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“Taboo” is Too Weird and Exploitative to be Non-racist

“Taboo” is Too Weird and Exploitative to be Non-racist

A Scott Free TV production, “Taboo” takes place in London immediately after the war of 1812. It is a time gout, madness, and the gross chains of bondage that will, perhaps, forever prop up both the British and American economies . It also has the aesthetics of a rundown hipster speakeasy. Tattoos, piercings, and top hats -oh my!

However, the team behind “Taboo” get away with the aesthetics. On the surface it may seem silly -but there is rhyme and reason. These characters use tattoos to represent their origins, services, roles. Their modifications is their social mutilations manifest. Fictitious as the portrayal is, “Taboo” does not include body art purely for body art’s sake. It, therefore, also doesn’t detract from the story or casting. A consistent look can be important, yes. While a success at that, “Taboo” still seems to confuse purpose with product in a few ways.   

Casting Tom Hardy Makes a Statement

A lot of guys these days seem to think the real world is nothing but a macabre circus before a quicky with Helen herself. Tom Hardy believes different. The indisputable Laurence Olivier of the 21st century’s depiction of badass, Tom Hardy’s career could have taken several trajectories after Star Trek Nemesis. God knows, however, that the man believes what’s on the outside is different than the inside. Patrick Stewart’s influence? Among others, sure.

Hardy is positing himself, by popular demand, as the everyman’s methuselah. Therein lies his exceptional range. Whatever action hero Hardy portrays he subverts and investigates. All killers are antiheroes -damaged, antagonistic, fueled by compulsions and callous disregard for human emotion, shallow, petty, haunted, warped. These are some of Hardy’s hallmarks, and the reason why his portrayals seem decidedly unlike those of squawking, smart-assed action heroes of yore. Casting Tom Hardy implies the production aims to critique formulaic bullshit, to add new breadth and vivacity to genres that wrongly depend on explosions and penis fencing. And this is exactly what “Taboo” does…to a certain extent.   

There’s Statements and Then There’s Story

Unfortunate, then, that “Taboo” is more an interesting concept than anything else. Hardy’s character, James Delaney, is a psychopath’s psychopath. Son of a banker(?) marooned after a slaving expedition sinks, he spends 10 years in Africa before returning home upon his father’s death. His only other relation is a half sister whom he’s…sexually attached. He’s haunted by waking dreams, nightmares of the men he kept in bondage and abandoned, and is perhaps the most nihilistic antihero ever on TV. The man, his motives, and his methods are all bound up in menace and are brutal to watch. Hardy’s trademark voice, made famous by his portrayal of Bane in Batman, is also in full force.

The basic crux, and what drives the action and drama, is that Delaney inherits a sound of vital strategic importance. Both the East India Company, therefore the British Empire, and the US are after it. Delaney, decked in black and french blue throughout the series, is only out for Delaney. The story, or lack thereof, develops with unflinching scenes that, if anything, value mood over sense. Throughout the series, however, embellishment more and more becomes exaggeration. Think subversive historical critique crossed with a comic con aesthetic and storyteller.

That mentioned, the characters are not caricatures -per say. They are original yet flat. Few develop and most of said development is through…physicality. The always engaging Oona Chaplin as Zilpha Geary, his sister, is all nervous twitches and anxious stares. While novel, even if Game of Thrones did it first, the portrayal of incest in “Taboo” is perhaps the most noteworthy addition to the story. Not, as you might guess, because incest is “in.” Instead, it plugs into the setting and voice perfectly. The addition, far from needless, fully underscores the developing puritanical narcissism of the British imperial age. Sadly, this examination does not…cover the whole of this period.     

“Taboo” takes place in a time of rising cultural awareness and diversity. Both have their origins in Britain’s exploitative practices, yes, but they are nonetheless there. “Taboo” underscores the heinousness of the Atlantic Triangle but fails to look at, or much include, any South Asian, Mediterranean, or Pacific influence. This is unfortunate as it almost underscores the BBC’s vow of denial to use populist narratives when investigating and, yes, soapboxing the ramifications of their 18th and 19th century imperial practices. As if every late 20th and 21st century espionage thriller is a carte blanche affair, right?

“Taboo” Masks Racist Constructs…for Some Reason. Why?  

“Taboo” excels at two things a little too much: being too weird and too exploitative. As much as it seeks to universalize and portray criminal concepts it also mythologizes them. Maybe contrasting hipster fashion of today with its utilitarianism of yesteryears, one of its greatest strengths, is what also takes it too far. Reducing it to a Nu Goth aesthetic convention definitely takes it too far. Worse, though, is the formulaic scapegoating and inward looking metaphors.  

Some Britons who exploited others were doubtless like Delaney or his foil/antagonist -the whole of the British East India Company. Many, though, were opponents to exploitative concepts and honest merchant marines to boot. They felt their consciousnesses threatened by more abusive colleagues, sometimes family members, and voiced their opposition. It is only their contribution that led to abolition in the first place. In turn, it is not just psychopaths and other control freaks, the supposed spawn of Vikings and Normans, who perpetuated British imperialism. It is the system and its neighboring systems -its pressures, realities, and developing sense of modern humanity. People like the phrases  “chevauchee,” “mercantilism,” and “total war.” However, these same people often seem lost on its economic footprint -and implications for each individual benefactor, no matter how insignificant or unfair seeming.     

Worse, there is no narrative take on the injustice that Africans or other natives suffer in the imperial back and forth. They are props for Delaney’s guilt, PSTD, and resultant “nativization.” The attributions of such are also disturbing. Achebe himself constantly felt burdened to showcase the light of Africa -its acceptance of others, its cultures of trust and war, its art and folklore that, in fact, run parallel with totemic creation legends elsewhere. This is what “Taboo” ignores in favor of creepy imagery and grotesque caricatures. The show, for all its good intentions, truly relegates Africa to the darkness and Delaney as its sole confused and damaged possessor. This is the copouts of copouts.

In the End..

And now we arrive full circle: the killer/exploiter/defender, the comorbid disorders and conditions there within, and his portrayal as an action stud throughout the years. Many watching “Taboo” will assume Delaney’s comportment and posturing results from Africa. But does it? His high-pitched wines can easily be stilted language he’s had since birth. His selfishness and nonconformity? Ditto. Was Delaney born capable, and warped to serve Delaney, or did he become capable? Maybe we’ll find out in season 2 -if viewers can stomach it.    

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John Lion

John is a freelance writer with a passion for everything TV. A fan of thrillers and suspense, he also enjoys screwball comedies like Louie and Venture Bros. John has a particular fascination with TV's impact on public awareness and concerns. Email him at johnloeblion@gmail.com.

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