After seven weeks of dense plotting, indecipherable grunts, and graphic bloodletting, Tom Hardy’s Taboo comes to an end with a surprisingly kinetic – yet unsurprisingly violent – finale that dramatically upends one of the series’ defining characteristics to sail its now significantly reduced motley crew of early 19th century rapscallions far from the shores of England. The eighth episode is a culmination of all the scheming and back channeling being done by Hardy’s James Keziah Delaney as well as Michael Kelly‘s Dumbarton and, of course, Jonathan Pryce’s sleazy Sir Stuart Strange. And while the culmination of plot threads and machinations is born from a simple sketch Hardy produced years ago, the end result is most definitely the product of writer Steven Knight, sharing more than a little storytelling DNA with it period drama cousin Peaky Blinders.
As with Peaky Blinders, Knight’s primary goal in the finale is to turn the storyline’s opacity and its character’s sometimes vague wants into resounding victories of careful, meticulous scheming on the part of the series’ ostensible heroes. The notion of heroism is as questionable in Taboo as it is the other series, if not more so, and Knight has a keen awareness of this fact, which he uses to his advantage in bringing the season full circle. Knowing the lines of heroism are blurred, buried, or completely ignored by the likes of James Delaney, affords Knight a tremendous amount of leeway in terms of what can and cannot be done in order to reach the narrative climax, meaning exploding parcels, gutted and dyed double-agents, and German-born brothel owners cut down on the docks are all fair game.
In Knight’s growing television world, finales are also kind enough to leave the door open for more, but they don’t necessarily push the viewer through to the other side. Peaky Blinders has developed a reputation for dramatic time jumps between installments, which might come in handy for Taboo, considering where the season 1 finale leaves Delaney and what’s left of his comrades after the Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss) calls for his top-hatted head. Having set sail under an American flag – though Delaney says they’re headed for the Azores first – the season 1 finale could easily be the end of the series, but Knight leaves just enough intrigue and dangling plot threads left over to help fuel his intentions for season 2 and beyond. The only question is: Does Taboo need another season?
As is the case sometimes with projects seemingly incapable of escaping the vanity tag, Taboo was occasionally more interesting in concept than in execution. The idea of Tom Hardy stalking the soot-covered streets of 19th century London, dressed in a natty top hat and long black coat that seemingly consisted of several hundred layers of material, in pursuit of answers to his father’s death, is precisely the sort of thing that gets a series greenlit in this era of Peak TV. And yet, even at a mere eight episodes, Taboo felt overlong in some respects. It’s the unfortunate flipside to shows that rely on the obfuscation of certain details in order to deliver a hair-raising finale that the middle section tends to sag considerably. And while the great gunpowder plot that introduced Tom Hollander’s Dr. George Cholmondeley helped (literally) stir the pot and made Dumbarton relevant beyond his faux cholera-infested environs, the downside of all the scheming is that, in the end, the outcome is always more fixated on the plot than the characters.
To its credit, the Taboo finale attempted to assuage this concern by putting as many of the characters – James included – in peril, only to kill or abandon several of them outright. The emphasis was on comeuppance, especially for Stuart Strange and the East India Trading Co., after James successfully bartered for his release from the Tower of London with his intimate knowledge of Strange’s illicit slave-trading exploits that had landed Chichester (Lucien Masmati) on his trail. A little bloodletting goes a long way in convincing the audience that these characters are of greater importance than the twisty plot, hazy allusions to communing with the dead, or any additional otherworldly talents James may have picked up during the time he was presumed deceased, and the finale certainly makes good on that notion by delivering an action-packed culmination that greatly reduces the show’s budget in terms of cast salaries should Taboo continue.
While some of the deaths, like Franka Potente’s Helga, were about as arbitrary as her character, the killing of Strange, as well as his two primary henchmen, Pettifer (Richard Dixon) and Wilton (Leo Bill), offer the season (and the series) a sense of closure that works as an argument for James’ adventures on the high seas, the Azores, or Nootka Sound to be left to the viewers’ imagination. Pryce’s bureaucratic villainy and skillful deployment of frustrated f-bombs will be hard to top should the series continue, and his surprising death, via one of Cholmondeley’s varied explosives, raises the creative bar even higher for any future installment’s antagonist. The same cannot be said for Dumbarton, who, as it turns out was playing both sides – he was an American agent and a company man – and winds up dyed a patriotic red, white, and blue, and hung like one of his flags. Though seemingly crucial to the plot, a Dumbarton-like character might offer a chance at a creative do-over, in an effort to make such off-screen plotting seem less like narrative gamesmanship and more like the inner workings of a legitimately intriguing character.
Still, the final hour of Taboo comes with a welcome sense of finality that heightens the madness of it all in a way that becomes of a piece with the series as a whole. A chapter has been brought to a close, but in doing so also makes what could potentially happen next enticingly new. Knight has already made his intentions for another season clear, and while neither the BBC nor FX have made that official, it would seem, as conclusive as the finale was, there’s more of James Keziah Delaney’s story yet to be told – which will hopefully find a way to focus on Zilpha and whether or not she can ever be free from her half-brother’s life, even in death.
There is something charming about the vanity of shows like Taboo, and how they seem to exist more to gratify the creative impulses of those making them than cravings of those watching. That charm is sometimes equaled by an ability to convincingly generate a desire for more, despite, like so much television right now, having achieved the status of being merely good enough rather than great. Should Taboo get a second season order, that news will be remarkably similar: good but not necessarily great.
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