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‘Taboo’ Knows What You Think of It

And it doesn’t much care

(FX)
(FX)

Taboo concluded its first season Tuesday. The finale was loud and gross and wonderful in all the ways I’ve come to expect and love from this show, but it was slightly different, too: faster-paced than the seven hours that came before it. Funnier. More of the show’s rogues’ gallery of supporting characters got to play; some of the more tiresome elements — the talk of Darkest Africa, the incest — were dropped. But before we talk about the finale, I’d like to spend a minute talking about a moment from the previous episode, because it gets across the self-awareness hiding beneath Taboo’s veneration of the manly and disgusting. It’s a moment that involves what everybody else seemed to hate about Taboo, too. It also explains why they were extremely wrong.

So: Episode 7. It’s night. Tom Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney, hours removed from the realization he may have murdered and disemboweled a child, is at home, drinking his guilt. He’s a mess, even more than is standard for Taboo. George Chichester (Lucian Msamati), investigating the sinking of an East India Company slave ship (and Delaney’s culpability in the matter), shows up at the door. Delaney stares into the distance, and asks him to prove that he’s not one of the ghosts he’s been seeing. You know: standard Taboo hospitality. Chichester asks questions and flings (true, damning) accusations at Delaney. Delaney drinks, grunts some more. He is hammered, friends, and that’s the least of his troubles. Chichester knows this. “Perhaps I should come back during daylight,” he suggests. “No, no, there’s no use,” Delaney replies, staring at a spot somewhere by Chichester’s ear. “I am always like this.”

He is always like this. Ridiculously so! No matter what else is going on with the knotty, 19th-century corporate-thriller plot, or with the thinly drawn supporting cast, Tom Hardy is stalking through it like a metronome with a world-class deadlift regimen. There he goes, uttering inscrutable mysticism. Here he comes, wearing an Engineered Garments spring/summer 2013 shirt (no pants). Look: It’s James Delaney cutting a 7-foot-tall guy’s guts out with a scythe! This show is not treading new ground, and it’s not trying to. Taboo is in every possible way a star vehicle (along with his father, Chips, Hardy invented the character for himself). Toward the end, it finally let us know that the star — and his character — was in on the joke. In the 19th-century London of Taboo, James Delaney’s tunnel vision, his grunting and puppet-master manipulations, are in fact as ridiculous as they look to us. James Delaney knows this. So does Tom Hardy, who can be both vain and self-parodying. This is not a bad thing. Do you know what one of our policies is on Taboo Island? It’s the only one, really: If you don’t want to see Tom Hardy do some stupid shit every week, there’s the boat.

That brings us to Tuesday night’s finale. Delaney is inches from escaping to America with the deed to Nootka Sound, a scrap of land somewhere near present-day Washington state that will ensure him the tea trade in the New World. He’s spent the season pitting his rivals against each other, and it’s all come to a head, and Delaney is imprisoned in the Tower of London, having endured a series of Man in the Iron Mask–indebted torture sessions. So he enlists his pals, the so-called League of the Damned. The first 30 minutes is basically Ocean’s 1814: With a series of letters he wrote before he was sent to the hoosegow, Delaney gathers his gang and spurs them into carefully choreographed action. One letter finds Tom Hollander’s Cholmondeley asleep against a wall, surrounded by naked women (photo altered to preserve your innocence):

(FX)
(FX)

Another spurs Delaney’s tattooed-skull buddy Atticus (Stephen Graham) to do a highway robbery. A third allows Jessie Buckley’s (underutilized, fiery) Lorna Bow, the actress who married Delaney’s father, to pose as a “feminine product” saleswoman and dispense with some next-level triple-entendres for gunpowder while in conversation with a British high-society lady who’s actually an American spy. (“Do you have a beauty product which would bag me an admiral?” she’s asked. “I have a product which would allow you to accommodate an entire fleet without discomfort, admiral and rear admiral,” she replies.) Delaney manages to engineer his own release, and now the gang’s all here. The star vehicle has added like six sidecars.

Doug Stamper, who you forgot was on this show, auditions for the part of Belly Smurf:

(FX)
(FX)

The prince regent, one of his rivals, who looks like this—

(FX)
(FX)

—expresses his feelings about Delaney’s escape. “Due to this monumental balls-up, everyone must hang: East India, Americans, Irish, French, dogs, cats, rabbits, why not,” he tells an aide. The aide dissents; the prince erupts. “Just fucking kill him. Fuck Nootka! Fuck wills! Fuck treaties! I’m the head of fucking state! And by the command of his majesty: kill him.” So he sends his troops after Delaney. And then everything blows up. Literally blows up, I mean, including Cholmondeley, who learns a little too late not to play with explosives. They take casualties, but the bulk of Delaney’s crew makes it onto a ship bound for America and (maybe) Season 2.

It is, on balance, a completely preposterous hour of television. If you were not in on Taboo before this, it will not convert you. If you were in on Taboo before this, well, here is my phone number, but also: You were happy to see these large and violent people collide over and over again without paying too much attention to plot detail, character development, or accent fidelity. Tom Hardy was both unstoppable force and immovable object. I hope you got out of his way.

That, really, is the thing that made this show so much fun. FX certainly wanted you to watch (they’re disappointed in you, by the way — not mad, just disappointed). But Taboo didn’t particularly care if you did. Taboo thought incest was interesting. Taboo thought intestines should spend a lot of time outside the body. These are dumb thoughts to have, whether you’re a person or a TV show. But Taboo also thought that Tom Hardy should get to do whatever the fuck he wanted to for eight hours. On that count, at the very least, Taboo was so, so right.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the child that Delaney may have murdered and disemboweled as his daughter.