Taboo: Wild British TV, or just really, really silly?

Natalie Wellings /
Feb 9, 2017 / Film & TV

Warning: this article contains minor spoilers

The creation of Steven Knight, Tom Hardy, and his father Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy, Taboo debuted on our screens with all the subtlety of a white supremacist being socked in the face. The opening credits offer us an array of delightful floating corpses – perhaps a living metaphor for how we all felt by the end of 2016. The year affectionately known as ‘shit’ had left us exhausted, all we wanted to do was settle down with a cup of tea and the last of the mince pies and watch a light-hearted period drama. But Taboo. Taboo wasn’t having any of it.

Despite its vibrant themes – the heart of the show lies in the writing. The story is so regularly narrated by character monologue that it becomes a nested tale, which is a big nod to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – something that Hardy has stated was an inspiration for him. So far in the series we have not seen any location outside of London (save for a few brief nondescript tribal sequences), and yet we are regularly spellbound by James Delaney’s descriptions of his sinful past in non-specific ‘Africa’. At times there are distinct feelings of Byronic wuthering and otherness, such as when Delaney recalls to his half-sister Zilpha:

We used to talk to each other without words in dark corners. Your curiosity and hunger for all that is possible out there could never be tethered by base religious morality…”

But Taboo outstrips the brutality of Brontë with its savage violence, heartless copulation and liberal use of the word ‘fuck’ – much to the shock of some viewers who did not believe the word existed in common use in the 19th century. Knight, the mind behind Birmingham-based gangster crime drama Peaky Blinders, marks his abrasive presence within Taboo in the form of one physical altercation after another – a stark contrast to the presentation of the delicate monopolies of the East India Trading Company.

These key ingredients of the show are peppered with continuous allusions to the supernatural and what is probably a generic form of Voodoo worship (based on suggestions from Delaney about what he was ‘taught in Africa’).  As a summary alone this is overwhelming – yet the unreliable position of Delaney as a narrator and the mystery surrounding his character keeps us captivated as we stumble along behind him through the story. This is not a show that will evoke the kinds of emotions we are accustomed to when we experience the womb-like comfort of an Austenian period drama. But alternatively, the unfeeling (sometimes to the point of sociopathic) tendencies of these characters constantly trying to cheat on morality, offers us the cathartic release we’ve been yearning for as Taboo’s political and social upheaval bleakly matches our own.

The show is unapologetic, tenacious and startlingly original. However, no show (in my own opinion) is without its flaws and I believe the flaws of Taboo have the potential to undermine it on a much larger scale. The racial elements of the show are a little more than just undertones – it is established from the beginning that James Delaney is a character of mixed heritage, likely to be Native American based on the description of his mother’s origin of birth in the ‘new world’. Yet, he is portrayed by Tom Hardy, a white actor.

Arguably for some, James Delaney is a ‘white passing’ character meaning his portrayal by a white actor is acceptable. However, I would argue that portraying a non-white character with a white actor seriously undermines the racial and cultural elements that are so deeply entrenched in James Delaney’s character. His mixed heritage is not merely a listed character trait; it is an integral part of his identity within the show – an identity, if misrepresented, is a serious attack on the show’s originality and depth as well as in its own right racially problematic. You don’t need to be an expert in Voodoo worship to understand that there may be some Western bias occurring here as he watch Delaney cast spells and drink the blood of animals – which is unavoidable in some ways, but must we make it quite so obvious?

What is also an issue is that Hardy’s portrayal appears to dull the polarisation felt by Delaney from the rest of the society he associates himself with. I believe this to be the key issue as to why the show sometimes feels self-indulgent. As a character actor it feels at times as though Hardy has shoe-horned himself into his own creation, despite the quality of the acting itself being high. From the beginning we have the meat of Delaney’s character happily served to us, thus it would be beneficial to allow the story to develop of its own accord.

Despite this, I believe that Taboo creates a wonderful balance between lofty political plot and primal, character-driven drama which compliments each level of the world the show creates. Hardy’s portrayal of Delaney is not a bad one, but it’s unfortunate that the cultural and racial elements of the show are dulled by this misrepresentation.

The show so far is captivating and enjoyable, despite the issues with some of the representation. But, that would open up a whole different debate regarding aesthetic accuracy.

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Words by Natalie Wellings

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