Daniel Randall reviews Taboo, currently airing on the BBC.
By the time of its fourth episode, the point at which this review was written, Taboo, which had occasionally teetered on the edge of greatness, had collapsed into rather grotesque pantomime.
The aloofness of Tom Hardy's performance, which in earlier episodes had given his character, James Delaney, a brooding malice, is petering out into ridiculousness, as he growls his way through a script peppered with faux-profound cliches ("There is business afoot tonight" he says, climbing into a carriage.)
The dark Other of the colonial imaginary looms large in the world of Taboo: Delaney begins the show having returned from a sojourn in Africa, where he has apparently learnt various occult arts, and become a cannibal. His nemesis, his brother-in-law, repeatedly calls him "nigger". There are not-yet-fully-explained flashbacks to the hold of slave ships, with their screaming cargo of enslaved humans, and a developing subplot reveals that Delaney's mother was a Native American.
What does it all mean? Whose story is it trying to tell, and why? If Taboo wants to be a critical comment on the values of the period, it is unclear quite what critique it wishes to make.
And it is not even clear the comment is critical: in one, particularly gratuitous, scene, Delaney uses an occult ritual involving fire and incantations in an unintelligible language to project his consciousness into the bedroom of his sleeping half-sister Zilpha, played by Oona Chaplin, who he then proceeds to rape. "You feel me when I break in, don't you?", he later snarls at her. Delaney is far from an entirely sympathetic character, but he is clearly the show's hero (much like similarly damaged, brooding sociopath Thomas Shelby in Taboo co-creator Stephen Knight's Peaky Blinders), taking on the twin forces of evil represented by the British crown and the East India Company. Are we supposed to root for him in his violent "courtship" of his half-sister?
The show's laudanum-dream surrealism is entertaining at points, and enough skill has gone into the world-building to suggest that this magical-realist Regency London might have some potential as a terrain for other stories. Stephen Knight brings his distinctive aesthetic, familiar to viewers of Peaky Blinders, playing, often compellingly, with fire, shadows, and spectrality. Jonathan Pryce takes a good turn as the comic-book bad guy Sir Stuart Strange, a senior East India Company official, and there are similarly strong performances from Jessie Buckley as Lorna Bow and the dependable Stephen Graham as Atticus.
At points in the fourth episode, Taboo comes close to embracing and celebrating its status as garish pantomime. The introduction of Tom Hollander as a camp, lascivious mad-scientist figure, and the scenes of Delaney looking comically out of place at a Countess's lavish, hedonistic ball have promise, but a hammy climactic scene in which Delaney is challenged to a duel seems to shout: "take this seriously!", and so rather spoils the effect.
Hardy is making a career playing psychopathically violent comic-book hard men (Bronson, Bane, Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders, and now James Delaney, to name a few), and he might be well advised to consider broadening his choices, lest his undeniable acting talent is allowed to dissolve into self-caricature.
There's a lot of texture in Taboo, but in a show so obviously concerned with weighty themes it needs a stronger framework to prevent it from collapsing into a gloopy mess. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have one.
Taboo appears to be influenced by Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, another work of fantastical, and frequently dark, Regency-era magical-realism; setting the show in the same period and naming a main character "Strange" is unlikely coincidental, and we also get Ed Hogg, who played John Segundus in the BBC adaption of Clarke's book, appearing as a cross-dressing East India Company clerk. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell also deals with themes of class, race, slavery, gender, and empire, and similarly figures magic as a potentially wild force that can subvert the social mores and ordered hierarchies of the 19th century. But where Clarke's work, and even the below-par TV adaptation, delights, amuses, comforts, and asks questions of an audience, as well as jolting them, Taboo seems interested only in leering out of the shadows in an attempt to shock. A gratuitous disembowelling scene is a case in point; it's almost as if Knight and Hardy have read Jonathan Strange and decided it had potential, but what it really needed was more torture and rape.
If Taboo has a message, it is perhaps that the proto-globalisation and empire-building of the 19th century unleashed (figuratively, but also, the show seems to suggest, literally) dark forces that threaten to disrupt the metropole, and perhaps that the society of the metropole was in many ways just as "savage" as they viewed their colonial subjects as being. Setting aside the question of whether these messages have much value (the former is, to say the least, "problematic"; the latter is more worthwhile but hardly original), they're lost in the morass of a show that has effectively bogged itself down - wallowing, as Emily Stephen's AV Club review put it, in its own scandals.
Taboo has four episodes left, and some sharp turns in its character development and narrative progression will be required if we're not to be left with a piece that goes halfway to creating an aesthetically arresting and intriguing world which it invites the viewer to explore but then, through its lack of a shaping framework, effectively abandons them in.
Undoubtedly this is deliberate: disorientation, misdirection, deception, disguise, and deceit are all themes of the story. That can be a gratifying experience as an audience member, but here, in a show that, at its darkest, seems to revel in sexual violence and racialised othering, the effect is rarely enjoyable.