FX’s Taboo is a historical series perched somewhere between the utterly baroque, the intensely theatrical, and the routinely expositional. Tom Hardy (who co-created the series with Steven Knight and his father, Chips Hardy) plays the exquisitely named James Keziah Delaney, a man we first see sailing into London at the head of a small boat, obscured by an ashy cloak that likens him to an earthy grim reaper. It’s 1814 and Britain is at war with the fledgling 15 United States for the latter’s independence. Which is to say that this London doesn’t appear to benefit from a robust and focused budgetary infrastructure, as it’s defined by Knight as a city of mud and Dickensian squalor, of whores, rotting teeth, and men tatted up to the nines and brandishing hidden daggers and muskets.
Like most tales of strangers blowing in from the past, Taboo is about a protagonist who offers a catharsis to his corrupt society, turning its greed on itself. The series is sporadically exhilarating for its unapologetic luridness, suggesting that its makers have learned the right lessons from Deadwood, which was less occupied with encouraging our retroactive superiority to history than with erecting an alternative, highly figurative emotional realm that resonantly collides with our present reality. As in that series, there’s little concern in Taboo for lifelessly courting costume-drama prestige, emulating whatever we think the setting in question was actually like.
This sensational emotionalism often takes viewers to uncomfortable places, as when James has visions of slain African slaves and Native American tribespeople that frequently court clichés of savagery, which simultaneously affirm and critique profound white guilt. As in the best seasons of American Horror Story, Taboo dares to spin an ultraviolent, cartoonish, pointedly capitalizing tapestry out of real atrocity, discarding distancing reverence for free-associative tonality. And like Dickens’s best work, the series prods classist tension with melodramatic excess.
The dialogue, in particular, is archly poetic, understood to be as much a weapon as conventional instruments of destruction. James is a fantasy of the virile man who’s credible both in a boardroom, among the white-collar traders who collude with the British kingdom to establish caste systems still at play in that country and the United States, as well as in the dark, dank, and dirty streets, fraternizing with bounty hunters and madams. Hardy often appears to be chewing his lines, swishing them around in his mouth like tactile cud.
Hardy’s showmanship is nearly matched by many of his costars, particularly Jonathan Pryce as the head of the villainous East India Company, a prototype for the corporatization currently eating this world alive, and David Hayman as Brace, who serves as the Alfred figure to James’s Bruce Wayne, advising the latter of the stupidity of his quarrels while administering bandages and knocks of brandy. It’s Brace who memorably tells James that his father’s legacy is a “poisoned chalice,” later likening the ravings of James’s late mad father to a “language that’s like ravens fighting.”
Taboo’s best sequences reveal James’s fractured psyche through his architecturally impressive exterior. He walks ramrod straight with bitterly lethal purpose, framed in a sleek long coat and top hat that embody his contemptuous parody of the upper class, with a scar that runs over his left eye like a dagger, signaling his wild past of greatly hinted-about animalism. Somehow, one senses that Knight and Hardy are actively straining for pop iconography, though that mirrors James’s own self-consciousness, as he’s creating a boogeyman for London, intending to shake the city by its rafters.
There’s a spellbinding scene early on in the series with James down by waterside, where an acquaintance informs him that the dogs eat the flesh of suicide victims, in which we’re allowed to drink in his remarkable figure as it’s cast against an almost laughably miserable environment of soot, dirt, garbage, and stripped, splintering wood. Another moment rivals this sequence: when James rows into the ocean at night, accompanied by a young girl who could nearly be a phantom, looking for an assassin. The blanket of mist, the black opaqueness of the ocean, and the poetic dialogue connote a sense of madness that might have caught the fancy of Edgar Allan Poe.
Yet, there’s something conventionally nagging about Taboo: The series never entirely tumbles down the rabbit hole with its characters into the mouth of chaos and madness, as the best expressionist TV shows do. The mood of the first episode dissipates a bit over the course of the two other episodes that were screened for press, settling into a well-structured yet familiar tale of greedy aristocrats plotting to master a transition from physical to legal warfare. Knight occasionally leaves Hardy on the sidelines, reveling in bureaucrats who embody the insidiously rigged hypocrisy of trade and government power. Knight’s points are inarguable but take us away from the nightmare realm of James and his festering London of the damned.