Posts Tagged ‘taboo’
Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.
Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.
Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” Chichester gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.
James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.
I did not care for the season finale of Taboo, which I reviewed for Vulture. I did not care for Taboo period, really.
Tonight, Taboo brought the pain.
The climax of the show’s seventh episode is an extended torture sequence in which Coop, the Prince Regent’s right-hand man, puts the screws (and the waterboard, and something that looks like a cheese grater) to James Keziah Delaney. The goal is to extract information about his grand gunpowder scheme: the names of the co-conspirators, the location of the contraband, and most importantly, the identities of the American spies who planned to buy it from him. Perhaps because he has a sack over his head and can’t see the Hostel leftovers the props department gathered for the festivities, James refuses to divulge anything at all. He instead insists that he’ll give the Crown all the info it requires, as long as he’s first given a private meeting with the East India Company’s Sir Stuart Strange right there in the Tower of London.
What follows manages to be both gratuitously gruesome and weirdly weightless. The camera lingers on the torturers, their implements, and their handiwork with sordid glee. Techniques are trotted out one by one: scraping the flesh from Delaney’s leg, waterboarding him Gitmo-style (complete with a supervising doctor to make sure he doesn’t die), and finally securing him in an iron gimp mask, submerging him in water except for a small pipe into his mouth, and forcing him to ingest some kind of hallucinogenic truth serum. It’s not a terribly gory sequence, mind you. It’s just relentlessly unpleasant, an attempt to derive entertainment value from human suffering.
Honestly, I’d be okay with that if it actually succeeded in saying something about suffering. But of course it doesn’t: This is James Keziah Delaney we’re talking about, and he’s far too badass to succumb to torture. (Because that’s how that works, apparently!) A full 12 hours pass before the Prince Regent gets fed up with Coop’s failure and orders the man to procure Sir Stuart for James’s requested meeting. “My God, look at you,” Strange stammers when he sees his foe … for no apparent reason, since Delaney looks no more scarred and filth-encrusted than ever. For a guy who just spent half a day getting worked over, he’s sure taken it well, sitting at a desk as if this were an appointment in his office. Perhaps he’ll include “this whole torture thing was a waste of screen time” in the minutes of the meeting.
Skulking, spying, smuggling, sabotaging, and slaying: These are James Keziah Delaney’s stock in trade, and tonight’s episode of Taboo is all about his tradecraft. As the rogue’s plan to secure a lucrative trading route out from under the rival English, American, and East India Company factions moves forward, the show’s portrayal of his dirty deeds has gotten much clearer and tighter than it used to be, and more entertaining as a result….Unfortunately, many of Taboo’s old troubles — the workmanlike plotting, the half-baked supporting cast, the overreliance on James’s alleged magnetism — are still hanging around.
I reviewed this week’s Taboo for Vulture. Better than it started, still not as good as you’d hope.
Look out, London: There’s a new man in charge. No, not James Keziah Delaney — he’s pretty much doing the same things he always does. I mean behind the camera. Here at the halfway mark of Taboo’s eight-episode run, director Anders Engström takes the reins from Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed the show’s first four installments. It’s not exactly a whole new ballgame, but now it’s much more tempting to stay through the final few innings to see how Taboo ends.
Although he retains cinematographer Mark Patten, who shot all eight episodes, Engström nevertheless brings a new crispness and clarity to the show’s look. Nyholm relied on alternating muddy realism with nightmarish surrealism; the result was a murky mess that offered little in the way of arresting imagery no matter which side of the divide a given scene or shot landed. By contrast, Engstrom makes the muck a little brighter and more fantastical, and gives the dreamlike sequences more solidity, improving the power of both.
Take the early scene in which Delaney returns home from his duel. He and Lorna Bow decide to take their egg breakfast outside, and eat it while sitting on heaps of driftwood, rock, and rotted dockworks covered in lush green moss. A few episodes ago, we’d have seen nothing but mud out there; now everything’s as emerald as a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur. The color palette really makes Lorna’s red dress pop — a scarlet slash across the screen that befits her wild-card spirit and status. A later shot of Delaney riding his white horse across a verdant green landscape takes a similarly striking approach.
Tonight, Taboo lives up to its name. To a fault. As if adhering to some arcane contract it had signed with the East India Company — “Taboo may show all the ultraviolence and sexual assault it desires, but only beginning with episode four” — the show suddenly let loose with an awful torrent of torture, rape, attempted rape, murder, and disembowelment. It’s a bloodbath in a world where no one bathes.
That’s not all: The episode’s nonviolent but otherwise quite eye-melting events include gratuitous sex scenes, gratuitous oral sex scenes, incestuous invisible sex scenes, the large-scale smuggling of prostitute urine, horny aristocrats on nitrous oxide, and a guy who eats not one but two different kinds of animal feces. Peak TV, baby!
Forgot to link to it at the time, but I reviewed last week’s Taboo for Vulture as well. It wasn’t good, which made this week’s somewhat better episode a mildly pleasant surprise.
Appropriately enough, the third episode of Taboo opens with a shot of muck. Already TV’s most dirt-encrusted show by a substantial margin, Steven Knight and Tom Hardy’s period-piece opus reached new levels of physical filthiness in tonight’s go-round. When lead character James Keziah Delaney (played by Hardy) turns to actor Michael Kelly’s American spy for lifesaving surgery, the doc’s teeth are so rotten they’re practically orange. When James staggers home to clean and dress the wound, you can barely see blood beneath the layers of grime. When he unearths a mysterious symbol from the fireplace in his late mother’s room, he winds up looking like he used his own body to sweep the chimney. Like the gag from Monty Python and the Holy Grail about being able to recognize the king simply because “he hasn’t got shit all over him,” Taboo is out to paint the town brown.
Which is not to say it traffics solely in the disgusting. On the contrary, if you’re a fan of Hardy’s thighs — and who isn’t? — there’s much to enjoy here. Whether he’s recuperating from his assassination attempt, wading through his flooded cellar (where the water comes in so frequently, it literally ebbs and flows with the tide), or sitting cross-legged after a nightmarish vision of a crow-cloaked, white-faced sorceress, he seems to do his best work pantsless. Hardy cuts a different figure when he’s wearing nothing but an oversized shirt than he does when he’s striding around London in all-black everything, but it’s fair to say the overall effect is equally impressive.
All due respect to the East India Company, but James Keziah Delaney has a new nemesis in town, and his name is Pius XIII. That’s right: We’re all stars in the Pope Show, and that’s the stage upon which Taboo co-creators Steven Wright and Tom Hardy now find themselves forced to perform. The Young Pope is undoubtedly a love-it-or-leave-it proposition, but it’s also a marvel of artifice and audacity that makes Taboo look positively tame, no matter how many tribal tattoos fit on Hardy’s nude body.
Of course, this second episode of Taboo has more going against it than stiff competition. For all the care put into constructing a convincingly squalid 19th-century London, Knight’s script too often feels like a first draft. For example: “Am I the only one in this company with a brain?” asks malevolent Sir Stuart Strange, after his East India underlings fail to grasp the nuances of his latest monologue. It’s the kind of line that could have been turned into something clever, and thus illustrated the character’s point, if it were given 30 extra seconds of thought.
As of this premiere, Tom Hardy himself is the best thing about Taboo. He’d better be, since he’s pretty much the only thing about Taboo. Everyone and everything else on the show simply reacts to his menacing presence.
What a presence it is, though. Your mileage may vary regarding Hardy’s mumble-mouthed machismo, but I find the way he carries himself a delight to watch. As Delaney, Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away. Call it “brute casual,” a trait that he’s got it in spades, and Taboo allows him to dole it out by the shovelful.
Taboo suffers from the dull, expensive look that’s endemic to prestige TV generally and its period-piece iteration specifically. Director Kristoffer Nyholm, late of the original Danish version of The Killing, captures a few magical moments on the muddy, sun-streaked London riverbank, but beyond that, you could swap entire sets and shots with Penny Dreadful or The Knick or Peaky Blinders and only students of historical fashion would be the wiser. Moreover, the show shares its rich yet sickly “realistic” lighting and color palette with everything from The Night Of to any scene involving gangsters on Marvel’s Netflix shows; you get the sense it looks this way simply because this is how TV shows look now. (I’m no fan of The OA, but how refreshing was it to watch a drama that was brightly lit?) There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Hey look, it’s my first review for Vulture! I’m talkin’ Tom Hardy and the series premiere of Taboo, which I’ll be covering for Vulture all season. (I’m exceedingly proud of that “Hardy saunters across the screen like he’s en route to an ass-kicking contest that starts in ten minutes and it’s a leisurely five-minute walk away” bit.)