I am deathly afraid to speak ill of Taboo, Tom Hardy’s brooding, oozing, muscular sloth of a new FX show, lest Hardy materialize behind me and growl like a wild animal and mumble something unintelligible and rip out my throat with his teeth. This is both the good and the bad news regarding Taboo. It silently bullies you into a reverence it probably doesn’t deserve. Very little happens over a vast-feeling period of time, in the most intimidating way possible. Take a seat. Keep it warm. Shiver. And wait.
Hardy created Taboo, which debuts Tuesday on FX, alongside his author father, Edward “Chips” Hardy, and writer-director Steven Knight, who first hooked up with Tom for 2013’s experimental-nightmare-road-trip drama Locke. The younger Hardy’s inspirations, per a recent Vulture interview, include Sam Peckinpah, Marlow from Heart of Darkness, Hannibal Lecter, Oedipus, Sherlock Holmes, and Klaus Kinski from Aguirre: The Wrath of God. You can hear the dusty, oversize volumes thudding on the table, the corpses thudding into shallow graves. Weighty, mysterious, lascivious. Because you can’t spell Dickensian without sin or, for that matter, dick.
A light comedy, then! Hardy stars as James Keziah Delaney, a prodigal ungentleman badass returning, unexpected and unwanted, to 1814 London upon the death of his madman father. He kicks things off by pocketing the coins covering the corpse’s eyes. James has spent the last decade in Africa, where — it is grimly rumored by everyone, at great length — he got up to Very Bad Things. Unspeakable. Terrible, terrible rumors. James is a time bomb, bound to start casting spells and raising the dead and breaking ships in half with his bare hands and so forth, any time now. Whatever the 19th-century equivalent of Lit is, it’s going to get that, soon. Stick around! Please! Every episode runs nearly an hour, sans commercials, and you feel the visceral impact of every minute, or the lack of same. A slow burn that gives off no light and little heat.
Without hyperbole, Hardy is the only person you can imagine shouldering this load, the only living human who radiates the proper mixture of Prestigious and Brutish. From Bronson to Mad Max: Fury Road to The Revenant, he’s proved himself to be the platonic, nuclear ideal of the strong, silent type, the glowering eye of the storm. This is one of those shows where The Antihero simply walks into a church mid-funeral, hat so large and rakish it might conceal an angry rottweiler (and I wouldn’t rule it out), all broad shoulders and ghastly scars, eliciting immediate double takes, gasps, mass murmuring, practically fainting spells. The same vexing and mortifying question on everyone’s lips: Tom Hardy’s doing TELEVISION?
True, he made a brief but startling cameo last year on the English period gangster drama Peaky Blinders, a true World Series of Closed Captioning moment. But Taboo is all for him, suffused with his deceptive calm and absolute menace. The likely reason to make this a TV show rather than a movie is that now he gets to stew and sneer and lurk and oppress and suppress and slowly boil over for eight hours as opposed to a mere two. In the second episode, you get one of those super-corny scenes where there’s an auction and The Antihero lurks in the back, leaping in with a wildly over-the-top bid at the last possible moment: more gasps, more fearful glances backward, more abject terror. You’d roll your eyes if you weren’t fearful that Hardy might reach out of the television and throttle you unconscious on the spot.
The plot thus far: James’s loonball (and probably murdered) father has bequeathed him the deed to Nootka Sound, a tiny, inhospitable piece of land on the west coast of North America, prized by both England and the United States for its trade-route possibilities during the War of 1812. There is likewise much nefarious meddling from the East India Company, here portrayed, in screenwriter Knight’s words, as “the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA, and the biggest, baddest multinational corporation on earth, all rolled into one self-righteous, religiously motivated monolith.”
Bad guys, then! These suave thugs are led by Sir Stuart Strange, played by Jonathan Pryce, a.k.a. Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow, having just a delightful time terrorizing an interchangeable crew of hapless fops and reeling off F-bombs with vicious aplomb. “What fucking rumors?” he finally demands of an underling taking way too long to explain what makes James such an evil, evil, evil guy. His impatience is ours. These rumors involve cannibalism, incest, witchcraft, necrophilia, whatever. Also, the sinking of a slave ship, which triggers periodic, gnarly, and expensive-looking flashbacks. It’s all still a little vague. OK, a lot vague.
The first episode climaxes with the first of these flashbacks, for want of anything else to climax with. The vibe is Ooooh, Tom Hardy’s gonna fuck shit up, eventually. “You look the same,” someone tells him; “I’m not,” he seethes, gravely. Also: “People who do not know me soon come to understand that I do not have any sense.” Also, while pulling a lady’s wig off: “I like to see what lies beneath.” Also, to a roomful of his father’s angry creditors: “You will form an orderly line.” (They do.) It is not much of a spoiler to report that James eventually receives a nasty knife wound (you should see the other guy), which allows Hardy to enter an even more natural state, wheezing and grunting and staggering around pantsless, crazed and unstoppable.
“Eventually” is the key word there. This is a slog, a symphony of sumptuous grime (helmed, thus far, by Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm, he of The Killing) with few crescendos in the early going. To love this show you have to succumb to the tone, the manly aura, the Mystic Tough Guy sumptuousness. You have to prefer constantly threatened acts of otherworldly violence and depravity to actual depictions of those things. Which sounds great, now that I think about it! It quickly transpires that everyone — the English, the Americans, the East India goons — have reason to want James dead, but for a long spell it seems like everyone’s too shook to actually attempt to assassinate him, which is a pretty rad idea for a Tom Hardy–starring TV show. You’re almost disappointed when something ultraviolent happens — the pace does pick up a bit from the pilot, though that’s not saying much. A couple of episodes of Taboo and you starting doubting that you even want what you’ve been waiting around for.
Hardy’s got some help in staving off boredom, at least. Stephen Graham plays Atticus, a particularly demented-looking lowlife with a map tattooed on his skull and blood splattered all over his face and hands. Michael Kelly has a chilly, volatile turn as an American spy. Most prominently, Oona Chaplin, likewise a Game of Thrones vet (don’t click this), plays James’s sister, Zilpha, pale and tremulous and birdlike and married off to Thorne, a particularly onerous fop who in short order drops both the N-word and the C-word. (James hopefully kicks that guy’s ass, at least.) Her relationship with her brother is, uh, scandalous; surface temerity aside, she looks a lot like Polly Jean Harvey here, and we all know how that turns out.
You can come to like these people, or come to appreciate how readily they make you cringe. That goes quadruple for Hardy, of course: Nobody has turned hulking menace into more of a higher calling, a fine art, an Olympic event. A Shakespearean icon gone MMA. It’s not so much that he carries you through Taboo as he intimidates you so thoroughly that you’re afraid to get up and leave. This show is awfully restrained for a gothic-horror mystery, hinting at vile deeds so unspeakable that all anyone can do is speak about them. Three hours in, the primary emotion it inspires is a weird sort of rapt impatience, but in the end you may prefer that to revulsion. Telling might be better than showing, here; for this show to get any better requires it to also get much, much worse. Tune in or don’t, but you’ll have Hardy to contend with regardless. This show is asking a lot of you. But then again, he’s not asking.