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Series Review: Taboo, A Tom Hardy Show

“The enigma that is James Delaney.”

Do you like colonialism? Slavery? Torture? Incestuous sex that seems to be consensual? Do you prefer that probably-consensual sex to also involve astral projection? What about magic—do you like magic? Indigenous American magic or African magic? (Why not both?) Do you like the East India Company and various corporate intrigues? What about treaty law in the early nineteenth century? Above all: do you like Tom Hardy?

Taboo is an eight-episode series about James Keziah Delaney (played by Tom Hardy), a half-indigenous, half-British merchant’s son on a mission of either redemption or revenge against the British crown, the East India Company, and pants.

But, really, Taboo is about Tom Hardy. The FX/BBC One trailer describes it as a series “from Tom Hardy,” but that undersells the Tom Hardiness of it all. He’s an executive producer, as is his father, Chips Hardy, who also helped write the show. Steven Knight is the showrunner; Steven Knight is also the writer and director of Locke, a movie about Tom Hardy going for a drive, and the showrunner for Peaky Blinders, in which Tom Hardy plays fan-favorite Alfie Solomons.

The plot of  Taboo is convoluted. In 1814, James Delaney returns to England after a long absence in order to take down the East India Company, mess with the crown, and assert his claim to a treaty that gives him land on the Pacific coast that could act as a gateway to, literally, “all the tea in China.” The show’s mood evokes The Count of Monte Cristo, except that everyone knows who James Delaney is. (He’s Tom Hardy.) Maybe it’s more like a sequel to Heart of Darkness in which Marlow, played by Tom Hardy, breaks bad in Belgium.

And break bad he does, but not without some hijinks along the way. By the second episode, Tom Hardy, often pantsless, commits some mild cannibalism after befriending a river dog who loves no one else. In the third, nursing a vicious gut wound, Tom Hardy blackmails a former childhood friend and current East India Company employee who likes to dress in women's clothes. His response? “It's torture. Exquisite.” (So say we all.)

In the fourth episode, Tom Hardy, still rarely wearing pants, tells a woman that to join him is to join a conspiracy of the damned. “Okey-dokey,” she says. In the fifth episode, Tom Hardy places an entire boiled egg in his mouth and, presumably, swallows it whole. There is also an exorcism. In the sixth episode, a delightful character dies and the East India Company declares war. In the seventh episode, there are revelations.

The eighth episode has a plot so convoluted that it makes the heist in Ocean’s Eleven look like a recipe for scooping peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon. It’s an explosive mess of a season finale that at time suggests Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, then the Battle of Yorktown section of Hamilton, and ultimately just the basic frustration that so many of us feel these days. The plot is anarchy, the characters anarchic, and I think perhaps that’s the best way to describe the mood the show is going for, because mood—if Tom Hardy is a mood, which he is—is the show’s most intelligible feature.

And I haven’t even mentioned the highlights. Tom Hardy’s mother is Native American, so he does some sort of healing ceremony involving feather. Tom Hardy spent years in Africa, so he sometimes speaks Ashanti. Tom Hardy does magic that involves staring into a fire (pantsless) and blowing clay dust. He sometimes rubs himself with dirt, but in a mystical way. He has flashbacks to drowning, he has flashbacks to being on a ship. Tom Hardy makes improbable deductions and is always one step ahead of everybody else. Tom Hardy is covered in tribal tattoos.

Tom Hardy wears a black hat but rides a white horse. Tom Hardy refuses to acknowledge his illegitimate son but shares a cute moment with him in the sixth episode—right before making him risk his life in transporting some very volatile and illicit gunpowder. I cannot tell if Tom Hardy is an anti-hero, whom we root for despite knowing better, or a curmudgeon with a heart of gold waiting for the perfect constellation of camaraderie to reveal his inner luster. Perhaps the show is simply banking on the charisma of Tom Hardy to make us ignore the vagueness of Tom Hardy’s character.

Amidst all that, the supporting cast does a wonderful job. Highlights include Oona Chaplin as Tom Hardy’s half-sister and astral lover; Jessie Buckley as Tom Hardy's young stepmother, whose always-ironic grin hides her confusion at being transplanted from regular life into the Land of the Mad; Stephen Graham as a criminal who just wants to write his book; Jonathan Pryce as the head of the EIC; Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent; Tom Hollander as a horny chemist; and Franka Potente as a hooker with a tooth of silver.

All the actors suffer slightly, though, for the degree to which their characters must be so overwhelmed by Tom Hardy--why are they so drawn to him? Why do they follow him so willingly? Because Tom Hardy may play James Delaney, but he really plays Tom Hardy, and such a Gary Stu distillation of Tom Hardy, fed through the echo-chamber filtration system of his roles, his father’s, and Steven Knight’s that the result is pristine, 200-proof Tom Hardy purity, the apex of all things Tom Hardy, and Tom Hardy as all the things, the fixed point around which everyone else operates.

Does the show succeed? Like Peaky Blinders, Taboo rails against the entrenched establishment of wealth and inherited nobility, yet focuses on a savior of the working classes who is, himself, middle class and mercantile. Like Peaky Blinders it evokes place beautifully (here, the mishmash of classes and people along the Thames) and has some fascinating violence (including multiple eviscerations).

Unlike Peaky Blinders, Taboo is thoroughly engaged with issues of colonialism and slavery, but also thoroughly wrapped up in a white-savior narrative that is so problematic is bypasses the problem entirely and just becomes…well, it becomes Tom Hardy. Does it succeed at Tom Hardying? Yes, it does.

Would I recommend it? I have no idea. I have been in lockdown for 361 days. This show delighted me, horrified me, and above all made me want to write a review in which I used the words “Tom Hardy” dozens of times. If a second season ever happens, I will be delighted and utterly shocked. It is bonkers, it is immersive, it is problematic and puzzling and probably not worth overthinking.

It is, in fact, Tom Hardy.


Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

11 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Do you think this series might be about Tom Hardy? :)

Josie, this review is hilarious and a wonderful read, and I suspect I will enjoy it more than the series, which I'm not certain I want to even try. Probably because he was great in Peaky Blinders, but I don't love Tom Hardy.

milostanfield said...

If, in the future, I hear the words "Tom Hardy" and burst into hysterical laughter, it was this review that did it. May the Covid free us all soon.

magritte said...

A very funny review though I'm not sure if I want to see the show. I can't say that I ever watched Peaky Blinders and thought, "Man, I want to see Alfie Solomons without pants", though that guess is something of a tribute to the actor, since he is clearly a very attractive man. It's interesting how a role can influence the sex appeal of an actor. I remember thinking how attractive Rufus Sewell was in The Pillars of the Earth, but it never crossed my mind in The Man in the High Castle. I guess the Nazi uniform is a major turn-off.

Josie Kafka said...

Billie, thank you!

Milo, every writer wants to have an impact on their readers. But not until reading your post did I realize what kind of impact I wanted to have. Now I know, and I hope that I induce inexplicable Tom Hardy hysterical laughter in everyone who reads this review.

Magritte, yes! When I had watched just a couple of episodes of Peaky Blinders, and had not yet met Alfie Solomons, I told my aunt (who loves the show). "Oh," she said. "Isn't Cillian Murphy sexy?" "Sure," I responded, "but I'm really looking forward to Tom Hardy."

The silence on the phone was deafening before she finally managed to say, with all the circumspect politeness of her generation, "Oh, yes. He is in it too, isn't he?" Only after I met Alfie Solomons did I realize how much--and why--I must have confused her.

sunbunny said...

The show sounds like a trainwreck but the review made me laugh out loud. May we be free from Covid soon!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this, Josie. I m feeling happy since I read your review. I only ever watched the first episode of this show and never could figure out what was bugging me about it. Now I know: It s the Tom Hardiness of it all. Don t get me wrong, I like him. But I had a better time reading this, than watching that episode. ;)

Josie Kafka said...

Sunbunny and Anonymous, thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

The show is a trainwreck says this Tom Hardy(TOM HARDY!) loving person. Great, hilarious review-do you Tom Hardy?

Josie Kafka said...

Anonymous, I'm more of a Tom Hardy hobbyist than a true Tom Hardyist.

I think that's a testament to his acting, though. He's quite the chameleon, so I never feel like I know what I'm going to get when he's onscreen. Also, a bunch of stuff he's been in (like that movie about the Kray twins) just doesn't appeal to me.

Logan Cox said...

Great read, Josie.

I remember being very interested in seeing this back when they were promoting it, though I never did. Judging from this weirdly excellent review, that interest was not unwarranted.

Josie Kafka said...

I hope you have fun with it, Logan!

If you do watch it, it's best to engage in mildly inappropriate behavior as you do so. Eating a whole bag of potato chips, drinking alcohol if you usually don't do so, getting really high...whatever feels indulgent and risky and unhealthy. That's the show's mood.