Stop me if you’ve heard about this one.
It’s a period piece. Historical London, not to put too fine a point on it. There’s a big cast with some big names attached, including a lead who primarily acts in movies. It’s moody and gorgeous and cinematic, and it promises mystery, macabre, and magic.
What show are you thinking of?
You’d be forgiven if the first thing you thought of was Penny Dreadful, which wrapped up its three-season run rather suddenly in 2016. I say suddenly because the creator made the decision to end the show halfway through the second season, but he didn’t tell fans because he wanted them to be surprised when they saw the title card announcing “The End” after season three wrapped up.
And we were. We really were. There’s a Penny Dreadful-sized shaped hole in my heart now. When I saw the previews for the Ridley Scott-produced Taboo on FX, I really perked up, because it seemed to promise a period piece set in 1814 London, with a big cast of recognizable faces: Jonathan Pryce (Game of Thrones), Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones), Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire), Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity), and Michael Kelly (House of Cards). And of course, we can’t forget the lead: Tom Hardy, who isn’t often seen on television, at least, not outside of the BBC. It promises political intrigue, but also mayhem, mystery, and perhaps a bit of magic.
No one can blame me for going into this thinking I was going to get something inspired by Penny Dreadful, and there are places in this eight-episode first season where you can see the fingerprints of Showtime’s series. But by and large, Taboo is its own creature, which is a good thing. It didn’t need to be a Penny Dreadful rip-off.
The bad thing, however, is that Taboo is afraid of living up to its own title, and when I’ve seen other shows do what it’s hinting at better, well, let’s just say it skewed my enjoyment of a gorgeous show.
Spoilers to follow. Also sarcasm: if I’m saying something isn’t a stereotype, please know: it’s a stereotype.
From Rotten Tomatoes.com: Set in 1814, Taboo follows James Keziah Delaney, a man who has been to the ends of the earth and comes back irrevocably changed. Believed to be long dead, he returns home to London from Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself. But his father’s legacy is a poisoned chalice, and with enemies lurking in every dark corner, James must navigate increasingly complex territories to avoid his own death sentence. Encircled by conspiracy, murder and betrayal, a dark family mystery unfolds in a combustible tale of love and treachery.
Is it Speculative Fiction or Not?
That’s the million-dollar question. When I first started watching this series, I obviously expected there to be magic and lots of it. The pilot certainly seemed to promise all manner of hints in that regard. But as the show continued, it became clear that whatever supernatural abilities Tom Hardy’s James Delaney possessed, those abilities were not the focal point of the show. In fact, by time season one ended, I had to sit back and ask myself the question I posed above: is this show speculative or not?
Because here’s the thing: if you take out all of the references to voodoo and/or Native American magic — or whatever the hell it is that Delaney is channeling, because seriously, I don’t know — and Delaney’s apparent ability to know what’s happening at all times before it happens, you’re left with a historical drama that fits the above premise pretty nicely. You don’t need the element of magic or dark arts to make this show interesting. The question of how James Delaney comes back from the dead doesn’t have to be magical (and frankly, I’m not sure it’s ever really answered), because the answer can simply be that he just got lucky and survived.
But there’s the very clear and seriously disturbing link between James and his half-sister Zilpha. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to figure out that those two hooked up prior to James leaving for Africa (after all, the show IS called Taboo), and once James returns, he makes it clear he still very much wants to be with her, despite the fact that his sister is married and seems to have a respectable place in society. She beseeches him, at least at first, to leave her be and to keep their secret, but there’s a scene in episode 4 where James is shown casting spells before the fireplace intercut with Zilpha in the throes of passion, except she’s alone in her bed and she’s asleep. She does eventually awake enough to cast off the spell that’s being woven on her, but it’s made clear to the audience that it’s happened before: Delaney uses magic to enter her dreams and they copulate that way.
What is that, if not magic? Oh, wait, that might also be rape, since consent isn’t involved, because when exactly did Zilpha give permission to James to enter her dreams and fuck her?
We’ll talk more about poor, poor Zilpha in a moment.
Because of this, we’re expected to believe that magic is real, but the problem with the show’s treatment of it is that it’s all too easy to write it off as Delany-is-mad-as-a-hatter or at the very least, he’s very smart and very arrogant, which comes off as a kind of prescience that unnerves people.
Yet we’re told, over and over, of the awful, terrible, dark things he learned and did in Africa (because that doesn’t lend itself to harmful stereotypes at all). We also learn that Delaney’s birth mother is not from Naples, but she was actually a Native American woman from Nootka Sound, the territory that’s the heart of the conflict between Delany and the East India Company (which, frankly, is the primary conflict of the show: again, if this were simply a period piece about that and you took out all of the references to magic? I’d be far less grumpy). Perhaps it was just my viewing, but I got the distinct impression that James’ mother Salish had her own brand of magic (because she’s Native American? Not stereotypical at all!) that he somehow learned, but how? She had to have died when he was a baby, because she was committed after she tried to drown him; also, Zilpha is his half-sister, and she’s close in age, so the senior Delaney certainly remarried quickly.
So many questions. Such as, why did this show need magic to begin with, other than to add yet another layer of mystery and to allow Tom Hardy to exercise some acting muscles — and some other very nice muscles for the viewers to admire, given that he spent quite a lot of screen time naked or half-naked while muttering spells — so that his character, James Delaney, could freak people out?
Now that this show has a season two renewal, and it’s clear the surviving cast is heading to Nootka Sound, I’m rather hoping we see magic step into the forefront. Yet given my clear criticisms that the magic feels steeped in stereotype, do I really want that? I don’t know. But I do feel like the show was afraid of its own potential, afraid of what it promised in the premiere, and it didn’t go full Eva Green. I kind of want to see what happens when Tom Hardy goes full Eva Green.
What’s so Taboo About This Show Anyway?
Oh yes, let’s talk about this.
There is a metric crap-ton of amazing television to be consumed. There is also a million different ways to consume it, so I understand that not everyone is necessarily going to be caught up on all the shows, all the time. But one of my bigger problems with Taboo is, as I said in my intro, is that it barely lives up to its own title.
For a show about incest, Taboo dialed it back a notch, and made the brother/sister pairing only a half-brother/half-sister pairing. Sure, that’s still incest, but that’s not the same as the twincest pairing of Jaime and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones. The AV Club actually has an excellent piece about the use of incest between siblings as a storytelling device, discussing and spoiling Penny Dreadful, Game of Thrones, The Originals, Carnivale, and The Borgias.
For a show that talks about cannibalism (rumors abound that Delaney ate human flesh in Africa!) and has Delaney attack an assassin with his teeth, well…do I really need to say it? Hannibal. Hannibal. Hannibal. If you’re going to go there, you’re going to have to do it better than Bryan Fuller did, and, well, I know I’m biased, but… good luck.
And let’s talk about violence, which isn’t really taboo in and of itself but in certain situations actually is: I’ll give Taboo some credit here, because what Delaney does to those who betray him is actually worthy of shows like Hannibal and even The Walking Dead (a show that has pushed its audience past the point of caring when it comes to its level of violence). What we get is sparse but effective, specifically in those final few episodes.
But what about the cross-dressing/transgender character of Godfrey? A clerk for the East India Company by day who dresses up as a woman — and referred to as a molly in the show — by night? My husband and I had some debate whether or not Godfrey was a cross-dresser or transgender, and I’m not sure whether Taboo has given us enough to go on just yet. Godfrey ended the show still dressed in his (or her?) woman’s clothing so I’m leaning towards transgender, and I’m hoping season two will be more telling. And yes, Penny Dreadful did have a transgender character, but I won’t compare, not yet, until I know what direction Taboo is taking with Godfrey. I actually hope, given the severe lack of transgender representation in speculative fiction in particular, that Taboo can do better.
Then there’s the slave narrative, which frankly I don’t feel remotely qualified to discuss, let alone compare. However, I do want to point out that at his captain’s orders, James was forced to participate in the slave trade, and then I think somehow ended up as a slave himself. By the time he makes it back to London, he seems to have a deep-seated hatred of slavery and the East India Company’s part in it. There’s a scene where he discovers the ship he’s purchased was formerly a slave ship, and imagery makes him a victim of it, rather than a perpetrator. Combine this with Zilpha’s husband constantly calling Delaney the n-word, and I’m left wondering why the writers are giving this narrative to a white man (well, a character who can pass for white; his mother is Native American, a fact not actually known in Delaney’s London, and a fact if actually known would be as equally taboo as the incest). Still, there’s appropriation happening here with the slave narrative, as well as the appropriation of magics and symbols that aren’t his (unless, of course, he’s utilizing his mother’s magics, in which case, that’s his birthright) that becomes uncomfortable, and I’m curious as to why the writers are making these particular choices.
Let me be clear: it’s not just that other shows have mostly done what Taboo is doing and they’ve done it better. Combine that fact with this particular viewer, and there simply wasn’t much of a shock factor. I know I don’t represent every viewer, but I know there is a lot of overlap between fans of the shows I’ve mentioned in this post, so there’s something to be said for knowing one’s audience.
But who is Taboo’s target audience? When I first started writing this review, I wanted to show you the trailers for the show so that you could see how Penny Dreadful-ish this show promised to be. Then I watched the trailer and thought, “Why in the hell did I think that?” Perhaps it’s because, having seen the show, I can’t see it as a Penny Dreadful type show if I tried, or maybe it’s because I was grasping at straws from the start.
If the target audience for Taboo is truly viewers who don’t watch a lot of speculative fiction, viewers who don’t watch Game of Thrones or Hannibal or The Walking Dead or Penny Dreadful, then yes, perhaps what this show provides might be shocking.
The problem is that at its core, it’s a historical drama about one man against the East India Company. That’s it. That’s not a bad thing. So why add all of these taboos, to the point that it’s the title of the show? There’s many I didn’t even list, because in this day and age, some taboos don’t even register on my radar. The answer, however, is that I feel like the writers didn’t trust the simple story, or they didn’t trust their audience to stay interested, so they added all this extra as padding. What’s unfortunate is that I think even the writers weren’t that interested in their own mysteries and scandals, and you don’t have to look any further than the treatment of Zilpha to find proof of that disinterest.
We’ve Got to Talk About Zilpha
The treatment of women in Taboo would be its own interesting article, and I think I’ll leave that to a more academic writer than myself. But boy do I have a bone to pick about Zilpha. Let’s talk about how her life is thrown into disarray upon James Delaney’s return:
- She doesn’t get her father’s inheritance.
- Her husband, just upon seeing her brother, turns into a frothing, jealous rage monster.
- Her husband, upon turning into such a monster, starts forcing himself on her.
- And hitting her.
- And brings in a “priest” to perform an “exorcism” that involves strapping Zilpha down to the floor with the “priest” straddling over her, flinging water over her face and chest (as if that isn’t a metaphor for something else) and then groping her breasts.
- I mentioned the whole, “James enters her dreams and has sex with her without her consent” bit, right?
- Her husband decides to spill out her secrets at a large social event and then challenges her half-brother to a duel to the death. After calling him the n-word, a choice that still baffles me and has me wondering about the historical context: did white men really call other white men that word? Really?
Is it any wonder that poor Zilpha snaps and kills her husband? And thinks it was James using their connection to tell her how to do it? If there’s one thing the writers shrewdly made clear, it was that Zilpha was mad, that Delaney didn’t tell her to do it, and that the voice she heard wasn’t his. Let me tell you something: I wish this is where they’d doubled down on the magic instead of madness, because how interesting would it have been if someone else had James’ powers? Or better yet, why did a voice have to tell her how to do it? Why couldn’t she have been empowered to take her husband’s life without whispers in her ear?
At any rate: with the husband gone, Zilpha can finally stopped feeling guilty about sleeping with her brother, so they can fuck and live happily ever after, right? Of course not, because when James finally gets what he wants, he decides he doesn’t want it after all (and I’m wondering, due to the flashes of his mother during the sex scene, if it’s because he realized Zilpha reminded him of his mom, and he realized he really wanted to fuck his mom the whole time and he just couldn’t handle that?), and he leaves Zilpha out in the cold. This, after seven whole episodes of basically saying, “You know you want me; we’re the same person, blah-blah-blah.”
So I can’t say I’m surprised that Zilpha threw herself off a bridge and drowned in the Thames at the beginning of episode 8. Very disappointed, mind you, but not surprised.
I have so many problems with this particular storyline; I don’t think even the writers knew what they wanted to do with it. Oona Chaplin did the best with the material she had, but that material involved her looking wide-eyed, tragic, a bit broody, and later, manic. I think they went with the incest storyline because incest is, of course, taboo, and I’m pretty sure that the dark-haired bastard boy is actually a product of James’ and Zilpha’s youthful transgressions (the show claims the boy is their father’s bastard). What wasted potential: they could’ve developed Zilpha into a worthy partner (which is what they appear to be doing with step-mom Lorna Bow Delaney instead, and I kind of love her). How cool would it have been to have James teach Zilpha the dark arts? Magical siblings coming to fuck up the East India Company? Yes, please!
But that’s not the story we got. Every violence perpetrated against Zilpha felt empty and purposeless: it added nothing to the story and just reinforced the fact that her husband was a horrible person who could not be redeemed and had to die. I suppose he had to be characterized that way for the viewer to be okay with wanting James and Zilpha together? Only the writers didn’t want that either, obviously, so what else can you do with that storyline but nip it in the bud and kill off your female lead?
At least Lorna is still alive. We hope. Maybe James really will get to sleep with his (step) mom in season two.
I’ve been ridiculously hard on this show, and it’s all because of my expectations going into it. If you don’t go in expecting another Penny Dreadful-esque show, if you go in expecting a historical drama with a solid dose of violence/scandal and a decent dose of weird, I think you’ll be okay with content. But bear in mind: the pilot makes a lot of promises regarding the mystical that it simply doesn’t keep. That being said, there is something to be praised: Tom Hardy makes the show utterly watchable, compelling even when he’s doing nothing but grunting at other characters (pay attention, he actually does this quite a bit). Jonathan Pryce as Delaney’s rival Sir Stuart Strange is a delight, and I loved seeing Stephen Graham (formerly of Boardwalk Empire) back on my screen: his Atticus, while horridly difficult to understand, entertained me to no end. I’m also in love with Jessie Buckley’s Lorna Bow Delaney, who has a Billie Piper-esque feel to her and can convey a wealth of mischief with just her eyes and a half-smile. Her role in the finale was one of my favorite things.
Taboo is absolutely beautiful to watch, despite the show delighting in showing us just how ugly London really can be. Leave it to Taboo to take the ugly and make it something cinematically beautiful and gritty. The costuming is absolutely gorgeous. The dialogue can be quite clever, and Tom Hardy isn’t the only actor who really knows how to make those lines sing.
But the story is rather convoluted, and it can be very, very sluggish between the first and last episodes, and for an eight-episode show, that’s rather damning. The first season leaves far more questions in the air than it answers, and I’m not sure whether the writers are promising the answers later, or if they just aren’t interested any more.
The question is whether or not I’ll be watching, and at this venture, I don’t know. A lot depends on how I feel about the show when the second season premieres, whether the trailer catches my eye, and whether reviews indicate an improvement. There’s a good chance I will, given that my expectations are now firmly in place.
Photos from Rotten Tomatoes.com