Taboo Ending Explained: What’s the Tom Hardy Series All About?

Gothic period drama Taboo on Netflix and BBC iPlayer has a complicated historical plot, lurid characters, mystical freakiness and a frustrating lead. If you have questions, we attempt answers. Spoilers!

Taboo Tom Hardy
Photo: BBC

Warning: contains spoilers for the Taboo finale.

Taboo is a Gothic conspiracy thriller about the evil committed by servants of British Empire, and the story of an enigmatic man with otherworldly abilities. It’s an antidote to the bloodless bonnets-and-quadrille vision of Regency England popularised by Jane Austen adaptations, and swaps that sterile environment for a London filled with grime, debauchery and violence. More than anything though, it’s an eight-episode excuse for Tom Hardy to grunt about in a stovepipe hat. 

Will There Be a Season 2?

Written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, based on an idea by Tom Hardy and his novelist father, Taboo aired in 2017 on BBC One and FX. Despite appearances, it is planned to be a continuing series. Knight confirmed that he’d written six of eight scripts for a second season back in summer 2019, but scheduling issues for its in-demand star stalled progress, an issue later compounded by Covid-19.

In summer 2021, Hardy gave an interview to Esquire questioning whether the already-written linear continuation of the story is “the right way to go.” Might the drama be better off leaping through time and taking place during the 1960s war in Vietnam? “It’s still Taboo, it’s still period, but it’s the Sixties. There’s something fun about that,” Hardy told Esquire, explaining that he’s currently hanging fire on the second season until the perfect idea comes along. Fans await more news with (now slightly lowered) anticipation.

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What’s It About?

Taboo’s first season centred around Hardy’s character James Keziah Delaney, a mysterious man with one foot in the spirit world and the other in the murky puddle of international arms dealing and espionage. James is a Byronic composite of 19th century literary characters – as dangerous as Magwitch, as exotic as Heathcliff, as clever as Sherlock Holmes… and as isolated, scarred, and set on revenge as Frankenstein’s creature. He’s a literal product of colonialism, as the son of an Indigenous Nootka tribeswoman stolen along with her people’s land by James’ British father Horace, agent of The Honourable East India Company (always a red flag, when an organisation feels the need to signal good intent in the name. In this instance, much like McDonalds branding itself ‘The Kind to Cows Company’). James’ mother was understandably driven mad by life in England, and tried to drown James as a baby before being committed to Bedlam asylum, where she died.

James grew up to enrol at the EIC, and went to sea where he was lost in a shipwreck. After a decade of being missing-presumed-dead, he returned to 1814 London for his father’s funeral. He’d come back with three goals: 1) to solve his father’s murder, 2) to expose Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) of the EIC for the illegal transportation and deaths of hundreds of enslaved Africans, and 3) to rekindle his affair with his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).

How Season One Ends

By the finale, James had managed all three and more, and was on a ship sailing for Portugal with a rag-tag crew of ‘Pilgrims’ and 70 barrels of gunpowder. He’d learned that his father had been poisoned, but in an act of mercy by loyal manservant Brace (David Hayman) who’d wanted to save the sinning man’s Christian soul. James had also not only exposed Stuart Strange’s crimes courtesy of lawyer Mr Chichester (Lucian Msamati), but also exploded Strange with a letter bomb. As for Zilpha, she’d killed herself by jumping into the Thames after murdering her abusive husband who tortured her after she had magic dream-sex with James (who’d learned all kinds of spirit-realm tricks during his ten years in Africa), so half a tick for that one.

Before the finale, we’d met American spies, French socialites, hapless mudlarks, a junkie chemist, a sharp-toothed assassin, and the best thing in the whole series – stage actor Lorna Bow (Jessie Buckley). Lorna was Horace Delaney’s secret third wife and therefore James’ step-mother, with whom James had an undeniable frisson, continuing the show’s incest theme. If you reached the end of the series with lingering questions, we attempt answers below…

Taboo Jonathan Pryce

The Sinking of The Influence/Cornwallis

A young James Delaney enlisted with the East India Company in 1798, and was soon selected by EIC chairman Stuart Strange to work on his illicit side-line. (Strange said he chose boys “who had the shadow of death on them” for the task as he thought they’d be less likely to return to England and reveal his secret). For personal profit and against company rules, Strange was using EIC sloop The Cornwallis to transport enslaved African people from Angola to his brother-in-law’s plantation in the West Indies. When The Cornwallis set sail, her identifying flags would be stowed and she would be sailed in disguise as US ship The Influence. In 1804, almost 300 enslaved men, women and children were in the cargo hold of The Cornwallis/Influence when she ran aground and sank. Delaney had followed Strange’s orders to nail the cargo hold shut in order to conceal his secret scheme, which resulted in all of their deaths by drowning.

James escaped the ship and was rescued by a man from Ghana who taught him the Twi language and tribal customs (including, apparently, witchcraft), all of which James used to bolster his reputation as a terrible, cannibalistic, tattooed enigma in a hat upon his return to London.

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Lawyer Mr Chichester suspected Strange’s involvement, and every year on the anniversary of The Influence sinking, petitioned for information on the lives lost. It was only with the sworn testimony of James Delaney and EIC clerk Godfrey (Edward Hogg) – both of whom were on their way to Portugal with Delaney’s other pilgrims at the end of the series – that Chichester finally had the proof he needed to reveal Strange’s villainy to the world.

The East India Company, Prince Regent and Nootka Sound

Stuart Strange and the East India Company were initially suspects in the murder of Horace Delaney, because if James hadn’t returned to England, Horace’s death would have allowed them to take possession of Nootka Sound. This was a territory in the Pacific Northwest Strange described as “a strip of land at the arse of a pig” but which was nonetheless pivotal to the EIC and the Crown in trade and military terms. Horace Delaney had made a treaty with the Nootka tribe and taken possession of their land, which was passed down to his children upon his death. When James Delaney returned from overseas, he refused to sell Nootka Sound to the EIC (who wanted it to import tea) or to cede it to the Crown (who wanted it for military purposes in Britain’s 1812-15 War with the United States) because he wanted exclusive tea importation rights and to get revenge upon Stuart Strange.

Taboo Stephen Graham and Tom Hardy

Wily James recognised that ownership of his mother’s people’s land made him a target of the ruthless EIC and the Prince Regent, so as an insurance policy, he made a will leaving Nootka Sound to the US government in the event of his death. That protected him until the Prince Regent (Mark Gatiss) decided enough was enough, he was going to send troops after Delaney come what may. What came was a battle on Wapping Wall in which the Prince’s men faced Delaney’s (and the explosive concoctions of his junkie chemist Cholmondeley – played by Tom Hollander).

The Tower, Dumbarton and Countess Musgrove

Stuart Strange attempted to get the deed to Nootka Sound through a different route. The Prince’s man Solomon Coop (Jason Watkins) had arrested James on treason charges and tortured him in the Tower of London. James demanded to see Stuart Strange, and threatened him with exposing the truth about The Influence/Cornwallis. To protect himself, Strange struck a deal in which James would be released from the Tower and provided with a ship commandeered by the EIC, in exchange for his silence.

As part of Strange’s deal with James, brothel workers Helga (Franka Potente) and Pearl (Tallulah Haddon) were released from custody. Helga had informed Solomon Coop of James’ gunpowder plot as revenge because he’d been framed for the murder of her daughter Winter. In fact, Winter’s killer was Stuart Strange’s man Pettifer. Atticus (Stephen Graham) shot Pettifer dead and Helga realised James was innocent of Winter’s murder.

Taboo Oona Chaplin Jessie Buckley

When James went to American physician/dyer Dumbarton (Michael Kelly) to collect letters of safe passage as agreed with Strange, Dumbarton demanded an additional price: a transfer of deeds to Nootka Sound. James then exposed Dumbarton as a double agent not only spying for the Americans, but also for the East India Company. James drowned him and displayed his corpse in macabre style, with his head dyed blue and the unsigned Nootka Sound transfer deed pinned to his open chest.

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Meanwhile, following James’ instructions, Lorna Bow visited Countess Musgrove, who was also an American spy – though not the all-powerful ‘Colonnade’ of which there was much talk –  and blackmailed her to secure James’ new ship letters of safe passage.

The Battle of Wapping Wall

It all went down when the Prince’s men stormed the wharf, and a battle ensued in which Helga was shot and killed, Cholmondeley suffered serious burns, Lorna was shot in the arm, and EIC man Wilton (Leo Bill) was killed on Stuart Strange’s orders to maintain his cover-up of The Influence sinking. James and co. (Lorna, Cholmondeley, Atticus, cross-dressing EIC clerk Godfrey who was in love with James, …) then set sail on The Good Hope under the flag of the United States, leaving Brace behind in London with the Delaney house. The Good Hope with all its gunpowder isn’t sailing for America as expected, but for Ponta Delgarda in the Azores, Portugal, where James is going to find the real American intelligence agent ‘Colonnade’.

Taboo season one is available to stream now on Netflix and BBC iPlayer.