If you've grown weary of the Don Drapers and Walter Whites of the world, don't expect James Keziah Delaney to make a strong first impression. Taboo's antihero, played with signature laconicism by Tom Hardy, is another difficult man for this golden age of TV — and, as fate would have it, gold is just one of the precious materials on his mind. FX’s miniseries, which airs its eighth and final episode next Tuesday, begins as Delaney returns to 1814 London with diamonds purloined from Africa and a plan for westward expansion.
Presumed dead for years and seemingly unmissed, Delaney is finally compelled to trek home after the actual passing of his father. Asked whether he wants any words said as his estranged parent is buried, Delaney insists that "no one is listening"; told he still looks the same after a decade away, he replies, "I'm not."
We hear edgy ruminations like this on cable all the time, but Hardy invests them with meaning. The actor belongs to a proud tradition of thesps who always seem to be playing shades of the same character no matter the role; he manages to compel whenever he puts on an unplaceable accent that doesn’t necessarily fit his character, which is almost every time he appears onscreen. Brutish and mumbly, his latest variation is perhaps the most fully realized yet, thanks in part to Taboo’s extended runtime.
It doesn’t hurt that the former Bane co-created the series along with his father, Ernest “Chips” Hardy, and Steven Knight, whose credits include Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders and Locke. (Side note: I never want to know anything about Tom Hardy’s dad beyond the fact that his nickname is “Chips.”) It’s almost charming that, after presumably being given more creative control than on any of his other projects, Hardy has chosen not to forge ahead in a new direction but to create the most Tom Hardy-ish character we’ve ever seen. James is more violent, more oblique, more difficult to make heads or tails of than Hardy’s take on Mad Max; since the actor is such a compelling presence, the impulse is to lean in rather than roll your eyes.
Concerning matters of inheritance, commerce and even incest, Taboo’s occasionally murky plot hinges on a piece of land that’s passed to Delaney from his dearly departed father. That would be Nootka Sound, located on the west coast of Vancouver Island — an area that just happens to represent a lucrative passage for trade with China. That makes James an enemy of both the crown and the East India Company, not that the amoral ne’er-do-well is especially bothered by the conflict to come. He’s more than happy to play both sides against each other and watch the bodies pile up, several by his own hand.
The grim and grimy Taboo distinguishes itself from other self-consciously dark prestige television not by avoiding all-too-common tropes but by doubling down on them. James has a target on his back the moment he runs afoul of his powerful new enemies in the first episode; he survives an assassination attempt by counter-stabbing his assailant, instinctively twisting the knife to mangle everything inside and then biting into the poor bastard's neck like a vampire. He does it all in one fluid motion, a cornered animal acting on instinct.
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Like much else about Delaney, this particular set of skills is something we're meant to assume he learned in Africa. (And yes, his whereabouts are almost always referred to by continent rather than country; his vague backstory also includes time in Antigua.) James also has frequent visions of spirits, though it wouldn’t be right to call him haunted. He tells a brothel madam he "knows things about the dead" and, indeed, is given to whispering incantations when walking among them. Hardy — who's already carried a movie (Locke) that consists entirely of a conversation his character has on speakerphone while driving — comes close to making high art out of what could just have easily been hokum.
It’s for that reason, to say nothing of its period milieu, that Taboo is ultimately more heir to Deadwood and The Knick than Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Everyone speaks in an elevated register that’s halfway between bastardized Shakespeare and anachronistic screenwriter wish-fulfillment, Delaney most of all. He isn't a glorified asshole those around him (and watching at home) are forced to endure because he's also brilliant, nor is he neglectful husband to a long-suffering wife. He's the sort of individual we’re led to believe simply has to exist in this time and place. As another of Hardy's characters would say, Walter White merely adopted the darkness — James Delaney was born in it.
Oona Chaplin, late of Game of Thrones and granddaughter of the Tramp himself, answers the star’s imposing magnetism with a quiet otherworldliness of her own. As his half-sister and former illicit lover, she’s also the main target of James' mystic powers. In the small hours of the night, he blows dust into the fireplace while muttering words with the power to induce orgasmic convulsions in his sleeping sibling halfway across London. This, too, is quite silly, and yet it’s also another instance in which the series lives up to its name — by fully committing to its concept, Taboo makes it easy for us to do similarly.
The show’s creators haven’t yet bothered explaining just how Delaney came to possess these abilities or whether they actually exist outside his own mind, which is just as well: Taboo works best when it evokes a mood rather than expounds on mythology. It does that as well as if not better than anything else on TV right now, like a spell you don’t mind being in thrall to.