Nobody excels at playing ferocious psychopaths with a sensitive side quite like Tom Hardy. Highlights of his performances from the last ten years include an infamously violent felon with an unexpected passion for drawing in Bronson, a brutal mixed-martial arts fighter estranged from his abusive father in Warrior, and a terrifying supervillain devoted to a small child in The Dark Knight Rises. So John Delaney, the focal character in FX’s new drama Taboo, feels a bit like the apotheosis of Hardyian roles: He’s the distillation of machismo, a terrifying hulk of a man who returns to London seemingly from death, intent on salvaging his father’s squandered shipping business. In one scene, he rips out the jugular of an enemy with his teeth. And, this being a costume drama, he does it all while stalking through cobbled streets in a beaver-fur top hat.
Taboo is infinitely gruesomer than most of the 19th-century dramas that arrive by way of the BBC, but it’s respectably ambitious, and studded with luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic. Hardy, though, does the lion’s share of keeping the audience intrigued, with Delaney coming across as a kind of Regency-era Jason Bourne, equipped with improbable super-strength, maniacal cunning, and a general disdain for the mores even of impolite society. (The show’s title seems to refer to a number of his more subversive habits, including the aforementioned flesh-eating and a sexual relationship with his half-sister.) Hardy’s performance includes a distinctly odd vocal affect that sometimes comes across as half-Bane, half-BBC World Service, but it at least (if unintentionally) provides some moments of levity in an otherwise grim universe.
Delaney as a character was created by Hardy and his father, the writer Edward “Chips” Hardy, and shepherded into existence by Steven Knight, the veteran British writer and director (he created the similarly violent Peaky Blinders, and directed Hardy in the critically acclaimed 2013 drama Locke). In the show’s first episode, he returns to London after an absence of ten years, during which he was presumed dead in Africa. His father, now dead, was apparently an explorer who married a native woman, Delaney’s mother, in Canada, and whose only legacy to his children was a small piece of disputed land on Vancouver Island, Nootka Sound. The central conflict of the show, unlikely as it may seem, becomes Delaney’s attempts to use his ownership of Nootka Sound as a bargaining chip between the East India Company, a trade powerhouse, and the British and American governments, currently embroiled in the War of 1812.
It’s a knotty plot to begin with, tangled further by vague allusions to voodoo, ghosts, and a traumatic incident on a ship that Delaney experiences in abstract flashbacks. Taboo presents the East India Company as a kind of pre-industrial revolution corporate juggernaut, employing espionage, murder, and boardroom threats to further its stranglehold on trade between Britain and the East. This may or may not be historically accurate, but it at least gives Delaney the kind of heartless, all-powerful antagonist his character deserves, led by the marvelously (or Marvel-ously) named Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce). The rest of the cast includes Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss as the Prince Regent, vile, sybaritic, and unrecognizable in a fat suit and layers of pock-marked makeup; Franka Potente as Helga, a brothel-keeper; House of Cards’s Michael Kelly as an American spy masquerading as a surgeon; and Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones) as Delaney’s half-sister, chillingly composed and enigmatic.
Taboo’s locale is the London of Oliver Twist and Jack the Ripper: syphilitic, rank, and stewing with corruption, with the upper classes just as steeped in degradation as the pickpockets and prostitutes working the docks. At times, the mood feels overwhelmingly dour, with so few characters to root for, but at least the contrast sets the cannibalistic, moody Delaney up as more of a hero, using his brains to outwit king and country and his brawn to tear apart the many misguided fools who threaten him.
It would be a better, more persuasive show without all the fuzzy flashes of dark magic and ominous ritual that keep threatening to become part of the larger plot—Delaney frequently mutters to himself in a guttural language and sees visions while looking into the fire, in scenes that mostly feel like clumsy, ill-advised nods to his half-native roots. Taboo would also benefit from the kind of self-awareness that might allow even glimpses of dark humor. But Hardy, always an admirably committed actor, has the magnetism to elevate even the silliest moments, making this an intriguing, if sometimes oppressively moody trip into a sinister underworld.