[Warning: Spoilers ahead]
What to make of James Keziah Delaney? Adventurer, soldier, hard man….. and shaman, master of dark arts, telepath, madman, incubus, cannibal, werewolf? The enigmatic nature of Taboo’s formidable protagonist adds another richly textured layer to a story that’s already pretty bizarre and bewildering.
So let’s attempt to sort out just what the hell’s going on with this guy…
Is Delaney a shaman and/or paranormal?
While editing Taboo, co-creator and star Tom Hardy described his Delaney in an interview with Esquire as “a spiritual, hybrid shaman-cum-cannibal-serial-killer-type thing.” Right then, sorted.
But since then, Hardy has flip-flopped several times in interviews, mirroring what a good mystery should do to an audience – keep us guessing. Is Delaney really a supernatural being? Or is it all in his head, a result of madness or post-traumatic stress disorder?
“He very well may be shamanistic. He very well could have a third eye,” he told IGN. “But he could actually just be damaged.”
“There’s a certain amount of serendipity and slightly odd spiritual coincidence that’s going on [in Taboo],” he tells Indiewire. “There’s a hint toward the supernatural, but there is none.”
True, Delaney is being put through the wringer in Taboo. Not only is he dealing with the fallout from the death of his father, he’s suffering from PTSD because of his involvement in a horrific slave tragedy, and experiencing ghoulish visions of his late mother among a stampede of others.
But sorry Mr Hardy - call it shamanism, voodoo, witchery, whatever you want, it’s undeniable there’s something seriously supernatural going on.
Delaney commits several rituals throughout the season, often in variations of nakedness showing off his tribal tattoos. He performs incantations, spits what looks to be blood into a fire, blows powders into the air, communes with his dead mother in a river while plastered in tribal paint.
And then there’s the mind control that suggests he’s also an incubus, with Delaney invocating a kind of very freaky telepathic sex with half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin). Yes, you read correctly.
When Zilpha tries to distance herself from Delaney when he returns to London after ten years, he tells her: “Then, I will visit you in your dreams, my love.” And then there’s this creepy line that seems to confirm his carnal possession of her: “You feel me, don't you, when I break in? And I could come more often, but I spare you.”
But on this potential supernatural power of Delaney’s, co-creator Steven Knight is also cryptic, pointing to the superstition and belief in the occult that permeated European and American society during Taboo’s 19th century setting.
“When he sees supernatural things happening, maybe it’s just him imagining it. In the reality of Taboo, that’s also real. His connection with Zilpha is real because she buys into it as real,” he tells Entertainment Weekly. “Some people have said that it represents an African voodoo thing. It’s sort of the opposite of that. It’s a very European superstition that was prevalent at the time.”
But Delaney claims his paranormal abilities were honed during his time living with tribespeople in Africa. During his rituals, Delaney often speaks in Twi, an Akin language of Ghana, West Africa, where voodoo is known as vodon.
“After I left England, I thought I was mad,” he tells Zilpha. “But they taught me to use it: now it's a gift".
And the mystical mystique deepens because Delaney’s “gift” appears to have been handed down by his Native American mother Salish (an uncredited actor who looks eerily like Noomi Rapace in thick makeup). Delaney discovers that his late mother, in an astonishing act of extrasensory perception, had carved the very same bird symbol into her fireplace as the one branded on her son’s back when he was held captive in Africa.
It appears Salish is sending her troubled son a message from the grave. The bird is Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol and word from the Akan tribe in Ghana that means “to go back and get it,” with the Akan believing the past will inform the present.
His father Horace (Edward Fox) also seemed to have paranormal gifts, communing with ghosts and telepathically revealing family secrets to Delaney, such as that he bought Salish. “You know things only he and I knew,” Delaney’s astonished butler Brace (David Hayman) tells him.
And it’s not just Delaney who can see dead people - we can too thanks to some subtle flourishes from Taboo’s production team. Get ready to freeze-frame in a game of “Where’s Salish and Horace?”
Verdict: Yes, definitely a shaman, telepath, paranormal, and possible incubus. Or not?
Is he a werewolf and a cannibal?
In an interview with IndieWire, Hardy dropped the tasty morsel that Delaney is “maybe even a werewolf!” It may sound like a crazy idea, but then Taboo’s is a strange world where you can expect anything.
The mysterious Instagram account sonofhorace1814 has got Taboo fans talking with its evocative artwork seemingly offering clues about the story and the nature of Delaney. One image is a grainy close up of a rabid Delaney with fangs, another a sketch of an animal that resembles a werewolf.
Meanwhile, footage in a trailer appears to show a bloody-fanged-and-bearded Delaney roaring into the night, and in one scene in the show Delaney bites a vein out of an attacker’s neck, then gnaws on his spine. But that’s considered more an indication of his much-rumoured cannibalistic tendencies, and a shocking example of his brutally scrappy survival instinct.
But then, in another episode where Delaney is under drug-induced torture and experiencing a disturbing montage of images, one is described in the script as: “James screams, his ‘fangs’ dripping with blood.” Then Hardy teased us again in some portraits for Esquire that depicted him in character with some very healthy fangs.
And could there be a connection to the Algonquin Native American legend of the wendigo? Often represented as an anthropomorphic werewolf, it could possess a human who had practiced cannibalism, making them monstrous in nature. Hardy has confirmed that Delaney was forced to eat human flesh to survive during his time as a soldier, and has namechecked Hannibal Lecter as an inspiration for the character.
There’s also an intriguing parallel in the wendigo legend to the campaign of Taboo’s protagonist against the East India Company to secure Nootka Sound. According to HowStuffWorks, the first wendigo was a warrior who sold his soul to the devil “in exchange for the fearsome skills and stature to outfight his enemy,” and was forever cursed with the desire for human flesh. And Delaney certainly seems to be able to withstand an inordinate amount of brutal physical injury and torture…
Verdict: It’s probably a long shot that Delaney’s a howler, but it’s true he’s engaged in some cannibalism, though unwillingly.
It’s all very confusing isn’t it?
But that’s what makes Taboo so engaging. It may even have you wanting to watch it twice.
Taboo airs Wednesdays at 11:05pm on SBS. The entire first series is streaming now at SBS On Demand: