Taboo Shovels and Keys Review
BBC and FX‘s Taboo: Season 1, Episode 1: Shovels and Keys introduced a lead character, James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), that is one of the most strongly realized new TV characters of the 2017 television season. The viewer had little-to-no idea what James Delaney was like before he went to Africa. The man that had returned from those heat-drenched shores, however, had absolutely no fear of physical violence. James walked around London as if he were surrounded by invisible bodyguards. His unspoken bravado said a great deal about his self-confidence and his potential ability to handle himself in a fight.
James was person able to intimidate with his word and his demeanor in Shovels and Keys. When threatened with potential violence by multiple assailants, James’ testicle retort, which he spoke with absolute sincerity and conviction, a.) showed how insignificant the threat against him truly was, and b.) set a tone in the mind of the listener (and the viewer) about who he was and what he was capable of when provoked. Not many people are able to pull that off with a look in their eye and a few sentences. James was one of those people.
When James took part in the East India Trading Company meeting during the third act of Shovels and Keys, it was fascinating that he was surrounded yet quickly took command of the gathering. Information is power and James was fully versed in all available intelligence, both above board (people’s belief that the War of 1812 would end some day) and below it (secret negotiations to end the war were about to commence). The members of the East India Trading Company thought James was as ignorant of the situation as his sister Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) and her husband Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall). They were wrong and it was a wonderful, power-shift moment. James held all the cards and they did not. Whatever dollar amount was in that envelope paled in comparison to what that strip of land (e.g. potentially a major trading port in the coming years) was actually worth.
That meeting shed a brand new light on the East India Trading Company meeting that took place during the first act of Shovels and Keys. The first meeting referenced Horace Delaney (Edward Fox)’s timely death, an indication that Horace’s death was more than convenient and a coincidence. When it was revealed how valuable the land, Nootka Sound, was, it was easy to see how a company like East India (or one of its agents – directly working for the company, someone about to be enriched by East India, or someone seeking to earn East India’s favor) might be motivated to obtain it at all costs.
When poison was found in Horace’s stomach, an additional layer of mystery was added to the show. Who stood to gain by Horace’s death? Who indirectly stood to gain by Horace’s death? Who did the poisoning? Who had enough access to poison Horace? That is the great thing about the entities within Taboo: people and organizations look civilized on the outside but are something else entirely on the inside.
A sexual relationship between James and his sister Zilpha Geary was hinted at during Shovels and Ashes. Many variables led to this substitution: 1.) James said Africa couldn’t cure him of his love for her, 2.) his sister reminded him of her femininity in her first letter, 3.) her third letter implored James that the past should stay buried, 4.) James’ secret brother, whom may actually be his son, a secret love-child by Zilpha. This is all substitution at this point but is tantalizing none-the-less.
Effective world creation was on display from the first moment Shovels and Ashes began. The setting for Taboo‘s narrative was like the backdrop to a dreary painting that no one knew they were trapped in. Music and sound played as accoutrements to what had already been created on-screen, adding to the dark, dank tone of the episode.
Example: Here was the heir to a shipping and alcohol manufacturing entity conversing with the prostitute, Helga (Franka Potente), that took his virginity when he was a teenager. That was the soiled environment birthed of Taboo. James traversed that tepid muck like a skilled land navigator.
Another example: The specters that James saw while waiting for the manner of his father’s death to be revealed. Because of those specters, the viewer realized that James’ hard-as-steel-exterior belied an haunted interior. Also telling was what James told each specter when they appeared – conscience appeasement and a paraphrase of nature vs. nurture. James’ demons and what’s left of his conscience will not be so easily satiated.
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