indication that James is more in touch with the supernatural world than other “civilized” men are. Was Old Man Delaney apologizing for separating the young sibling-lovers? Was the old man apologizing for selling James into slavery? Was the old man grief-stricken for sending James away to serve in The East India — under Sir Stuart — after James’ passion and love for his sister Zilpha was discovered?

Or was Old Man Delaney warning James in absentia, that Sir Stuart had forced the Old Man to be complicit in James’ slavery and imprisonment?

Jonathan Pryce as Sir Stuart Strange © FX

There’s a very good possibility that Sir Stuart himself could have sold James into slavery, despite his pretense, in episode 1, that he couldn’t “remember” James Delaney. In episode 1, James warned Sir Stuart, “I do know the evil that you do, because I was once part of it.” On the surface, that could mean that James participated in the violence against indigenous peoples. It could also mean that James was the victim of East India’s violence, and the “you” in the evil that you do could have meant East India collectively as well as Sir Stuart personally.

Atticus (Stephen Graham) and James (Tom Hardy © FX

Though we don’t yet know why Sir Stuart would have harmed James in the past, we’ve already learned that Sir Stuart will murder James, albeit through a proxy, in order to get Nootka Sound. Atticus (Stephen Graham) told James that Zilpha’s husband Thorne Geary tried to put a contract on Old Man Delaney. Geary could have done this on his own, to sell Nootka Sound after his wife inherited it, or he could have been doing it on the behest of The East India, who was negotiating with Geary for the land even before Old Man Delaney died. Both Thorne and Sir Stuart want James dead, though the end result of his death would be the same no matter who causes his death: The East India would get Nootka Sound.

Jason Watkins as Sir Solomon Coop © FX

There are other, stronger indications that Sir Stuart himself did something very bad to James, however. When the King’s Man, Sir Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) was debating Nootka with Strange, Sir Stuart began to discuss James, telling Coop that James’ refusal to sell Nootka was not about money.

Sir Stuart: You do realize this whole business is about revenge, don’t you?
Coop: And why would James Delaney hate The East India so?
Sir Stuart: (no reply)
Coop: What the hell did you do to him, Stuart?

The Director of The East India, Sir Stuart, is going to be even more of a villain than expected. He not only represents the omnipotent East India Trading Company, as well as the acquisitive and militaristic England, but, on a personal level, he seems to have done something horrific to James Delaney. Did Sir Stuart sell James into slavery? If so, why?

Of course, it’s not yet clear that James was, in fact, sold into slavery, but he is obviously not the villain of Taboo, despite his incestuous relations with his sister. James is not the “savage” that others consider him: so far, we have seen him threaten people, but only do violence when he is defending his own life or protecting someone else. He is protective of children, including the boy farmed out to strangers, and Winter, the supposed mulatto child of the Madame Helga, the child which some reviewers regard as a possible ghost. James told Winter that it wasn’t safe for her to stay in the basement of his father’s house. She ostensibly comes to warn him of danger, but he is the one protecting her (and not accepting the “spoils” of the silver tooth of the assassin).

Mulatto (and ghost?) Winter offers James the silver tooth of the assassin © FX

James is also protective of women, even if their interests are directly in conflict with his. James allowed his father’s widow, Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) to remain in the house with him. He also followed her to the theatre — she refused to cancel her performance — and saved her after she was kidnapped. James offered her a diamond to go to Paris because she’s a “weakness” in his plans.

Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow © FX

Of course, it’s James’ protective feelings toward women that is the “weakness” in his plans, but James may not realize this himself.

Secretary Godfrey (Edward Hogg) confronted by James (Tom Hardy) at male brothel © FX

In fact, James protects anyone whom he perceives to be weaker than he himself is, even if he happens to be blackmailing the person for information on The East India. When James learns that Secretary Godfrey (Edward Hogg) of East India spends his nights as a “female” whore, James slaps him, then blackmails him into becoming a spy.

James: You’re not going to get caught because I will protect you.
Godfrey: You know at the seminary I was in love with you. Of course, you do.

The two have a history together, making Godfrey yet another child whom James protects, both in the past and in the present, despite that child-now-a-man’s being in the employ of James’ enemy, The East India. It’s this protection of women, children, and vulnerable men that strengthens James’ role as the Noble Savage.

Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) answering brother James’ letters © FX

James loves his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and writes her many letters, urging her to come away with him, most likely to a place where their love for each other will not be condemned, since James has “sailed to places where there is no damnation.” Though Zilpha tells him that it is dangerous for him to keep writing to her, she answers his letters, increasing her own peril. She even writes him to tell him she will no longer write him, and James threatens “to come to [her] at her home.” Zilpha goes to a church, where James is waiting in the otherwise deserted sanctuary. Based on James’ comments and Zilpha’s behavior, she is the powerful one in this couple.

James: You summoned me. I am here. What do you want?
Zilpha: I used to think we were the same person.
James: We are.
Zilpha: We’re not.

Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) straddles and kisses her brother James (Tom Hardy) in a church © FX

Zilpha leaves her pew, goes to James, hikes up her skirts, straddles his lap, and kisses him most passionately. Afterward — as James related she did when they were younger — she straightened her skirts and walked away without looking back. For not wanting to see James or to hear from him, Zilpha is doing some extremely perilous things, especially since her husband Geary now knows about the sexual relationship between the siblings.

Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) berates wife Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) for not getting pregnant © FX

Geary revealed this knowledge in several taunts to James, and, later, in an angry confrontation with Zilpha at dinner. If James protects Lorna Bow, his father’s widow, whom he does not care for, there can be little doubt that James will protect the only woman he has ever loved, his sister Zilpha, even if it is from her legal husband.

Tom Hardy as James © FX

James Delaney is “the other” in Taboo because he is part Native American, but he is also “the other” because he opposes the institutions and countries which represent imperialism, conquest, and subjugation. He is intimately familiar with slavery not, I suspect, as a Slaver but, rather, as a slave himself. James is the “savage boy” — not “man” — who does not live by society’s civilized rules and morality, hence his love for, and sexual relations with, his sister, Zilpha. Though cunning and dangerous to his “civilized” opponents, James, the Noble Savage in this drama, protects women and children, no matter if they are competing with him for his inheritance (Lorna), his father’s property (Madame Helga), or if they are “ghosts” (Winter ?).  His ability to commune with the dead (his mother, Winter) makes James an outsider to the logical, scientific world of the Industrial Age.

James Delaney is clearly intended as the Noble Savage in Taboo, though he is no stock character. Instead, this anti-hero is clearly going to become the hero of this drama.

Whether or not the drama becomes a tragedy or a metaphorical return to the Garden of Eden remains to be seen.

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Menace and Mayhem in FX’s Taboo

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Tom Hardy and FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Reviewers are calling FX’s new show Taboo everything from a “jazzed-up” revenge tale to a “grimy revenge tale” that is “utterly ridiculous but totally absorbing,” from “a reanimated corpse of … drama tropes” to the “Tom Hardy Show,” which was a compliment to the actor. When I think of a revenge tale, I think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, whose protagonist is confronted by the ghost of his father in Act 1, a ghost who relates the tale of his murder by his own brother. In Hamlet, the eponymous protagonist dithers and dallies and overthinks every single move he wants to make to get revenge on his murderous uncle. Hamlet may be considered one of the most psychologically interesting characters, but most readers aren’t really attached to him until almost the end of the play, when he finally does something besides ruminating aloud about revenging himself against the uncle who murdered Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and usurped Prince Hamlet’s throne. If Hamlet is a classic revenge tale, Taboo is more menacing than any revenge tale I’ve ever read.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

Taboo‘s protagonist James Delaney (Tom Hardy) is much more interesting than Hamlet, too, if only because we don’t get long monologues betraying his thinking, let alone monologues revealing ceaseless brooding. Instead, viewers follow James around a seedy, dark London as he attempts to claim his inheritance (the island of Nootka off the northwest coast of the United Stated), protect his island from the powerful men of the East India Company who covet it, re-establish his father’s shipping company, and discover his father’s murderer. Viewers don’t even know if James is dead or alive, “half-dead or possessed by spirits” since he regularly has visions or memories triggered by his surroundings. Returned from Africa after ten years and plagued by these visions, Hardy’s Delaney is effectively fierce and foreboding in a show where everything is darkness, menace, and mayhem.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

When James arrived in England in episode 1, “Shovels and Keys,” the first thing he did was bury something, bury it as deep as his arm-to-his-shoulder in the mud. In the second episode (“Episode 2”), he unearths that bag, revealing a cache of unpolished diamonds. When he sends one of them to his sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, formerly Robb Stark’s outspoken foreign wife in Game of Thrones) without a note of any kind, she seems to know he’s sent it to her, and she hurriedly hides it from her husband. At the funeral of their father, James told Zilpha that Africa was unable to kill his love for her, and later he surreptitiously observed a young boy about 10 years old, whom viewers quickly suspected was the siblings’ incestuous love child, sent away to be raised by strangers.

Oona Chaplin as Zilpha Delaney Geary, from FX’s Taboo

In episode 1, Zilpha asked James to keep their past a secret from her husband, Thorne Geary, who already hates James just for existing, apparently, since he didn’t recognize James when he arrived at the church for the funeral. Confronting Zilpha at a society musicale in “Episode 2,” James asked her to come away from her friends, with him, ostensibly so he could answer her “Did you really eat flesh?” inquiry. When he revealed his memory of her “straightening her skirts after…” (we know where this is going, given the show’s title) and not looking back at him, Zilpha acted startled and said, “I walked away?” letting us know that the two of them have some really intense history in common, but they don’t recall it the same way.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Oona Chaplin as his half-sister Zilpha (from FX’s Taboo)

Does Zilpha care as much about James as he does for her, or does she just really like diamonds? Is it love between them or merely forbidden sexual attraction? Zilpha seems intensely drawn to James, in what actor Oona Chaplin calls “an incest plot as the ultimate will-they, won’t-they, should-they love triangle of Taboo.” Both actors do a wonderful job making the relationship as forbidden, menacing, and exciting as possible.

Of course, Zilpha’s husband Geary hates his brother-in-law James, and that hatred increased at the Reading of the Will, where it was revealed that Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary was the one who had arranged the sale of Nootka Island to East India — a sale that was thwarted when the Island was left solely to James.

Stephen Graham as Atticus (L) and Tom Hardy as James Delaney (R ) from FX’s Taboo

Underworld figure Atticus (Stephen Graham, perhaps best known to US audiences as Boardwalk Empire‘s Al Capone, above L) told James in episode 2 that it was Geary who tried to hire Atticus a year earlier to kill Old Man Delaney. For some reason unknown to viewers, Atticus refused the job, perhaps because it appears that he and James had some prior relationship (of which Geary would have been unaware).

Jefferson Hall as brother-in-law Geary (from FX’s Taboo)

If Geary (Jefferson Hall, above) wanted Old Man Delaney dead so that he could sell Nootka, then he certainly won’t hesitate to attempt to kill his resurrected brother-in-law James, especially after officially learning that his wife Zilpha inherited nothing. Geary’s shouts at James after the Will Reading were even louder than the shouts of Old Man Delaney’s creditors, though James paid all the creditors — to the shilling — after Zilpha and her angry husband left. Geary is almost as threatening as Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce, below) of East India Co, though Geary might be more ineffectual (unless he was the one who poisoned his father-in-law after failing to find an assassin in Atticus).

Jonathan Pryce as head of the East India Company, Sir Stuart Strange (from FX’s Taboo)

Sir Stuart, on the other hand, is openly menacing and looks like he has the power to carry out his threats. After angrily insisting that James accept East India’s offer to purchase Nootka Island, then getting livid when James refused to even open the envelope and see what the offer was, Sir Stuart decided that James must be killed. That seems a bit drastic and melodramatic, and perhaps historically inaccurate as well: though East India was, no doubt, an immensely powerful company, it’s being set up as nothing but The Big Bad Villain in Taboo, one of the show’s few weaknesses. Still, Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow) is a delight to watch, if only because he gets to be openly threatening and frustrated. When not ordering his underlings to either murder James or lose their jobs, Sir Stuart is raging about James’ buying a ship, and ranting about his being in league with Americans (with whom Britain is at war) when wondering aloud where James got the money to buy said ship.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

It was that ship that sent James tumbling into visions (or memories) in “Episode 2,” visions that have to do with slavery. James discovered manacles and chains on the ship he’d purchased. After finding the manacles, James stripped off his clothes, revealing a multiply tattooed (and hunkily buff) body, scraped a bird of sorts into the ship’s flooring, and mumbled or chanted in a foreign language. One reviewer noted that there was a “subtle, creepy [almost hidden] ghost behind Hardy in the scene,” but I missed it completely.

The manacles caused James to react so violently that I’m beginning to suspect that James himself was sold into slavery, perhaps by his own father after James begat the child on his sister. If James was sold into slavery, rather than being a slave trader himself, that could be the reason everyone in England was so sure that James died in Africa: because it was arranged that he disappear permanently. Such an arrangement could also explain Old Man Delaney’s guilt toward the end of his life, guilt that had something to do with his son James.

In any event, it’s James’ creepy visions that make some reviewers wonder if he’s dead, and make me wonder if he wasn’t sold into slavery by his own father, albeit for having an incestuous sexual relationship with his sister Zilpha, because, as menacing as James seems, I just don’t get the feeling that he’s the villain in this drama.

Tom Hardy as James Delaney and Franka Potente as Madame Helga (from FX’s Taboo)

It’s not just James’ visions that make me wonder about his character: he seems to know things that no one else does, or, at the very least, to be able to unearth other characters’ secrets without too much effort. A young mulatto girl named Winter warned James about Madame Helga (Franka Potente), whom James had ordered to vacate his father’s business offices, which she was using as a brothel. Winter claimed that Helga was discussing James’ death-by-murder with a “man with a silver tooth.” After finding no one on the ship that Winter claimed belonged to the man with the silver tooth, James set it on fire. Afterward, James confronted Helga.

When he asked her about the mulatto Winter, Helga denied knowing anyone like that, insisting that she’d be delighted to have a mulatto, since customers would pay more for her. Helga wanted James to have sex with her as the price for information about Winter, but James refused, offering, instead, his own theories about the mulatto girl: he said that Helga’s eyes were like Winter’s, coming to the conclusion that Helga was Winter’s mother.

Helga didn’t deny it, but that doesn’t mean that Winter actually exists: she may be a ghost, coming into James’ life because of his horrific past, and Helga may not have answered James’ accusations that she’s Winter’s mother because she doesn’t know anyone named Winter and because, furthermore, Helga’s frightened of James. After all, when he ordered her to vacate his father’s dockside offices, threatening her with bodily harm after she had attempted to threaten him, Helga suddenly said, “I remember you,” adding that she remembered what he did to some girls, and that didn’t sound good. Everyone’s so evil and menacing in Taboo that it’s difficult to discover who we’re supposed to root for.

We also don’t know if Winter’s warning James about Helga’s attempt to murder him or about one of Helga’s clients’ discussing the murder plot in her whorehouse. And if it weren’t enough that Sir Stuart, Helga, brother-in-law Geary, and the person who hired the man with the silver tooth all want James Delaney dead and out of their lives, “Episode 2” threw in another person who might want him killed.

Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow, widow of Old Man Delaney (from FX’s Taboo)

An Irish actress showed up and, after practicing her lines sotto voce, declared to everyone present at the reading of the will, that she’d married Old Man Delaney and, as his widow, is thus a claimant of James’ inheritance. Attorney Thoyt (Nicholas Woodsen) verified that Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley) was actually married to the elder Delaney, but it’s not necessarily true that she has some claim to the inheritance. It seems that she would have to actually file a suit to get some of it. In any event, it increases the number of people who seem to want James dead, or who might have hired the man with the silver tooth to kill him.

At the conclusion of E2, the man in the silver tooth ambushed James and stabbed him, leaving him in an alley to die, though not before James tore open the murderer’s throat with his teeth, reminding us of Zilpha’s question, “Did you really eat flesh?” Of course, I doubt that James is going to die, despite the big knife sticking out of his gut, if only because his character is the major protagonist of the show. Instead, we’re given a hint that James’ is not as omnipotent as he seems, nor as omniscient, since, despite being warned of the hired murderer, he wasn’t prepared for the deadly encounter.

Menace and mayhem abound in FX’s Taboo, and Tom Hardy is absolutely riveting as James Delaney. Despite the fact that sometimes it’s difficult, if not outright impossible to understand what some of the actors are saying (Stephen Graham as Atticus was especially tough to understand, though David Hayman as the Delaney family servant Brace was also hard), and despite all the characters that are continually being introduced and which seem peripheral to the main storyline (King George’s annoyance about the colors in a map and his rant about East India Co come to mind), Taboo is staggeringly well done and intensely fascinating.

A limited mini-series of 8 episodes, Taboo airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm ET. Watch the premiere free with FX’s Premiere Pass, or every episode free with FX and DirecTV.

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Tom Hardy & FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good

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FX’s daring new drama, Taboo, premiered last night, and it was everything the official trailers promised: moody, atmospheric, dark, and somewhat creepy. Produced by Ridley Scott, Tom Hardy, and Steven Knight, the initial episode takes viewers to a dark and frightening 1814 England, where the entire world is terrifying, much like that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and nothing like the world that appears in the contemporaneous novels of Jane Austen. 

Instead of worrying about getting herself a husband, the major female character in Taboo, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) is already married, and when her half-brother, James (Tom Hardy), returns to attend their father’s funeral, she seems terrified. Everyone assumed that James Delaney was dead, since he’d gone to Africa at least 10 years previously, and they’d heard rumors of his death. Everyone has heard rumors of other things about James, too, and you can bet that none of them is good, even if viewers do not actually hear any of those rumors in the premiere.

James, the sole beneficiary of his father’s will, is left nothing except an island off the west coast of America, an island that both Great Britain and the United States want, an island James’ father “bought for beads” from Native Americans at the same time he “bought himself a wife.”

James’ sister’s husband only wants the land so that he can sell it to the East India Company, and the owners of that company, led by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), are outraged that James will not even consider their purchase offer. Sir Stuart Strange and James have a past together, albeit one that Strange cannot recall since it happened when James was a boy serving the company in Sir Stuart’s regiment. It’s clear from the beginning, however, that Sir Stuart is a man who is not used to be being even disagreed with, let along thwarted.

James roams around the spooky, grimy, littered streets and docks of London as he attempts to take back his late father’s holdings. He also discovers the cause of his father’s death. And, nope, you guessed it, his father didn’t die of old age.

Now, indeed, we have more than a “standard-issue revenge tale, jazzed up.” We have a “one-man menace machine” in Hardy’s Hamlet figure — returned from the dead, half-dead, or possessed by spirits — who neither dithers nor dallies, and who frightens the bejeezus out of everyone else he encounters.

The production itself reminded me of Penny Dreadful combined with Deadwood, and it was atmospheric, brooding, spooky, and menacing. The only complaint I had was that sometimes I found it difficult to understand what Hardy was saying. Was it because of his accent? Was it because he seemed to be virtually whispering all his lines? I’m not sure, but whatever the reason, it was a minor enough inconvenience. I’ll certainly be watching this gripping story again, if only to discover exactly what’s taboo in this story (I think I know already, but don’t want to ruin it for anyone), and see why everyone’s so afraid of James Keziah Delaney.

Taboo airs on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm ET. Available any time on FX (first episode free with Preview Pass) or free for DirecTV subscribers. Rated very Mature for language, violence, and nudity.

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