Taboo Season 1 Premiere Recap: Buried In A Deeper Grave

Photo: Courtesy of FX.
The opening scene of Taboo serves a very good purpose: It's a signpost of what's to come. On the surface: A hooded man travels through the fog by rowboat to a patch of land, where he digs a hole and buries something we can't quite see. He gets on a white horse and rides to the city in the rain. In a hospital, he greets a corpse, utters something in a foreign language, and, at last, hits everyone with the show's first English line: "Forgive me father, for I have indeed sinned."

What this harbinger says is: If you do not like staring at Tom Hardy's brooding face, turn away now. If you do not like the feeling that a lot of plot will unfold before you understand anything at all, be gone. If you do not like seeing historically accurate dirty people in gloomy historically accurate 1814 London, move along. If you don't love hearing Very Important Sentences delivered like they're lines from Shakespeare, click on over to something else. Those of us who are deeply into all of the above will be quite satisfied.

Next, we meet the dead man's other child, daughter Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) — which, please, trendy parents-to-be, make Zilpha the hot new girls' name soon — and her husband, Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall). They could not look more like uncomfortable, scheming people with something to hide. Befitting their suspicious looks, they refuse to pay the gravediggers an extra shilling to bury her father a little deeper in the ground to thwart thieves.

The funeral is just getting started when in struts James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), who turns the church aisle into a catwalk, modeling his gorgeous trench coat and striking hat, soaking in the hushed whispers of shock that he is back from the dead. He shocks them even more by saying something in a strange language over the grave before smearing red paint on his cheek. At the wake, through the muttering of others, we learn more about the rumors surrounding James — he's been in Africa for 10 years; he's as crazy as his father; he's caught the Africans' "savage" ways because they are contagious through worms? Also, his return to life is messing up the Gearys' plans, whatever they are.

Dad's lawyer Robert Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson) is there — beside a guy stirring pig body parts in a vat, three steps from the place where tavern guests are supposed to pee, so who exactly are the savages here? — to serve up the big plot point: James is his father's sole heir, but all he's heir to is a piece of land called Nootka Sound on the west coast of Canada. Or, for anyone less familiar with geography, "If America were a pig facing England, it is right at the pig's ass." That's okay. James would like to own this "pile of rocks," and also, as he informs his sister, Africa served him incredibly well, so he's not desperate for the cash.

Did Africa serve him well? Not judging by the ghosts he sees all the time. Nor by the stories the old dudes at the East India Company decide to share only off the record (and off camera). Led by Sir Stuart Strange (the great Jonathan Pryce), these fat cats give us the Wikipedia version of James' past. He was sent to join the EIC's private army — this was a real thing, mostly formed for controlling India — but after a few years he became a raving troublemaker and left for Africa on a slave ship that sank. Too bad he didn't die as everyone assumed, because the EIC had been negotiating with Zilpha to buy Nootka Sound. That is also a real place on Vancouver Island, which was the subject of a dispute between the British and the Spanish in the 1790s. It held importance as a fur trading post, and was strategically useful for its proximity to China.

The place has more personal importance for James, as we learn from his conversation with his father's butler Brace (David Hayman), who played with him as a child and now appears to be the only guy he can be himself around. Papa Delaney bought both the land and a wife from the indigenous Nootka people (fact check, they were actually called the Nuu-cha-nulth), in exchange for gunpowder. Is his mother's tongue what he's been speaking? Is she the tortured, painted person in the water he keeps seeing, or is that someone he encountered in Africa? No answers yet. We do get a Very Important declaration of James' plans, though: "I have sworn to do very foolish things."

On his to-do list: Evict Helga's (Franka Potente) brothel from his father's offices. (I hope he decides to keep all those curtains; they really pull the place together.) Get someone to perform an autopsy on his dad (result: arsenic poisoning drove him crazy and killed him!). Pay the rough guy who's raising his father's illegitimate son. Along the way, we get some clues that James isn't just a misunderstood hero; he's got some rather unsavory demons chasing him. Helga implies that her whores wouldn't be safe with him. He's haunted by a dead slave. He flat-out shuns his poor half-brother.

At least he's not as bad as his brother-in-law Geary, who wants to kill him just for being not-quite-Christian. Zilpha turns out to be a bit more opaque, however, as she swings from cowering before her husband in one scene to laughing at his empty threats in the next. Why then, does she insist to James that she's happily married? What's the big secret she wants James to keep "buried in a deeper grave"? Please, let it not be that she and James had some kind of Lannister thing going on.

The highlight of this premiere is James' showdown with the East India Company. I always love a good scene in which stuffy guys realize they've underestimated their target, who shows them just how much homework he's done (James equals Elle Woods). He knows all about the War of 1812, and how the U.S. and Great Britain are working out a peace treaty that will establish the Canadian border. He's not about to fall for their implication that he has some patriotic duty to sell them Nootka Sound. It's delightful to watch his perfect calm make Sir Strange lose it.

What kind of uncivilized methods will the EIC resort to next? Was there some reason James looked so meaningfully at their secretary? If the answers come with more brooding and strutting and clever turns of phrase, I'm so there.

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