TV Review: Taboo: Episode One


S1, E1: ‘Episode One’

Tom Hardy IS The Revenant, Regency Edition.

Grade: B


Man, I don’t know about you, but doesn’t popular culture make the Regency era just way too…..girly? I mean, if the BBC and Keira Knightley are to be believed, it’s always Ballgown and Banter O’Clock in the early nineteenth century. I mean, even when Susannah Clarke brings you the Napoleonic Wars and sorcery, there’s wry asides aplenty. While the men in the audience sit, writhing in their chairs, growing a uterus spontaneously. What about the men? Please, for the love of God, will nobody think of the men?

Fear nothing, fans of the Regency era who are upset about ballrooms and female protagonists, but don’t actually fancy reading meticulously-researched accounts of battleships during the Napoleonic Wars (sorry, Aubrey-Maturin). Tom Hardy, heart-throb and mumblecore Batman villain, is here to put the ‘gents’ in ‘Re-gents-y’. (Sorry). And to rescue the Regency era from the clutches of Comedies of Manners. There are no manners at all in Taboo, and there sure as shit ain’t no comedy. Ain’t nobody even smiling in Taboo. It’s Very Serious Business, this. Which is a bit odd, considering that it is also Regency Voodoo Noir. I admire the commitment here, people, but how seriously can you take yourself if you’re Voodoo Noir?

Okay. So James Delaney (Tom Hardy, sporting a very fetching scar) is in London for the funeral of his father, who died ranting and raving and calling for his son. Who apparently heard his call from all the way over in Africa, and all manner of dark and terrible secrets with it. Example: Delaney pere apparently bought Delaney fils’s mother. Something that nobody was to know except for Papa Delaney and a Hunched and Grizzled Retainer. But you know what? James may well be magic. There are Stories About Him. He mutters Foreign Incantations over the body of his father. There are more things in heaven and earth, etcetera.

James stalks into the church where the funeral is being held, clad in black from head to toe. His sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin, known better to me as that ‘Feisty’ Irritant Talisa in Game of Thrones) gasps ‘Did Hell open up?’ By the way, that line tells you basically all you need to know about this episode. And quite possibly this show. Zilpha is married to Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall), a man with a fantastically punchable face. He immediately takes a dislike to James – I mean, can you blame him when Zilpha is gazing at him like she’s a smackhead and he’s a needle? And when James is grabbing her and muttering things to her with their lips bare inches apart? But Thorne drops the n-bomb and monitors his wife’s correspondence, so fuck him, eh?

Incidentally, the thing that James is muttering to his sister? Which will come as zero surprise to you, given Zilpha’s reaction to his presence? Is that he has never stopped loving her.  And just as you’re thinking that the incest angle is all a bit HBO, the show pusses out by having James and Zilpha be half-siblings, not siblings. Boo, Taboo. Here’s an obvious way to live up to the promise of your title. Real low-hanging fruit. And you whiff the chance. Boo.

Anyway, there’s another reason for Geary to be wary of James. Which is that the East India Company, headed by Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), is interested in an apparently valueless piece of land owned by Papa Delaney, which has now passed to James. The land is Nootka Sound and it sits in a highly strategic location in the United States of America. Which has shown a recent and somewhat importunate desire to be free of His Majesty George the Third. The Company wants to buy the land and had been negotiating with the Gearies. Now, however, James has turned up, and the Company wants to know if they can make a deal with him.

James quietly summarises exactly what the land is of value to the Company, and refuses to make a deal. He’d be wise to take the apparently substantial sum of money that is being offered to him, but – as he spends much of the episode portentously murmuring – he is about to do many very foolish things.

Things that may have to do with avenging the murder of his father (arsenic poisoning). And/or the fate of his poor sainted American Indian Slave mamma. And/or the slave trade in which James took part and which haunts him still. And in which Sir Stuart seems to be intimately involved. And/or any other history that James and Sir Stuart shared – James served under him in the Company for a time, after all. And/or James and Zilpha’s hinted-at history. (Which had better be along the lines of murdering someone, rather than the semi-incestuous roll in the hay that I am assuming actually transpired). And/or Papa Delaney’s Doe-Eyed Bastard Son, for whose upkeep James pays, but whom he is staying away from because he can’t trust himself.

So, in sum: a mashup of The Count of Monte Cristo and Mickey Spillane, in early 19th century garb. The rather touching belief in the Pearls-Clutching Shock Power of talk about pissing and cocks. And an apparent inability to conceive of women as anything other than whores, dead saints or damsels in distress (prove me wrong, Tom Hardy). Congratulations, guys. Slap a cape and a cowl on him. Regency-Man is here.

Which may sound like I hate it. But I don’t. It’s beautiful, brooding schlock with a fantastic central performance and a moving belief in its own importance. There’s enough good to keep you engaged, and enough sheer silliness to drive the snark. In other words: y’all, I think I’ve found my new catnip.

Historical notes

The arsenic poisoning test the mortuary nerd carries out looks like the Marsh Test (albeit twenty years before the actual Marsh test was wheeled out.

Odds and sods

  • I don’t want to get all ‘Men write like this, and women write like this’, because I think it’s reductive and unhelpful. But I do notice in this episode that the rapine and plunder of the East India Company seem to be rooted in a shadowy cabal of Company men, headed up by the falsely affable Sir Stuart. As in: evil seems to be located in individual men and women. Whereas if I think about other gritty historical novels (Slammerkin, the Pleasures of Men, even Sarah Waters’s more self-consciously Gothic oeuvre) evil seems to be more about systems and institutions. Which is both more realistic and less comforting, to me.

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