Created by Chips Hardy, Tom Hardy and Steven Knight. Starring Tom Hardy, David Hayman, Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, Edward Hogg, Stephen Graham, Franka Potente, Michael Kelly, Tom Hollander, Mark Gatiss and many many more.
From the start, I must make this absolutely clear, before I am heckled or have rotten fruit thrown at me online, this article is full of Spoilers. So, if you are reading this as a taster because you are unsure whether the show will appeal to you, do not read my review, watch the series and then return. You have been warned.
Taboo is a co-production between the BBC and FX, created by Father and Son, Chips Hardy and Tom Hardy and is written by Steven Knight. Each of the three has their own input on this 8-part series, with Chips’ influence being of the classical nature as plays such as Oedipus and characters such as The Mad Hatter clearly influenced this series. Tom bring his formidable onscreen physical presentence and marvellous acting ability to control this massive assemble and remain throughout the series the dominant force of the narrative. None of which would have melded quite so well together had it not been for the fantastic writing of Knight, who clearly understands Hardy’s acting ability as the two work incredibly well together. Combined, all three have produced one of the most ground breaking shows I have seen in years.
I have been a great fan of Hardy’s work since I first saw him in the 2008 film RocknRolla in which he fittingly played handsome Bob and I have followed him ever since, loving each and every character he has embodied. I then first became aware of Knight when he wrote the screenplay for Locke, a fantastic film depicting Hardy’s character as a family man who spends the entire film in his car driving. Locke was the first of many collaborations between the two men and is a clear statement on how well these two work together. If you haven’t seen the film Tom Hardy plays a man driving his car, and through a series of phone calls it is revealed that he is dealing with a personal crisis which is affecting both at work and family. He is the sole character, all other actors appear as voices on the phone such as the wonderful Andrew Scott, and it is a testament to Hardy that he is able to really carry this film, given that he is in every shot sitting in the car.
Their second collaboration was when Hardy starred in Knight’s first TV creation Peaky Blinders which Knight wrote, Hardy starred as Alfie Solomons, a Jewish gang leader. Knight quite clearly understands Hardy as an actor, from his physical acting to his authoritarian tone of voice, which is not without a note of sympathy when necessary. Knight and Hardy clearly have a great understanding for one another’s work, which is why one would imagine Knight was brought on board with Chips and Tom to create what is in many ways a refreshing new TV Series called Taboo.
Produced by Ridley Scott, Taboo is set in the 19th century during the Georgian era of London. It’s a grim time, where society is divided between lower and upper class. The lower class lives in squalor doing anything they can to make ends meet. While the upper class live in large Georgian style houses throwing lavish parties. While characters such as Prince Regent, brilliantly played by Mark Gatiss, who seems to take great joy in playing overtly large men who are constantly consuming food and drink, live in magnificent buildings.
James Delaney, who was believed to have died, has returned from Africa to take over his recently deceased father’s shipping business. James has returned for the funeral where it transpires his father has left him a certain piece of Canadian land called Nootka Sound, a land of great value to England, but in particular the East India Trading Company. This land serves as a gateway to America and is vital both in their business and will be worth a fortune when the War with America is over. This is the main narrative arc of the first series, focusing on the conflict between Delaney and The Company.
The East India Company is lead by Sir Stuart Strange, who is played by Jonathan Pryce. The characters within the Company are brilliantly smug, patronising and supremely arrogant. Which is why it is quite such a fabulous spectacle whenever Delaney manages to intimate, frustrate and enrage them at every possible turn as he refuses to hand over Nootka Sound.
Though this is the main catalyst for the narrative it is by no means the drive of the series. The purpose and intellectual depth of the show can be found in the seedy underbelly of London and through the rather more taboo themes. This then is what gives the show such unique properties, raising itself above the procedural TV series and into something quite extraordinary and twisted yet highly addictive as these things often are. Indeed once you accept the mad world of the Delaney family and associates, it’s really bloody good fun.
The Delaney family in its entirety is a complex, vast and fascinating family where much is still a mystery to us. At the start of the season, the family is broken, the father is dead, the brother is presumed dead, Delaney’s mother has died after she was locked up in a mental institution and the sister is in an abusive marriage. Thus enter one of the romantic themes of the series, between James Delaney and his half-sister Zilpha Geary, different mothers but the same father. This relationship is as dark as it is complex and raises several themes I am going to discuss, because for all it’s originality and perversion in living up to its title card ‘Taboo’, there is something incredibly sinister that was brought to my attention part way through the series. That despite my love for this show for all its brilliant elements, themes and rich depth, there is something I cannot overlook.
Zilpha Geary, played by the formidable actress Oona Chaplin, is a woman living in an abusive marriage, at least that is what is becomes once her half-brother returns home. Her husband Thorne Geary, played by Jefferson Hall, is a terribly insecure man who overcompensates by beating his wife whenever she does not please him. He wishes to gain a high position in society, and although he attends many of the high-class parties owning to his wealth, he is not respected either by his peers or by his regiment beyond what his money can buy him, as is made clear by Delaney in a Duel. He is further enraged by Delaney, perhaps because he can see Delaney as someone who he wishes he could be but never can, or more probably because of Delaney’s actions towards his wife.
This raises a very sinister theme and quite a confusing one in many respects. James and Zilpha clearly have a romantic connection, predating to when James last lived in the country, in fact, there is a small boy who is labelled as Delaney SR’s child but who I suspect is actually the child of James and Zilpha. The relationship they had was clearly quite an intense one, perhaps more physical than emotionally based, when James returns Zilpha is married, and yet James openly pursues her. It is at this point that the more sinister and complex theme emerges, Zilpha continually tells James, no, in fact, she emphatically says it many times. Whether this is owing to her social status, as I dare say incest would cause a snag or two on her reputation, or whether is because she is now married to another man. Regardless of the social consequences of sleeping with her half-brother, the fundamental line should be drawn at the word ‘no’, which as I have mentioned she repeatedly says, so this should be clear to Delaney.
Later that same night Delaney visits her in her dreams. For context, Delaney has spent an unknown number of years in Africa learning various, for a want of a better term, mystical arts, which not only cause him to experience hallucinations regarding his mother in a river, and his previous expeditions abroad a certain ship, he also seems to have the ability to reach someone in their dreams. This ability is something he only uses to reach his half-sister, when James does this he and his half-sister appear to have sex in some form of spiritual plane. Though she is alone in bed, something deeply sexual is clearly happening to her as she twists and turns in pleasure, whilst James sits in his own home in his nightgown chanting various incantations through what one would assume to be exotic powders.
This is clearly rape, is not? granted it is not in the form as described by the current laws in our country as there is no penetration, or is there? I’m not quite up to scratch with my African incantation knowledge. To add further confusion to this ongoing relationship, several scenes come to mind. In a church scene, roughly halfway through the series, Delaney and Zilpha are in church together, sat on adjacent sides of the building. Zilpha stands, walks over to Delaney and straddles him and proceeds to kiss him quite passionately.
A second scene occurs towards the very end of the series, she has now killed her husband, apparently under Delaney’s instructions. Not entirely sure when he mentioned that and judging by his confused face neither does he. They are now in a bedroom together and proceed to have consensual sex, albeit with some bizarre Oedipal visions that Delaney experiences where he sees his mother. The show therefore plays a great deal with the concept of rape, or perhaps simply living up to its name, Taboo.
Before I move on to discuss the rest of this fascinating show as there is a lot to cover in 8 episodes. I wish to further analyse Zilpha character, as well as the women of the show because while the men dominate, femininity is a topic greatly explored here. Zilpha is a character who experiences so much hardship and brutality at the hands of men, both prior to the start of the show at the hands of her late father, though it is unclear the events that occurred there, and during the course of this series, it seems almost vindictive on the part of Knight. Zilpha begins the season as a married woman, it is unclear as to the health of her marriage before Delaney enters the picture, but she seems to immediately fear his presence when he walks into the Church. Her husband is at first confused by Delaney and then angered at every mention of his name, going so far as to call Delaney the ‘N’ word. Perhaps because he is aware of Delaney’s spiritual visits to the bedroom he shares with his wife without her consent.
Zilpha spends the series going between Delaney and her Husband, demanding that Delaney stays away while trying to ensure her husband is not killed by her half-brother. This contributes to the overall theme of the series that the women must facilitate the men, though the show certainly has no qualms about exploring and breaking other traditions prominent during the 19th century. Zilpha becomes increasingly wary of both men and as the night time visits become increasingly frequent, her husband takes it upon himself to call a priest. Here the poor woman is strapped to the floor of her own home, where a bald old white man screams Latin phrases at her, grabbing her neck, and clawing at her breasts during which I dare say spit lands on her face, all in an effort to control her but which actually humiliates her. The result? A subdued wife in the eyes of her husband, but for us as the audience, a woman clearly bidding her time to act upon her mightily deserved revenge against the men in her life.
Thorne Geary’s death is a pivotal scene in the series, not only is he a character we have despised from the first episode, it is also quite poetic and something I did not initially understand. If you follow me on twitter, you know I have been quite vocal regarding this show, and you therefore also know that I was counting the episodes until his death. Knight wants you to despise this character and he teases the character’s death twice, once at the end of an episode where he proclaims a duel against Delaney, then again during the actual Duel where he fires a blank gun at Delaney.
Knight further impresses upon you this character’s worth, when Geary has clearly been set up to be the one killed in the Duel, his gun fires a blank straight at Delaney who even admits it to be a good shot, demonstrating Geary’s life to be worthless in The Company’s efforts to kill Delaney. So when Geary’s death finally occurs, it was initially anticlimactic for me, granted I was happy that Zilpha was the one to finally perform the deed. But for it to happen in such a simple, clean, nonviolent way was frustrating. It was only when my own sister enlightened me that I was able to see the bigger picture and the depth of Knight’s writing. Geary was nothing, he was worthless to anyone baring himself, and even the level of grandeur he imaged himself to be stood upon was an illusion that his wealth had bought him. Therefore, his death was actually beautifully poetic.
Zilpha is now free from her Husband’s physical abusive, only to turn to her half-brother Delaney and experience emotional abuse, after chasing her and forcing his way into her mind for an entire series, he now rejects her. This, in turn, initiates one of my most frustrating scenes in the entire series, where at the start of episode 8 she throws herself off a bridge and into the river Thames to supposedly die. This scene is so abrupt and honestly quite jarring, that after experiencing such a complex character arc, she ends the series by killing herself because her Husband is now dead and her half-brother has rejected her, this is not including her father who she clearly despised but the relationship at this point is unclear. As a scene I found this unnecessary and one of the weakest moments in the series, it serves little purpose and quite honestly comes across as sloppy writing from Knight which I found quite surprising given the intelligence and depth of the series thus far.
The other prominent female character is Lorna Bow, played by Jessie Buckley. Bow emerges as the wife of Delaney’s late father who wishes to obtain the Land and possessions left by her late husband in his Will. Though initially perceived as both an interference and an outsider by Delaney, he eventually says the phrase now iconic amongst fans of the show, “I have a use for you”. Sadly Bow must be subjected the same treatment that women on this show seem to all initially be exposed to, the brutality of men, when during one scene she is treated as a prostitute and is very nearly raped before Delaney steps into the picture and rescues her. She very quickly becomes attached to Delaney, and a certain degree of sexual tension can be interpreted, thus further drawing upon the classic plays such as Oedipus, which one assumes is Chips Hardy’s influence, to the extent that when asked who she is her reply is “I’m his Mother”. By the end of the first series, she has become one of the more dominant characters and is given further responsibilities whilst Delaney is locked in the tower, and could arguably become Delaney’s right-hand woman, if she survives the journey.
As you may have noticed, sexuality is a prevalent theme in this first series. As is the case in the character Godfrey, a man who takes the minutes for each of the East India Trading Companies meetings. Owing to both Delaney and Godfrey serving under the same regiment during the war, a connection is formed and he now serves as Delaney’s informant whenever the Company has developed a new plan of attack, or to provide Delaney with a warning when The Company suddenly has new information. Quite how The Company never catches onto Godfrey being the leak to Delaney’s swift movement to counter their every attack I don’t quite understand, perhaps their own arrogance blinds theme. During the evening’s Godfrey dresses a woman, exploring another societal Taboo particularly in the 19th century. There are several moments between Godfrey and Delaney were a degree of sexual tension is implied. Presumably, Godfrey fits into Delaney’s wider plan, and, therefore, Delaney is influencing and manipulating Godfrey’s feelings for his own agenda.
Though this show is filled with an array of characters, each one serving a purpose, from the American Doctor who uses various diseases to great effect and who dies quite poetically in red, white and blue, to Atticus the heavily tattooed man who also aids Delaney, and finally to Brace, James’s oldest friend and butler of the Delaney house whose ending in this series is quite powerful. None stood out more to me in the abundance of male characters than Cholmondeley, played by the wonderful Tom Hollander, the mad scientist with an affinity for the ladies, stood out as a highly intelligent character. Fully aware of the risks he was undertaking, such as dealing with sensitive and extremely volatile material, doing as Delaney orders him to in quite a comedic, loving and darkly serious way. I dare say the inspiration for his character stems from the Mad Hatter, another indication of how many great pieces of literature have influenced this fantastic series.
It should go without saying by this point in British production history that we know how to create a period drama, and Taboo is no exception. The level of detail from the costumes, to the physical appearance of the characters, is marvellous. In particular, the large manor house where a party is held during which Delaney is challenged to a Duel, the detail is quite awe-inspiring and rather beautiful, particularly with the superb filming. The production department on this show really have outdone themselves in this series, I am hoping this level of attention to detail will continue in series 2, wherever the crew decides to anchor.
I would be amiss if I did not discuss Delaney’s hallucinations, Delaney at one point prior to the start of this series, was on a ship carrying slaves as cargo. The ship subsequently crashed and the slaves went down with the ship. Delaney played a part in the ship’s destruction and is therefore haunted by various slaves who were trapped in the bows of the ship. However, these scenes are orchestrated unlike anything I have seen on TV, they are eerie, haunting and quite dark, but they are used sparingly which is key to the success of the show, reminiscent of Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Though by it’s nature Taboo themes are explored throughout the show, nearly everything serves a purpose, a healthy balance between the narrative, the various threads and mise en scene makes for a powerful series. The hallucinations depicting, what I can only assume to be Delaney’s mother, are artfully done and sparingly used which allows for the moments that they are used to be far more powerful and affecting.
An incredibly strong series one ended with a bang, a fight and a great deal of bloodshed. For those characters who survived the initial ordeal and are now aboard the ship, their fates have yet to be decided, no one has escaped unharmed. The real test of the show stability will begin in series 2, a new location, a new dynamic and far away from the stability of relatable locations of London. It will be interesting to see if the narrative is split somehow between the crew on the ship and the events in London, as hopefully, this is not the last we have seen of characters such as Brice and The East India Trading company. There is so much more to say regarding this series, so many nuances, themes, plots and characters I haven’t mentioned. The intelligent writing, acting and direction are flowing in a murky red from this series. Highly recommend.