Taboo Season 1 Episode 1: Shovels and Keys Review

FX is looking to ride the coattail of the popular Game of Thrones with their new historical-fantasy-drama of sorts that premiered this week. Created by Tom Hardy, his father Edward Hardy, Steven Knight, and executive produced by Ridley Scott, Taboo is set in 1814 London. It follows James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a mysterious and unhinged man with many secrets, few fears, and no regrets.

After learning of his father’s illness and ultimate death, Delaney returns to London after spending a decade away in Africa. His return came as a surprise to everyone after he was presumed dead from a sudden shipwreck. Upon his arrival, he learns his father has left him everything, including what remains of his father’s once proud shipping empire, and the rights to a plot of land in the Pacific Northwest. This may seem like a fine gift, but this area of land, known as Nootka Sound, allegedly brings misfortune to whoever holds the deed. Aside from being unexpected, James’ return also threatens the plans of his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) and her husband Thorne (Jefferson Hall), as well as the powerful East India Company, their chairman Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) and his plans for the foreign land.

Besides the political problems James’ arrival has created for others, the character also seems to have brought a fair amount of secrets and baggage back with him. Throughout the episode, he has haunting visions of his time in Africa and his travels aboard an ill-fated slave ship, as well as of a female character thought to be his mother.

In all honesty, it’s hard to know how the season will unfold based off the premiere. The first episode (and presumably the entire season) is full of mystery surrounding the events of this “historical” drama, its characters, and their relationships. Episode one offered very little in plot development or character motivations other than what was absolutely necessary. Most of the extended episode was spent focused on Hardy’s grimy and expressionless face which was impossible to read. Other than his mysterious background, the only thing we can assume is there will be some conflict between Delaney and his powerful high collar counterparts.

Where the story fails to peak interest in the first episode, it makes up for visually. I’m a sucker for period pieces and Taboo is just plain fun to looks at. Director Kristoffer Nyholm has done a phenomenal job portraying early 19th century London, a place not as glamorous as many believe. The dirt and grime is so prevalent you can practically smell the stench through the television. The eerie gray skies and decrepit scenery fit the theme and mood of the show so perfectly it’s hard to not feel yourself being transported back in time. Shoot, if the story falls flat, the show may still be worth watching just because it’s great to look at.

In general, though, Taboo starts extremely slow. It would be one thing if there was a hint of excitement around the corner, but at this point, we know virtually nothing. We know Delaney has dangerous secrets and a haunting past, but I have a feeling we are far from knowing the truth. I have been critical of shows that like to string their audience along in the past. It’s a dangerous game to play because if the reveals at the end don’t live up to the hype, the whole show feels like a letdown, even if it did a lot of things well. People want to feel like their investment in a story was worthwhile which is why you want to satisfy them throughout the season and not just wait until the end. With very little given to us in the first episode, only time will tell if Taboo is a winner. Right now, though, I’m optimistic and can only hope the story catches up to the show’s pretty face.

Score: 7/10

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