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Tom Hardy and FX’s Taboo: Creepy Good
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.