A figure, hooded and cloaked, stands upright in a rowboat as it creaks across a river. The background is obscured by fog. The scene is a familiar one, its iconography cleverly deployed in the opening moments of Taboo. While it may be a little on the nose, the moment in which we meet James Delaney is one in which he crosses a metaphorical river Styx, ironically making the journey out of supposed death and back to the "life" of Victorian-era London. As such, the show introduces the audience literally to its main character at the same time as it introduces the audiences symbolically to its primary thematic concern. Taboo primarily focuses on the supposed distance existing between man's noble and more savage natures...or more pointedly, it questions whether such a distance actually exists at all.
Crossing the River Styx
Taboo's opening image is a rich one, ably introducing us visually to our main character, while also sneaking in a bit of exposition for good measure. Hardy's James Delaney has returned to London after having been presumed dead in Africa for the better part of the last two decades, his seeming "resurrection" coming in response to the recent death of his father. It's an interesting reversal of the imagery's traditional use, as Hardy takes a journey that mimics a crossing of the River Styx (typically a journey into the afterlife) in his return to "life." Most would consider the journey from Africa to London a return to civilization and proper order, but the opposite is true for James Delaney. Rather, his resurrection is a deeply ironic one: He journeys to a place where he clearly does not belong, his unwillingness to repress himself or his desires flying in stark contrast to the buttoned-up nature of Victorian-era high society. James leaves the familiar life he knew in Africa and crosses his own river Styx into a personal underworld.
What would be for most a return to civility is instead a death-like journey into the unknown for Delaney. After fourteen years in Africa, the proper customs and manners of Victorian society are completely foreign to James, and his desire to conform to them has not returned with him.
Stuart Strange and the East India Company
The first group Delaney bumps up against is the East India Trading company, with boss Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) most directly representing the thin veneer of Victorian-era manners. The members of the East India Company obviously think themselves to be gentlemen of high stature, with Strange going so far as to assert that his position within society gives him the right to malign the name of God with impunity. He is aware of exactly how much power he yields, and his position makes him a de facto example of high class. And yet, for all his posturing, it seems incredibly easy to get Strange to descend into fits of screaming profanity. In fact, he does it at least twice before the end of the first episode, and in doing so shows that Taboo doesn't see much distance between the tendency to angrily act out and the carefully-constructed artifice of nobility that Strange and his ilk hide behind. In fact, as Strange is repeatedly shown to act out when things don't as planned, it becomes clear that the rest of his colleagues are somewhat used to dealing with it.
Delaney's interactions with Strange serve to further highlight that the two men aren't as different from one another as Strange would like to believe. Delaney is a man of few words throughout the entire series, but during his meeting with the East India Company in the first episode, both he and Strange devolve into a series of grunts as they wordlessly argue over whether or not Delaney will open the an envelope. His mere presence is enough to strip Stuart of his noble posturing, and as a result Delaney seems to be able to keep Strange and the East India Company on their back foot for the majority of the series.
Prince Regent & the Crown
Royalty doesn't fare much better in Taboo, with an equally unsubtle (but particularly fun) portrayal of the Prince Regent by Mark Gatiss. This character presents us with the perhaps the show's laziest attempt at subtext, because most of it is just right up there on the screen. The Prince Regent is introduced with expository dialogue telling the audience he's in poor health, and the guy pretty much stuffs his face in the most boorish manner possible any time he shows up onscreen. He constantly gorges himself and has gout, the "rich man's disease."
Perhaps more subtle is the consistent placement of animals in the frame with the Prince Regent. So far he has only been depicted in what appear to be his massive personal chambers, but this limited setting means that everything we see is more or less a direct reflection of the Prince Regent's inner state. The set is dressed sumptuously, which certainly reflects the way someone of the Prince's status would have lived during the Victorian Era, but with its inclusion of a seemingly endless supply of stuffed animals Taboo makes its best about the Prince. He is never depicted as being very physically far from some sort of "exotic beast," and in his first appearance he shares the frame with a full-sized stuffed zebra. Another one of his appearances involves an animal eating in the background, its actions directly mirroring those of the Prince Regent as he confers with one of his closest advisors. Between this and his constant face-stuffery, it becomes clear that Taboo sees little distance between English nobility and the so-called "savage beast."
Among Taboo's richest moments is the duel between James Delaney and his brother-in-law Thorne Geary, which takes place at the opening of Episode 5. Taken on its own, the Victorian-era duel is an incredible presentation of ordered savagery: pettiness and violence hiding just beneath a cursory facade of rules and "honor." At their core, duels were pretty brutal, with two men agreeing that one might possibly kill the other as the result of a perceived offense. With its bizarre and byzantine codes of conduct, old-timey dueling is one of the best ways to explore the way man's more violent nature tends to get a thin spackle of rules and regulations slapped on top of it so we can keep it just out of sight and pretend it doesn't exist.
In fact, worth noting is that as the duel begins, Delaney is the only member of the group to offer any kind of greeting, when everyone arrives at the agreed-upon dueling grounds. His almost cheerful, "Good morning" immediately sets him in contrast to the rest of his stone-faced and somber associates. The rules of the duel are pored over in detail by an officiant...but each character, one by one, rejects at least some part of the rules surrounding the event. Right off the bat, we learn that the duel is to take place on a small island, "owned by a gypsy woman, between two parishes." Not only does this dueling ground literally exist between the borders of civilized society, but its proprietor is of a nomadic people. When it's suggested that custom dictates and exchange of a few shillings for some trinkets, attorney Thoyt is quick to dismiss the idea: "This isn't a fairground."
As the duel proceeds, just about every character involved takes a turn to flaunt the carefully-placed rules of the Code, so they can hurry it up and get to the part where they try to shoot and kill each other. In fact, Thorne specifically angles for this outcome, insisting over the officiant's objection that he and Delaney duel to the death, as opposed to first blood. Delaney shrugs his shoulders at the insistence that he must have a second, simply stating "I don't have one" until one is provided in the form of Lorna...who forwent a boat and waded through the river (something that would have been thought of as incredibly undignified, which is reflected by Thoyt's asking as to why she didn't stay dry "like a normal person") so she could better see two dudes try to murder one another over a disagreement.
Each and every character takes an opportunity to show that when it comes down to it, the rules and order aren't actually that important; we're here to see someone get shot.
THe ghost of james delaney
And finally, we have Taboo's protagonist. James Delaney is Taboo's fascination with humankind's insistence that the rules and regulations are enough to sweep our baser natures under the rug, made flesh and bone. From his introduction, it's made clear that Delaney is a man who walks between worlds, so to speak. He returns to London from Africa, where he was presumed dead, and is referred to as a ghost by more than just one character. His rowboat-style entrance to both London and the show is a clear comment that he's leaving one world and entering another, and at a certain point in the series he kills a guy by straight-up ripping out the other man's jugular with his teeth. James Delaney just does not give a fuck, and in the most animalistic of ways. His ability to remain in touch with his more animal nature, and his readiness to do so stands in perfect contrast to the buttoned-up nature of Victorian English high society and its obsession with manners.
Delaney serves, on repeated occasion, to reveal the base natures of the characters with which he comes into contact. One of the best interactions of this can be seen in his interactions with Stuart Strange and the East India Trading company in the series' earliest couple of episodes, in which Strange is often reduced to grunts, profanity, and bursts of screaming by Delaney's machinations. He also tests the artifice that his sister Zilpha has constructed to conceal her sexual urges, particularly those that she feels for her brother James.
He also shows that savagery and the upper hand are not mutually exclusive. Through his willingness to employ brutal tactics and utilize magic and rituals, Delaney keeps a firm grip on the upper hand throughout the majority of the series. He also expresses disgust and extreme guilt over his involvement with the institution of slavery, and the way his father treated his mother. In the former case, it's easy to understand Delaney's horror at the lack of humanity exposed by his actions. In the latter, Delaney is horrified at his father's attempt to force an indigenous Native American woman into the role of an English Noblewoman, and his commitment of her to a mental institution (a truly horrifying fate at the time, especially for a woman) when she fails to meet his wishes. In both cases, we can see that James Delaney's history with the so-called "civilized" world is one suffused with savagery, cruelty, and inhumanity...all institutionalized and all executed in the name of high society.
As such, James commits himself to a penance of sorts in Africa, where he learns to embrace the so-called "savagery" that is inherent in his humanity. He is now horrified at his participation in slavery, and is disgusted by it and other institutions that society holds deer. These institutions — represented most directly by the Prince Regent/Crown and Stuart Strange/the East India Co. — are seen by the English as providing humankind with order and structure. Delaney, however, sees them as purveyors and perpetuators of cruelty and inhumanity. To Delaney and Taboo, high society and the institutions it holds dear are the true savages of their time.