After months of mysterious and tantalizing commercials and trailers featuring little more than Tom Hardy brandishing impressive tribal tattoos and uttering cryptic threats, FX’s new period drama Taboo finally debuted on January 10th. Set in a grimy, ugly London in the year 1814, the series follows James Delaney (Hardy) as he navigates the lawless city to claim his inheritance. But Delaney, who has abruptly reappeared after a ten year sojourn in Africa, cuts a menacing figure and the premiere episode is loaded with troublesome questions. James has a seemingly clairvoyant ability to know the secrets of others. Has he really been as removed from the affairs of London as his exile makes him seem? Then there are his frightening hallucinations: are they the result of trauma or is something supernatural going on?
Produced by Ridley Scott, Taboo is the brainchild of Hardy and Steven Knight, whose other collaborations include the historical gangster drama series Peaky Blinders and Taboo owes much of its atmosphere to the former. Although set in different places and times and exploring different subjects, Taboo’s filthy slums and nefarious cast of characters will feel familiar to those who have previously watched Peaky Blinders. This is enjoyable, but for a series that has had such an air of mystery generated in its promotion to feel so comfortably familiar to fans of the creators’ previous works could actually be a hindrance to its enjoyment.
It should be made clear that Taboo is unquestionably a starring vehicle for Hardy. Despite strong supporting performances from Game of Thrones stars Oona Chaplin and Jonathan Pryce, every scene rests solidly upon Hardy’s broad shoulders. His character is the sole topic of discussion in the few scenes that do not contain him. It would be a disaster for a less charismatic actor with a more conventional character. Luckily, James Delaney seems like not just a barbarian to civilized Londoners, but a complete lunatic. He repeatedly gloats that he “has no sense,” meaning he is capable of anything, and although the premier does not see him stoop to physical violence, there is a menace in his every move that makes the threat of mayhem persistent and delicious. Fans of Hardy’s performances in Bronson or The Dark Knight Rises will have plenty to chew on here. But if you liked his stoic, haunted portrayal in Mad Max: Fury Road, you will enjoy his work here too.
Taboo works hard to create a mythic arc, but with the emphasis entirely on one character it may not be possible to maintain. The hints of horror and the surreal visions might not also pay off in a manner satisfying to horror and fantasy fans. Overall, however, it is an intriguing introduction to a mysterious, dirty world. It’s the tale of a savage prowling within the nightmare that occurs seconds before the daylight of the Victorian age and whether there is a payoff at the end or not, the journey promises to be worthwhile all the same.