Even those of us pitching lean-tos on Taboo Island know that Taboo is a one-man show. Tom Hardy created the FX miniseries with his dad, Chips, and frequent collaborator Steven Knight; he’s in nearly every scene. As his character, James Keziah Delaney, mumbles, grunts, and no-pants-shuffles along, Hardy seems aware that his peculiar magnetism is enough to carry the show. He’s the point.
But hanging any show — even an eight-episode “limited series” — on a single extra-grumbly character is a tough task. Thankfully, Taboo has enlisted a number of high-VORP British character actors to swan in and share Hardy’s burden. In episodes 2 and 3, Mark Gatiss gave a goutish, crumb-spitting performance as Prince Regent; Jonathan Pryce’s East India Co. CEO has been a constant source of piss, vinegar, and delight. (Also, Scroobius Pip — yep, novelty-blog rapper Scroobius Pip — is here, playing Delaney associate French Bill. I don’t know.) But Tuesday’s episode gave us a new entrant into the Taboo Guest Star Hall of Fame, when Tom Hollander showed up as a perma-stoned chemist named Cholmondeley.
Hollander’s character is a plot device: Delaney needs gunpowder, so he finds a chemist who can help him fabricate it — or at the very least help him blow things up in the third-act robbery to come. But Hollander isn’t window dressing. I’m going to say this in the quietest, most reasonable way I can: Cholmondeley is more than off the rails. He’s snorting them.
Here are some things ol’ Chols does in Taboo’s fourth episode, in rough chronological order:
- Wears these glasses:
- Claims that “semen, not ejaculated at the point of passion, turns to poison and narrows the mind.”
- Bites a gold coin to verify its goldness, then sensually licks it.
- Provides nitrous oxide to a party of rich people dressed up as duck hunters and prostitutes dressed as ducks.
- Shows up late and hungover to a meeting with Delaney. Upon arrival, asks, “Where the fuck are we?” and refuses to pay for his cab. Nearly pukes.
- Picks up some manure to test its suitability for use in an explosive. Tastes it, looks disappointed (but not disgusted).
- Picks up pigeon feces to test its suitability for use in an explosive. Tastes it, looks less disappointed.
- Asks, “What about piss?”
- Utters the sentence, “If you mix the pigeon shit and the cow shit at a ratio of around 60–40 in favor of the pigeon — I’d have to do tests — then if you burned all that stack of wood today, you could soak the ash in 50 gallons of human piss and leave it for a minimum of a year, and then, my friend, you would have gunpowder.”
- Sees Delaney at a party and repeats “Hello” 11 times while holding two bagpipes of nitrous.
Taboo knows how to use Hollander perfectly. There’s perhaps no one in the realm better at playing pissed-off bureaucrats: Witness Hollander’s uniformly excellent turns in movies of varying quality like In the Loop, Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation, Valkyrie, and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. But that’s entry-level Hollander. Tier One Hollander. He can play a grumpy government official in his sleep. The really good Hollander is Inebriated Hollander. Drunk Hollander. Characters like Corky, the extra-sozzled hired gun on The Night Manager. Or the British prime minister in Rogue Nation, but only after he takes a tranquilizer dart to the neck and starts slurring his words. And Cholmondeley in Taboo, friends, is Tier Two Hollander: inebriated and endearing, menacing and beguiling.
Taboo is not without its problems. It’s slow. There’s a wildly problematic depiction of an other-ized, mystical Africa. And Delaney’s every other word is basically indecipherable. Tom Hardy needs some help carrying this burly, burdensome operation, is what I’m saying. Tom Hollander is here to give it.