‘Taboo’ Premiere Recap: Darkness Buried at the Regular Depth

A gritty murder-mystery with a whole lot of history

TABOO -- "Episode 1" (Airs Tuesday, January 10, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney.

Taboo, Episode 1, aired Tuesday, January 10. Above: Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney. Robert Viglasky/FX

The macabre story of Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney is, in a much more extreme form, simply that of the returned bad boy prodigal son. We’ve heard this one before: he’s shipped off to military school, drops out before he has the chance to be expelled, moves abroad, is assumed dead, and then shows up a decade later nearly unrecognizable—and totally Goth—just in time for a less than heartfelt family funeral. That’s a very modest summary for Taboo’s leading man who, in FX’s limited series drama co-produced with the BBC, happens to also be heir to a 19th century shipping fortune. In the premiere, we find our protagonist swooping into gritty, grimy 1814 London to bury his father, inherit a plot of strategically located Canadian coastline and perhaps solve a mystery served up with a side order of vengeance. He has secrets, he’s done really bad things, and he’s in love with his half-sister.

As James K. Delaney, Hardy is a towering, grumbling force of darkness that speaks in cryptic one-line decrees, saying such things as “I know things about the dead” and “I have sworn to do very foolish things” only to, of course, be met with awkward silence and gaping mouths by a motley crew of characters played by a pedigreed cast that includes Jonathan Pryce, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman and Jefferson Hall. His declarations would normally be hilarious if not for the fact that FX has already spoiled half of them on Twitter, and when they’re juxtaposed by the show’s overwhelmingly serious tone and subject matter, his deliciously dark quips seem just a beat off.

“Forgive me father, for I have indeed sinned,” Delaney grunts over his father’s less-than-fresh corpse in the show’s cold open. The recently deceased elder Delaney has been laid out naked and pale on the slab, and his eyes covered with two shillings emblazoned with the likeness of King George III. Delaney pockets the coins and lumbers off into the opening credits, but let’s keep tabs on those two shillings, because they’re important.

I love me some opening credit sequences. Game of Thrones’ epic tour of the Westeros game board gives me chills every time I see it, and as much as I’m not emotionally equipped to handle the plot lines of Ryan Murphy’s excellent American Horror Story series, I can’t get enough of the slight variations on the show’s opening credits from season to season. However, Taboo’s montage of bobbing drowned bodies in glittering still waters, against the soundtrack of a whimsical music box melody, is neither terrible nor great. It simply gets adequate marks for hitting appropriate notes of eeriness.

Delaney finally gets the grand entrance his mythical character deserves at his father’s funeral mass. Silently mourning in the pews, we meet his sister Zilpha (Chaplin) and her overbearing and snobbish husband Thorne (Hall), and a man named Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson), who we come to find out was the recently deceased Delaney’s lawyer. Thoyt asks Zilpha if she remembered to pay the gravediggers an extra shilling, and then embarks on HISTORY LESSON #1—the first of many in this episode, and I hope a running gag all season. According to Thoyt: resurrectionists paid extra to be buried two feet deeper than the customary six, that way grave robbers couldn’t reach their coffins before the sun came up.

Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin, is stunned by Delaney's return.

Zilpha Geary, played by Oona Chaplin, is stunned by Delaney’s return. Screenshot via YouTube

And thanks to Thoyt’s explainer, we have this excellent retort from Thorne: “My wife has no business with grave diggers. He’ll be buried at the regular depth.” And then, in walks “a dead man”: none other than Delaney. Zilpha produces an almost orgasmic gasp while she calls out to no one in particular, “It is hell opened up.”

Apart from Hardy’s A+ delivery of “some really fucked up shit to say to people when you haven’t seen them in over a decade,” this scene is a promising sign of some really nutty antics to come—as is a the scene where he threatens to cut off 12 mens’ balls and feed them to a prostitute before boiling her feet, but that happens later.

At the burial, we’re given our first glimpse at how Africa has changed Delaney. As his father’s body is lowered into the ground, and the priest says the obligatory prayers, Delaney chants in an indiscernible language, flicks red powder at the coffin and paints it across his cheek. Apart from Hardy’s A+ delivery of “some really fucked up shit to say to people when you haven’t seen them in over a decade,” this scene is a promising sign of some really nutty antics to come—as is a the scene where he threatens to cut off 12 mens’ balls and feed them to a prostitute before boiling her feet, but that happens later.

After performing his sermon, Delaney, Zilpha and Thorne cross paths among the headstones, and he inquires as to why his father was buried in “such a shallow grave.” “Were you short a couple of shillings,” he asks. Impressively, Zilpha responds with her own linguistic riddle, and says “He was buried to the depths of my love.”

Following the burial of their father, Zilpha and Thorne watch as a group of scantily clad women weave in between revelers at the wake. With a mouthful of ambivalent disgust, Thorne delivers HISTORY LESSON #2: the women are prostitutes who commonly attend the funerals of widowers hoping to meet older men. And now they’re here to try their luck on Zilpha’s brother, whom Thorne affectionately refers to as “that animal from Africa.” Thorne’s heavy dislike for Delaney is certainly palpable even before the two men meet, but his real beef is still only a matter of speculation. If it’s jealousy, than it may be warranted. After all, Delaney’s first real words to Zilpha are said here, when he grabs her by the arm and declares that Africa didn’t cure him of loving her. He also let’s her know that if she ever happens to be short two shillings, he’s a got more than enough to spare. 

In a gross and grimy alley behind the pub where our characters are gathered, for which the show’s production has effectively recreated (yet again) another scene glorifying the unsanitary conditions of the London of yesteryear, Delaney is cornered by Thoyt to discuss the details of his father’s will. He appears set to inherit what Thoyt describes as small stretch of land on the Canadian coastline known as the Nootka Sound that consists of nothing but “rocks and Indians.” “If America was a pig facing England, Nootka would be the asshole,” Thoyt tells him. He doesn’t make Nootka sound too appealing, and even goes so far as to christen the plot a “poison chalice,” one that could land Delaney in a heap of trouble if he were to pursue his claim. But Delaney is wild eyed and intrigued, and leaves Thoyt with a grunt for an answer.

And now, meet the British East India Company. (BIG) HISTORY LESSON #3. The multi-national trading corporation’s influence on shaping global politics has been vast and undeniable in world history. In a 2015 article describing the East India’s dealings in India in the 18th century, the Guardian wrote: “Within a few years, 250 company clerks backed by the military force of 20,000 locally recruited Indian soldiers had become the effective rulers of Bengal. An international corporation was transforming itself into an aggressive colonial power…We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company.”

The East India Company's Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) sips tea from imported china.

The East India Company’s Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) sips tea from imported china. Screenshot via YouTube

At the heart of Taboo is a survey of the East India’s sprawling geo-political ambitions and unseemly practices. Delaney’s character best highlights this later on when he says to the company’s chairman, Sir Stuart Strange (Pryce), “I know the evil you do, because I was once part of it.” We meet Strange for the first time pouring himself three (?) cups of tea into Chinese porcelain as he conducts an investigatory meeting into Delaney’s past. We learn that Delaney’s mother was committed when he was young, and he attended an East India Company-run military academy, where he excelled and Strange was his instructor. We also learn that at some point, things took a turn. While in school, he set a boat on fire and committed a series of assaults, before fleeing to Africa. The East India executives relish poking fun at Delaney’s past troubles, and speculating on scandalous “fucking” rumors about what happened to him after the slave ship he was traveling on sunk off the African coast.

Naturally, Delaney ends up where most self-imposed exiles do in stories: at the steps of his childhood home. In the ramshackle poorly lit townhouse, Delaney is given his only warm welcome back to London so far by Brace: his father’s live-in handyman, and James’ childhood companion. The two sip brandy, and Brace relays the trials of Delaney’s father’s last days, which were spent calling out to James through bonfires he’d build on the river and mumbling in a language that “sounded like two ravens fighting.” But apparently, across an ocean, Delaney heard (and understood) whatever psychic messages his father was trying to communicate with him. During their heart-to-heart, he reveals that he knows his father bought (yes, bought) his mother when he purchased Nootka, and that his mother’s real name is Salish. The revelation stuns Brace, not just because of Delaney’s supernatural connection with his father, but because he’s privy to secrets that Brace has been closely guarding for years.

The evening ends when Delaney, staring out at the fog over the Thames, pulls us into a brief and hazy vision of a cackling woman, face painted black and white, wading through a river. Whether this is a dream or a flashback to his time spent in Africa isn’t clear, but the effect is nonetheless jarring and suggests that not only does our protagonist have real secrets in his past, but that they may from time-to-time make him unstable. 

Delaney is a man with secrets.

Delaney is a man with secrets. Screenshot via YouTube

After Delaney spends the night rifling through his father’s study, unable to find much information detailing the last ten years of his father’s business affairs, Brace admits that most of the ship logs were burned in fits of madness, and directs James to the company’s offices on the docks. And Thoyt? Brace informs Delaney that he’s been working double time for the East India, and had pestered his father for three years to sell Nootka to the corporate giant.

Delaney doesn’t find what he’s looking for at the docks, but he does find that a prostitute named Helga has set-up a makeshift brothel inside the office. Threats about testicles are made, and a dangerous side to Delaney surfaces for a moment, though I’m hopeful we’ll see more of him.

Meanwhile, on a nicer side of town, Zilpha pens a letter to her estranged brother and asks him to give over his inheritance to her. She’s interrupted by Thorne, who is eager to look over her work, and make blanket masculine statements of hatred such as, “If he doesn’t leave England, I’ll kill him.” “Why?” Zilpha rightfully wants to know. HISTORY LESSON #4. Thorne tells her (us) that the custom among Christian soldiers is to bury your enemy’s body, and stand watch to ensure that neither dogs nor birds come to pick at the remains. But Delaney, he says, is allegedly the sort who would rather join in the feast. During this speech he drops the N word not once, but twice, leaving us to wonder how much the show will make use of loaded language in its exploration of a growing list of taboo subjects in coming episodes.

While walking along the river banks, Delaney encounters an old man who treats us to HISTORY LESSON #5: the dogs who have befriended our leading man eat the dead who have committed suicide by jumping off the nearby bridge. The reason one of the dogs seems to be fond of Delaney, well that must be some witchcraft Delaney picked up in Africa. All this is informative chatter is just so the man can bother Delaney for payment over a boy he’s been caring for these last ten years, who he claims is his father’s son. We see the boy only for a moment in this episode, when Delaney brings the man more than enough money to ensure he’ll have a decent future, before he tells him that he never wants to see the boy again. But, we both know we’ll see more of Delaney’s secret kin, and there’s a heavy suggestion that the boy isn’t his father’s son, but more likely James’.

Finally, all that on and off talk about shillings pays off: under a moonlit sky, Delaney’s father is dug from his grave and taken back to the morgue. Get ready for HISTORY LESSON #6, and it’s a good one. A doctor hovers over the body and tells Delaney he plans to mix the contents of the stomach with potassium oxide, calcium oxide and nitric acid. The cocktail produces a gas that, when exposed to a glass surface, creates a reflective coating he calls an “arsenic mirror” when it detects the presence of the poison. The doctor informs Delaney that his father was indeed poisoned with heavy doses of the drug over a short period, and that it drove him mad. And finally, Delaney produces the shillings needed to bury his father at a deeper depth.

The Nootka Sound, on the Western Coast of the American continent, is Delaney's inheritance and a contentious strip of land.

The Nootka Sound, on the Western Coast of the American continent, is Delaney’s inheritance and a contentious strip of land. Screenshot via YouTube

The first episode’s muted colors, dialogue-scarce scenes and preliminary plot set-up are worth plodding through for its penultimate showdown, when Delaney pays a visit to the East India Company office. The pleasantries with Strange and his cohorts are as painful for us as they are for him, but the history lesson he serves up (and he’s done his homework) is a mic drop. FINAL EXAM. Britain is at war again with the “cursed” United States, and a pending secret talk between the two nations to draw up the Western U.S.-Canadian boarder is planned to take place in Ghent. When all is said and done, the owner (in this case Delaney) of Nootka will have land rights to all of Vancouver island, and effectively control “the gateway” to trade in China. We see now why Britain and the East India Company are so desperate to sink the Union Jack into Nootka’s soil. Delaney knows this, and he also knows the land is equally desired by the Americans. Nootka is not for sale, he tells a seething Strange & Co., who accuse him of not being a loyal patriot to the crown. On a man like Delaney, whose decade-long journey through the underbelly of colonial activity in Africa has left him scared but awake, their threats aren’t enough to make him budge, and he closes by throwing a dossier of the East India’s own sins, which include rape and plunder, in Strange’s face. Battle lines have indeed been drawn.

A breadcrumb trail of visual hints throughout episode one—the ghosts of slaves, the pervasive presence of the British East India Company’s logo and the ever-changing landscape of borders shown on maps—suggest that major themes throughout Taboo’s eight episodes will include the African slave trade, Occultism, the East India’s many misdeeds, prostitution and, dare we say it, incest. Taboo sets-up all these things to be, well, both totally taboo while also not very taboo at all. If this show’s two major themes are skewering a corporate giant and exploring the gray area of what’s socially acceptable in the British Empire during this period of colonialism, than Taboo may shape up to be a timely, historical drama with parallels to the present. But if it’s just an excuse for Hardy to dole out arcane poetry and skulk around dreary London looking for vengeance, haven’t we seen this story before?

I still have some questions…

— We find out that Delaney’s mother’s real name is Salish, which happens to be the name of the indigenous population in the Nootka Sound region. But, will we soon find out what the deal is with his own middle name, Keziah? According to the Hebrew bible, Keziah was the name of Job’s second daughter, for whatever that’s worth.

— Oh, what the poor meeting room scribe at the East India Company must know. He’s forced to lay down his pen and hear unspeakable things every time a member of the room raises his hand. I want to know what he knows off the record, like what those fucking rumors are that we keep hearing about.

— London’s sanitation department should be notified that the toilet is directly adjacent to the back alley where the soup of the day is being cooked. And during this period in history, physicians did not use gloves during surgeries. I do not approve of either.

— Who left the original two shillings on the dead Delaney’s eyes?

— The teasers for this season show a whole lot of Tom Hardy tattooed and shirtless, but that was nowhere to be found in Epsiode 1. Why?!

And I’ve got a prediction…(In the case I’m wrong, I’ll pay you, oh let’s say two shillings)
*Warning: Don’t read on if knowing the future isn’t your thing* 

— The person who poisoned James’ father was neither Zilpha nor Thoyt, nor anyone else from the East India, but rather his trusted friend and surrogate brother, Brace.

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