Let’s make one thing clear right away: Taboo is not a great show—at least, not yet. It has Tom Hardy, though, and for the moment that just might be all it needs.
The new drama from FX, co-created by Hardy, is aggressively and almost ludicrously dark and dirty, diving headlong into the muck of its 1814 London setting and rolling around in it until every second seems coated in a glaze of soot-stained brutality. Mere moments into the premiere episode, Hardy—slicked with rainwater and oozing with purpose—bends over the corpse of his father and intones “Forgive me father, for I have indeed sinned.” It’s a moment so determined to be grave and intense that it almost crosses the border into funny. In the hands of any number of other actors, it certainly would be.
Hardy, though, is the show’s steady hand, even when his character is anything but stable. James Keziah Delaney is an enigmatic adventurer who vanished into the depths of Africa and was presumed dead until he turns up at his father’s funeral. As the sole heir to the Delaney estate and crumbling shipping empire, he inherits a strip of land on the west coast of North America that just happens to be part of a dispute between the British Empire, the limitlessly powerful East India Company and the fledgling United States. It also happens to be the new gateway to trade with China.
If that sounds a little dry to you, don’t worry; the main event is not a land dispute. That honor goes to the specter of Delaney himself, and to all the Bad Things he’s apparently done to merit the gasps he elicits when he enters rooms. James Delaney, the show tells us, is a man of unnatural deeds and desires. James Delaney’s done things no gentleman should ever do, and he isn’t ashamed to admit it. James Delaney is a man of many taboos.
Hardy is brilliant as an outsider, and it’s that brilliance that buys the show all of those whispers about how dangerous and terrifying Delaney is.
We know this because Taboo is intent on telling us often, more than it shows us. Delaney himself seems to be constantly telling people how scary he is, and other characters regularly discuss his foul reputation without really going into specifics. When the show does show us what Delaney’s done, it comes in the form of visions that give us hints of cruelty and transgression (interspersed with some pretty awesome shots of figures that look straight out of a black-metal video) but again, specifics are often left to our imaginations.
Delaney’s dark reputation is further underlined by relentlessly grim, though often beautiful, visuals. Director Kristoffer Nyholm luxuriates in London filth, from mud at low tide to the inner sanctum of an unsavory doctor. The same squishing sound effect comes when a tooth sinks through roast beef as when a needle sinks into flesh. Almost everyone, including nobility, is scarred and splotched and pockmarked. It’s very, very, insistently dark, and that’s just the way Taboo likes it.
Now, if that all sounds like an interminable slog to you, I’ll admit that it sometimes strays in that direction. There are times when the cogs of Taboo slow to a crawl and you might wonder why you’re still watching. Then Hardy’s on screen and everything makes sense again.
James Delaney is a very Tom Hardy charcter. His voice is gravelly. He grunts and mumbles. He’s covered in tattoos. Since Hardy is his co-creator, it’s no accident that this guy is tailor-made for this particular star, and that turns out to be good news for us, because Hardy is the light that cuts through all the murk of this show. Hardy is brilliant as an outsider, and it’s that brilliance that buys the show all of those whispers about how dangerous and terrifying Delaney is. We see Hardy glaring at a rival and we feel that danger. We see him strutting through London looking like the only cool person in the city, and we believe he’s been to the darkest, most unknowable parts of the world. Even at its most borderline-comically intense, Taboo remains watchable because Hardy (and supporting standouts Oona Chaplin, David Hayman and Jonathan Pryce) simply bewitches us into believing it’s watchable.
Taboo premieres tonight at 10 p.m. EST on FX.
Read Stephen Rebello’s “The Hardy Boys: Why Every Other Actor is a Growling, Scruffy Tom Hardy Doppelganger.”