It’s likely an accident that Taboo, the new miniseries actor Tom Hardy co-created for FX alongside his father, Edward “Chips” Hardy, and filmmaker Steven Knight, reads as The Tom Hardy Show. Yes, his name is all over the Taboo’s promotional material, and so’s his bearded mug, and if you combine those two details at a glance, then Taboo can’t help but look an awful lot like a star vehicle for Hardy by design. But this is only half true. The story is, in fact, all about his character’s pursuit of vengeance. That it’s also all about Hardy’s performance can’t have been the intention, because a cast stacked with personalities like Jonathan Pryce and David Payman should, in theory, court our attention on egalitarian terms.
But it doesn’t. This is either because Hardy is that good as the series’ lead, or because his co-stars have been served woefully underwritten parts. Grant that Taboo’s premiere installment, “Shovels and Keys,” is just that, a premiere, the first episode in the show’s eight-episode lifespan. Grant that the pilot puts the brunt of our focus on Hardy by necessity as the the fomenter of its drama. (Also grant that very few people on this planet can cuss with such sharp articulation as Pryce, and that when the script cuts him loose, even for seconds at a time, he leaves a hell of an impression.) But whether he’s in the frame or not, Hardy dominates Taboo. He’s a giant towering over the plot, casting all of its pieces and participants in his shadow.
In a way, that dynamic is fitting to Taboo’s content. This is the tale of James Delaney (Hardy), a merchant’s son and a former naval man who, rumored to have perished on a voyage to Africa, returns home to London in 1814 after hearing of his father’s death while abroad. His unexpected arrival is met by whispers and murmurs, gossip about the dead man who came back to life. If the writing didn’t make it explicitly clear that report of his death was an exaggeration, we might assume that he’s the local boogeyman, a bedtime story parents tell their children to keep them from misbehaving in the night. (“Go to sleep, little ones, or James Delaney will hear your wicked caterwauling and sup upon your shrieks!”)
So in a way it’s appropriate that Hardy’s presence should haunt every corner of Taboo, even when he isn’t brooding and grunting on the screen before us. Delaney’s reappearance sends the rest of the cast into varying fits of emotion: Notably, the officers of the East India Company, led by Sir Stuart Strange (Pryce), immediately set to scheming while Delaney’s half-sister, Zilpha (Oona Chaplin), tempers her shock at the sight of her brother with defiance toward her husband, Thorne (Jefferson Hall), who views Delaney with contempt, distrust, and not a small amount of prejudice, labeling him “savage” on account of having set foot on African territory. He’s pretty awful. So are the East India chaps. The jury is out on Zilpha, but if you’re a Game of Thrones fan (and if you’re a fan of Chaplin then you’re surely a fan of Game of Thrones), hints at the nature of her relationship with Delaney may sound oddly and uncomfortably familiar. (There’s a word for that. It’s in the show’s title.) It seems that the only person Delaney can trust is Brace (Hayman), his family’s hard-drinking, no-nonsense butler.
Taboo isn’t just about a man coming home to tend to family affairs and bury his sire, of course. It’s about revenge. “Shovels and Keys” sets up that thread quite neatly and suggests that Delaney will, as the story unfolds, kill a whole lot of people to avenge his dad. We’re not there yet. We may not be there until the very end. Right now we’re in the macho posturing phase of the story, where Hardy is pitted in aggressive staring contests against his male co-stars. It sounds boring. It should be boring. Hardy, however, has reserves of tough guy intensity stored up from a career spent playing intense tough guys, whether John Fitzgerald in The Revenant, Tommy Riordan in Warrior, or the title characters in Mad Max: Fury Road, Bronson and even Locke, the 2014 one-man show Hardy filmed with Knight (because willingly torpedoing your marriage and career to be with the child you fathered with a woman who isn’t your wife requires something resembling toughness).
Delaney is the beneficiary of Hardy’s expertise with these roles, a composite of his past efforts in much the same way Taboo is a composite of classic revenge tales a’la Hamlet, grimy, uncouth Westerns like Deadwood, and uncompromised historical reenactments like Rome, which does for the Eternal City what Taboo does for the Old Smoke. The London we see in “Shovels and Keys” is grey, sooty, swaddled in filth. There’s a grain and a texture to every setting we tour through, traces of noisome life in the squalor of the scenery. You may feel like you need a shower after watching the episode, and that’s meant as the highest of compliments; if the bulk of what defines Taboo is Hardy’s gruff and commanding work as its principal, then its mise en scène defines the rest.
As with so many pilots, “Shovel and Keys” puts pieces into place and sets conflicts in motion, which makes judging Taboo a gamble. On its own merits, the episode mostly works; it’s appropriately macabre, Hardy is sensational, and the greater mysteries proposed by the writing are compelling enough to keep us on the show’s hooks. (The background of Nootka Sound, the ancestral plot bequeathed to Delaney by his father and which Strange is eager to get his hands on, is also deeply fascinating as an obscure piece of real-life history, one that the overarching narrative will surely explore further as events warrant.) But the rest of Taboo’s talent needs more to do if the story is to sustain itself. Maybe as we go forward, the shock of Delaney’s reemergence will wear off of his friends and enemies, and allow Chaplin, Pryce, Hayman, and the rest of the cast to make their mark.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.