Taboo (S01E01): “Shovels and Keys”

FX’s latest series Taboo has some impressive star power behind it. Ridley Scott and Tom Hardy not only grab your attention, they also hold the promise of darkly compelling stories in sinister worlds. Taboo’s advertising campaign has been somewhat enigmatic and enticing mystery surrounds the premiere.

Taboo’s first episode, Shovels and Keys, teases a wonderfully dark story with a surprisingly charismatic man of few words at its center. To say the show is weird (Almost frustratingly so) is a bit of an understatement, but Hardy, a strong cast and beautifully gritty world make it work. Though it starts slowly, the story of James Delaney’s journey is a slowly satisfying trek into a seedy world.

I Do Not Have Any Sense

James Delaney (Tom Hardy) returns from the dead to claim a seemingly worthless inheritance of land from his late father in early 19th Century London. Rumors surround the mysterious Delaney but his gruff demeanor offers no answers. His return is far from welcome as half sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin) has a deal for that land with the East India Company. Delaney has returned with bad intentions and secrets no one wants revealed, setting up a fight that could tear London apart.

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Tom Hardy as James Delaney source: Sonar Entertainment

The whole cast is great, but Tom Hardy forms the dark center of the show as Delaney. He brings his trademark magnetism to the rough and intimidating prodigal son. In other hands, Delaney might be an uninteresting brute at the center of a B-movie action flick, but there are layers to the character.

Is Delaney truly mad? His visions of what seems to be a witch and visits from a ghost from his past call the man’s sanity into question. Yet Hardy infuses utter confidence in this man, as it seems as though Delaney embraces his madness. It seems to give him power.

I single out the line, “People who do not know me come to understand that I do not have any sense” because it is the epitome of Delaney’s character. He is the outsider in a “civilized” world that he can barely tolerate. In a masterfully shot scene following his father’s funeral, Delaney has to leave because he can’t stand being around these high society people.

Everyone has two faces in this London. As the head of the East India Company Sir Stuart Strange, Jonathan Pryce is the epitome of this. One moment he is the gregarious and jovial old man at the head of his company and the next he is demanding the “f***ing rumors” about Delaney from one of his subordinates.

On the other side, Delaney has no problem speaking plainly. Throughout the episode, if he isn’t threatening a character, he speaks in strange riddles that poke at them. Granted, he has his secrets just like everyone else, but he has seemingly found freedom in speaking what he sees as the truth. It’s incredibly fun to watch.

The other standout of the cast is Oona Chaplin. For those of you who have seen this episode, that statement may sound like an overstatement; she barely does anything. But she makes the most of her screentime.

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Oona Chaplin as Zilpha source: Sonar Entertainment

The strikingly beautiful Zilpha Geary is introduced in a beautiful sequence where she seems to be the figurehead of her father’s funeral. In fact, much of her time is spent in a somewhat subservient role to her blow hard husband, Thorne (Jefferson Hall). But she may share her half-brother’s disdain for this society, as she subtlety calls out her husband on his “all talk and no action” approach to Delaney. It’s a brief moment, but Chaplin does such a great job of keeping Zilpha within her “role” in this society while also taking a swipe at it.


The show opens with Delaney returning to the outskirts of London, hiding in a hooded cloak. He buries…something…in the fields outside the city, revealing his face for the first time. And finally, he visits his father’s body, saying “Forgive me father, for I have indeed sinned.”

It’s a truly mystifying opening that sets the tone for the rest of Shovels and Keys. And that would be my biggest complain about the show. The first few moments meander to the point where you’re not quite sure where the show is going. Delaney returns and wanders around growling at people. Like I said, it’s entertaining but it feels like those opening moments are aimless.

But as the story unfolds, it draws you in. Tantalizing bits are introduced: Delaney is in love with his half-sister Zilpha…he has a son somewhere…his father’s death may have been more nefarious. And when Delaney’s end game is revealed, it is a truly rewarding scene as all of his machinations suddenly make sense.

Shovels and Keys drops breadcrumbs to what may be interesting plot points down the road. Some pay offs are a little more obvious (I’m pretty sure I know who the mother is to Delaney’s child), but the storylines are teased so well that I am truly looking forward to see what happens.

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Born into darkness or molded by it? source: Sonar Entertainment

The most intriguing mystery are the rumors surrounding Delaney’s disappearance. Despite the annoying baiting cut we get just after Strange demands the truth of the rumors from a subordinate, we want to hear more about what has shaped our darkly charismatic hero. Not only that, the rumors add a possible supernatural aspect to the show.

As mentioned above, Delaney’s sanity is in question…but is it? The visions, his uncanny knowledge of his father’s struggles during his absence, the fact that he and his father can speak the same strange language that is incomprehensible to others…could he really have arcane knowledge of some sort? The answer is probably more down to earth, but it adds an intriguing wrinkle to a period piece.

These supernatural aspects also add a striking visual style to the show. A standout sequence occurs when Delaney is attacked by visions of a dead slave from his sunken slave ship past. Not only is Hardy at his best in this sequence, but the scene is also shot expertly, with jump cuts and crazy visuals indicating either a supernatural presence or the cracks of sanity in Delaney’s mind.

The “real world” of London in 1814 is also recreated in a grimy but cool way. It’s like a Dickens Renaissance Fair with a heavy dose of dirt, blood and grim reality splattered over it. If there is such a thing as film noir in the period piece world, Taboo is probably as close we can get to it.

A New Obsession?

Shovels and Keys introduces us to the world of Taboo in a satisfying way, laying the ground work for an intriguing story of greed and revenge. With any show that relies on mystery to bring viewers back, will Taboo get into a rut of repition or baiting to keep the audience guessing? With only an eight episode run, this probably won’t be a problem, but the meandering opening to the show does raise an eyebrow.

That said, Taboo is definitely a show to watch. Whether you are a fan of period pieces, mysteries, or well acted dramas or even just Tom Hardy, this is definitely worthy of obsession. It should be fun to see the compelling James Delaney growl his way through the high society of London.