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Series / Taboo

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Taboo is a 2017 period drama series airing on BBC One in the United Kingdom and FX Networks in the United States.

The year is 1814, and the War of 1812 is winding down. James Delaney (Tom Hardy), a man who has been missing for 18 years, returns to Britain after the death of his father, and his impending inheritance of Nootka Sound, a strategically valuable strip of land on the western North American coast being sought by the East India Trading Company, the British Crown, and the United States.

The series is produced by Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy, who along with his father, Edward "Chips" Hardy, and Steven Knight created it. Hardy also headlines the cast. Along with Hardy, the series stars Oona Chaplin, David Hayman, and Jonathan Pryce.

A second season was announced in 2019 but is seemingly stuck in Development Hell - Steven Knight has said in interviews that he had hoped to release the second season in 2020, but due to the pandemic and then the cast and crew's other commitments the season might not actually get filming until late 2023/early 2024.

This series provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adipose Rex: The Prince Regent is fat and constantly stuffing his face with sweets. He's also suffering from gout.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Horace Delaney's passing is largely a matter of happy business to many both of the great and the "good" of London, as well as the small and tattered on the dockside. Including his daughter.
  • Animal Motifs: Birds, including the tattoos on James and Winter, Lorna Bow's canary, James' mother in his visions, the marks left by James' mother in the fireplace, the raven feathers on Salish and Zilpha's dresses, and the bird that Zilpha sees before jumping off the bridge.
  • Assassin Outclassin':
    • Delaney turns the tables on an assassin sent by the EITC at the end of the second episode, though it is downplayed in that he doesn't walk away unscathed.
    • And again in the fourth episode, in which Delaney is also injured. This time it's an assassin sent by the Americans, and given his huge size proves to be far more dangerous than the previous one.
  • Anyone Can Die: In season one, that includes Thorne Geary, Winter, Helga, Dumbarton, Pettyfer, Wilton, Sir Stuart Strange, and Zilpha Geary.
  • Bastard Understudy: James makes himself a busy bunny by turning the very knowledge and skills the EIC took pains to teach him when he was being trained (at one point, under Strange himself), apprenticed and then employed by them right back on the Company. They're not taking the fully acknowledged irony of the situation all that well.
  • Bedlam House:
    • James' mother Salish/Anna ended her life in the original Bedlam, Bethlem Royal Hospital. Later used, after being abandoned as a mental hospital, to store James' gunpowder.
    • Bethlem is also where Dr. Dumbarton the American spy has set up, ostensibly to assist in a fake cholera outbreak.
  • Bestiality Is Depraved: James is frequently compared to an animal and called a savage. When Zilpha starts to have very vivid erotic dreams about her brother, he claims that he is using his mixture of American and African native magic to reach out for her. Zilpha asks if he is doing this in the form of an animal because she heard the same from a priest who visited an African mission, which James confirms.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: The entire cast consists of characters who engage in murder, blackmail, theft, and betrayal, and the series has just started. James is capable of loyalty and basic kindness, but he's still a dangerous criminal himself. One of the few unambiguously good characters is George Chichester, since his only goal is getting justice for past crimes rather than any personal gain.
  • Blasphemous Boast: In episode 1, Sir Stuart Strange boasts that the honorable East India Trading Company has more money than god. He acknowledges this is blasphemous, but says it's justified.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Winter's corpse at the end of episode six.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: James and Zilpha once had a taboo sexual relationship, and they still seem to be in love with each other at present. He even starts visiting her in her dreams in animal form (maybe) to have sex. It's later re-consummated for real after she kills her abusive husband.
  • Comforting the Widow: James and Zilpha have sex together immediately after her husband's funeral, whom she killed herself.
  • Coitus Interruptus: Delaney introduces himself to Cholmondeley by deliberately walking in on him during the act.
  • Confessional: Ibbotson confesses his complicity in James's gunpowder plot to the local priest. Subverted since the priest turns out to be on the payroll of the East India Company. Ibbotsen's body is subsequently left behind for the corrupt priest to find.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The EIC board of directors, although most of them sans Strange are also bumbling and incompetent sycophants.
  • Crapsack World: You'd be hard-pressed to find a nastier or more physically disgusting depiction of London outside of the Dung Ages.
  • Create Your Own Villain: It's unclear exactly what the turning point was. But, James went from a loyal Company man to a wrecking-ball targeted at their interests. We've got more than a few hints that the Company itself was the catalyst for the change, possibly by increments.
  • Dark Secret: Godfrey is homosexual and a transvestite, perhaps even an outright transexual. Deliberate Values Dissonance is in effect here, of course, as that kind of thing could easily destroy his life and have him institutionalized with the key thrown away if anybody who cared were to find out.
  • Dead Person Conversation:
    • James has one with Winter in episode seven.
    • He may or may not have had a one-sided one with the "ghosts" (if they aren't hallucinations) of the slaves sunk aboard the Influence in episode one.
  • Death of a Child: Winter is killed at the end of episode six by the East India Company, in order to set James up.
  • Defector from Decadence: James used to be a part of the EIC, but he utterly and completely despises them now. The more we find out, the more cause they give him to continue the hate.
  • Defiled Forever: Thorne has got some disgusting ideas about Zilpha, and claims she "smells of [James]". He's also irate that her Country Matters will not "open" for him, and apologizes for "not being related to [Zilpha]".
  • The Determinator:
    • James Delaney. Has survived at least one shipwreck and two assassination attempts, that we know of. He continues with his obscure quest, allowing only the bare minimum of recuperation. What are his goals? Dunno; but, he's acting like an especially blinkered arrow zooming towards the target — any side-issue social niceties can go hang.
    • George Chichester has been working for years to get an investigation into the sinking of the slave ship Influence.
  • Domestic Abuse: Thorne is one to Zilpha.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The title can refer to several taboo acts that Byronic Hero James Delaney engages in, including incest and cannibalism.
  • Duel to the Death: Thorne Geary and Delaney have one in episode five. Unfortunately for Geary, his second works for the EIC and doesn't load Geary's pistol. Even worse, from Geary's point of view, Delaney declines to fire back.
  • Dung Ages: Essentially this trope applied to the early 1800s rather than the Middle Ages. There may have never been a BBC depiction of London in more nauseating squalor.
  • "Everybody Dies" Ending: The season one finale really racks up the body count, with Wilton, Pettyfer, Helga, Dumbarton, Stuart Strange, possibly Cholmondelay, and, most likely but not for certain Zilpha all bite the dust.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Delaney's horse alerts him to the presence of the assassin in episode four.
  • Excrement Statement: The late Horace Delaney's response to the EIC's offers to buy his shipping company was to sent them some literal horse shit. James carries on the tradition.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The British Crown will eventually gain control of Nootka Sound one way or another, as it and the island of Vancouver are part of the present-day Canadian province of British Columbia.
  • Fingore: Delaney amputates a man's thumb in episode five in order to stop anyone else in his crew from even thinking about betraying him.
  • The Ghost: 'Mr. Madison' is mentioned in passing a few times. Justified in that, well, he's back in the states, fighting a war.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: James has a noticeable scar beneath one eye.
  • Gothic Horror: Definitely has elements of this genre, particularly whenever the supernatural elements come up. Some reviewers have compared it to the films of Hammer Horror.
  • Greed: The MO of The East India Trading Company can be summed up thus-"scam or undercut everybody out of everything for maximum profit". With a dash or eight of Pride over doing it, too.
  • Grave Robbing: During the time period it was an unofficial practice among some medical professionals to perform experiments on recently buried, excavated corpses. After James hires a doctor to perform a post-burial autopsy on his father so he can confirm that the man was killed through poison, the latter makes a sly remark that it would be wise to bury him a bit deeper the second time around. James immediately threatens to kill him and any of his colleagues if the body is desecrated in any way.
  • Guys Smash, Girls Shoot: During the big escape from the Crown's soldiers in episode 8, the men do have muskets, but they also spend a great deal of time using their fists. Helga and Lorna (and an unnamed member of the crew) use pistols.
  • Hate Sink: Thorne Geary is a racist, Domestic Abuser Smug Snake with zero redeeming qualities, and does something (or says something) shitty to somebody else in almost every single scene he's in.
  • Heir Club for Men: It seems that Horace Delaney cut his daughter out of his will in the years preceding his death. Everything he had, he left to his son James, who had been presumed lost at sea or gone "savage" in Africa.
  • Heroic BSoD: Brace enters this state twice. He lies on his bed in a near-catatonic state for hours prior to confessing that he administered a Mercy Kill to Horace Delaney, and in the finale, sits staring, teary-eyed, into space for some time after Delaney leaves him behind.
  • Hiding Behind Religion: Thorne Geary uses his Christianity in order to justify abusing Zilpha.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: We're not quite sure if James is actually a cannibal, but the rumors coming out of his time in Africa certainly raise the possibility. Pettyfer, Thorne, Zilpha, and Atticus all make references to James's supposed cannibalism, and one of the hallmarks of James's kills is taking the heart or internal organs of his victims, which he may or may not eat. In a scene with Atticus, James also refuses to eat pork, which is historically connected with cannibalism (i.e. "To Serve Man's" "long pork").
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Thorne Geary by Zilpha.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: Everyone assumed that Horace Delaney would leave his few remaining assets to his daughter Zilpha. Instead Zilpha is cut out of the will completely, and everything is left to James Delaney, who has been presumed dead for years.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Godfrey mentions that he had been in love with James when they were attending the seminary together.
  • Ironic Name: A case of being true to history. The series makes it plain that there's little noble, let alone ethical or moral, about the Honourable East India Trading Company. Having the ears of both Court, Westminster and, specifically, the Exchequer doesn't make them as great or as good as they sound on paper.
  • Jerkass: Thorne Geary and Sir Stuart Strange stand out. But, very few characters escape a brush with this trope to some degree. Only Winter escapes, really.
  • Lack of Empathy: The guys over at the EIC think nothing of running slaves to the Americas (despite it being abolished in the United Kingdom proper) just to make more money than they already make. When it becomes clear that bribes and flattery won't work, and James refuses to sell his land to them, they openly (and casually) speak about murdering him like it's become a bothersome inconvenience for them. Worse, it's made more than plain that this is just standard operating procedure at work; nothing special. (The only special thing here is how stubbornly immobile James manages to be as a roadblock.)
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Thorne Geary desperately wants an heir, but he can't impregnate Zilpha; he suspects that she's preventing it intentionally, but it's left unclear. She definitely prevents it later on, when she kills Geary.
  • Lecherous Stepparent: There's a degree of sexual tension between Lorna and her stepson James. She had no part in raising him however, given that he only met her after his father's death, and are about the same age anyway.
  • Magical Native American: James's mother was a Native tribeswoman who was sold to his father as part of a deal he made with her tribe. It's implied that she was some sort of witch who passed her affinity with the supernatural on to her son.
  • Man Bites Man: James Delaney kills an assassin by stabbing him back and then biting out the man's throat for good measure.
  • Mass "Oh, Crap!": The general response to James Delaney's unexpected reappearance at his father's funeral.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: There's a level of mysticism in the series that's kept fairly low key, but some things stand out. James knows quite a bit about his father and his mother that, according to Brace, he should have no way of knowing. He claims to have heard his father calling out his confessions on the river bank from across the sea, and that he would answer back. Then there's his visions/hallucinations; first of the drowned slaves in episode one, the hunt in the forest in episodes three and seven, and his mother drowning him as a baby in episode six. He also visits his sister Zilpha in her dreams, which may either be supernatural in nature or the result of Zilpha succumbing to James' mind games. Word of God says that all this is to get across a deep spiritual quality that was very present even in post-"Enlightenment" European cultures.
  • May–December Romance: If the pretty young Lorna is to be believed, this occurred between her and old Horace Delaney in his last years. She then uses her short marriage to him to lay claim to half of James's inheritance.
  • Menacing Stroll: James Keziah Delaney (or perhaps Tom Hardy, if you interpret this stride as the actor's stride) has a very distinct walk and somehow, Tom Hardy makes it look effortless. Delaney feels like a big man and if you look closely, anyone who sees him approach from afar often looks unsettled by it.
  • Mercy Kill: What Brace says was his reason for killing Horace Delaney.
  • Mighty Whitey: A rather vicious deconstruction. James Delaney is a white man who plans to fight the evil EIC after seeing their abuses of the native populations, and has apparently spent a great deal of time learning from and practicing the African traditions, but his Going Native means that people back home in Britain see him at best as a madman and at worst as an agent of the Devil. Not to mention the fact that his motives for fighting the evil colonialists are more about revenge and less about protecting the poor natives, or the fact that James himself is not exactly a nice man.
  • Mistaken for Servant: Sir Stuart initially mistakes George Chichester for a golf caddy. Chichester isn't fazed in the slightest.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: It was never clear whether the associate of Atticus lost his thumb because James really knew he was a traitor, or he was just picked at random to set an example. In either case, he pays back the thumb amputation by turning a blind eye while on guard duty for James' ship, letting the East India Company blow it up.
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Deconstructed and averted:
    • After bribery fails, the EIC try to deal with James by killing him. When this fails repeatedly, Strange is incredulous that his employees can't seem to come up with another solution to the Delaney business other than to just keep on trying.
    • He then makes out a will leaving Nootka Sound to the Americans if he dies, making murder the worst solution for both EIC and the Crown.
    • The Americans (through Dumbarton and Carlsbad) offer to kill Thorne so that James and Zilpha can be together. James seems fine with this plan. However, when Zilpha murders her husband to free herself from his abuse, James is not fine, and believes that the act was a sin.
    • James then refuses Atticus' suggestion to kill Helga, when it becomes obvious Helga will betray them due to the death of Winter.
  • Offing the Offspring: According to Brace, Salish was sent to the asylum after she attempted to drown the infant James in a river.
  • Old Retainer: The Delaneys' servant Brace.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: In episode four, after Delaney receives a blow to the head that should have resulted in a severe concussion, at least. He shows up in the subsequent scene without even a wound. Then again, considering the whispers people share about James, it's possible there are other forces at work protecting him.
  • Only Sane Man: Brace is this for a while until Lorna shows up.
  • Open Secret: James and Zilpha's lingering affection for each other is widely rumored around London and is apparent to all who see them together, including her enraged husband. The Americans even go so far as to offer her as part of their bargain with James for Nootka Sound.
  • The Paragon Always Rebels: Delaney excelled for the first two years apprenticed to the East India Trading Company.
  • Parental Abandonment: Horace had a son that was left to be raised by a family near the docks. James thinks the kid is better off for it. If Robert is, indeed, Horace's son. It's possible he's the child of James and Zilpha. Either way, still abandoned.
  • Pet the Dog: James is a dark character who downright walks the line dividing sympathy from antipathy, at times; but, he has warmer moments that contrast his usual behavior. Nobody in this series is particularly clean, anyways.
    • He pays off all the people his father owed debts to, even though he is not legally obligated to. He simply asks that they form an orderly line when coming to collect what they are owed.
    • He's briefly tender with his old friend Godfrey, which he tries to cover over shortly afterwards by insulting him.
    • He has occasionally exhibited concern for Winter and Lorna.
    • Despite their contentious relationship and constant trading of barbs, he and Brace seem genuinely devoted to each other.
    • He goes out of his way to insist the Ladies leave their meeting place before his arrest, warning them that their club was soon going to be occupied by British soldiers who were likely to inflict horrible violence upon them.
    • Also, he has an actual dog - a vicious hound from the dockside that feeds off dead bodies - who seems to adore him.
  • Precision F-Strike: A favorite tactic of both Strange and the Prince Regent.
  • Pride: The EIC and Strange in particular. He seems almost personally galled that James won't sell him the land that he feels he's entitled to, and angrily demands that James accept his offer for the land, throwing the money in the man's face like he's a spoiled child who's enraged that he's not getting what he wants.
  • Relative Error: Subverted when Lorna Bow sees James Delaney paying a lot of attention to Zilpha during an upper class party they were invited to. The two women later run into each other in the ladies room, and Lorna inquires of Zilpha whether she should consider her a rival for James's affections. Zilpha defiantly states she has no cause to worry since she and James share the same father. The subversion results from the fact that the two half-siblings actually used to be lovers as teenagers and still share a large amount of sexual tension.
  • Revenge: James' implied motivation against The East India Trading Company. He clearly just oozes contempt for them, having witnessed their atrocities and excesses first hand during his time with them.
  • Self-Harm: According to Brace, Horace Delaney was in such despair that he began burning himself.
  • Servile Snarker:
    • Brace does what he's told, but he reserves the right to snark while he's at it.
    • This exchange between Coop and one of the Prince Regent's footmen:
      Coop: How is he this morning?
      Footman: Toe and arse this morning, sir.
      Coop: Oh, God. I know about his toe. What happened to his arse?
      Footman: One can only imagine.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Both Wilton and Pettyfer die this way in the season finale when they're delivering information and/or people to Delaney's men. An ironic version of the trope, as in both cases, they're bringing what the recipients want.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Sir Stuart Strange assumed that Horace Delaney would leave Nootka Sound to his daughter and her husband who would then turn around and sell it to the East India Trading Company. Horace throws the first spanner into the plan by instead leaving everything to his son James. James then wrecks the plan completely by showing up at the funeral and then telling the EITC that he will never sell the land.
    • Lorna Bow disrupts James's plans by showing up with proof that she was married to Horace and that by law, she owns half of James's inheritance.
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: Horace Delaney died because Brace put arsenic in his beer.
  • Tattooed Crook: James Delaney and Atticus, among others.
  • Til Murder Do Us Part: Zilpha finally has enough of her husband's abuse and rape, and stabs him through the heart with a marlin spike.
  • Underwater Kiss: After James is informed of his sister's suicide by jumping into the Thames river, he imagines kissing her corpse one last time in an underwater embrace.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Sir Stuart Strange has one at the end of the fifth episode when he realizes that the Crown has decided to target him directly, not just the EIC.
  • Villainous BSoD: Geary is in this state after his sabotaged duel with Delaney in the fifth episode.
  • Wretched Hive: London is basically this, with the debauched excesses of the aristocracy, the brutal intrigues of warring nations, and the wealth, power, and privilege of amoral corporate executives serving to crush the common people beneath the heels of their masters.