Season 4 of the Michael Bay produced pirate adventure drama ‘Black Sails’ comes out on 29th January on Starz. Black Sails is a mixture of historical pirates and a fantasy prequel to the events in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The story takes place in the golden age of piracy in Nassau, the heart of piracy in the New World. An amalgamation of fictional characters and historical pirates like Captain Flint, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and the ever famous Long John Silver are dazzling and prominent. With three amazingly produced seasons behind it, Black Sails Season 4 is slated to be its last. But Seasons 1,2 and 3 had some excellent moments that nurtured the show into becoming one of the most underrated bits of television out there today.
People die. But their deaths feel worthwhile and purposeful.
Very few shows manage to capture truly how formidable or macabre certain civilizations were. Vikings does that to some extent, but it humanizes the Norsemen, Anglo-Saxons and Francians by plotting the central theme around religious discord between existing faiths and cultures. Shows like The Walking Dead and True Detective enhance it with pretty much perfect display of the slim symmetry of life and death – there’s never a shortage of on and off-screen deaths. It’s increasingly popular for TV shows to kill off characters for seemingly no discernible reason just to add more plot power to existing characters. In the middle, in accordance with all this, lies Black Sails, which in my opinion, actually gives us a glimpse into the motives and nature of killers and murderers.
There’s no shortage of plundering, pillaging and slaughter in Black Sails. It feels like they did justice to the actual pirates, whose adaptations into rhyme and rhythm have placed them on a sort of mythical pedestal.
Black Sails brings 18th century piracy back down to reality, grounds their intentions with real human emotion, and gives you a sense of why people are slicing each others’ throats and head-stomping them with stumps. Slaughter is a way of survival. Assassination is a means to climb a ladder. The ladders of power themselves are unsettled and shaky in the realm of Nassau, where there is no throne, no ruler, and no system to keep keep these climbers in place. There is no dearth of ambition in the lawless lands of Nassau, but there is power. Lots of power. We see the aspirations of characters like Charles Vane and Captain Flint change throughout the series, but at no point does the story feel like it’s closing in on itself or becoming pointless.
Characters change and grow and so do their ambitions
Character development in most TV shows is linear – each character has an archetype and the decisions they make are based on these unwavering attributes the writers assign to them. A few are different, of course. Don Draper in Mad Men goes full-circle, through the carousel of ambition, madness, failure and back again. The king of character development in modern TV is Walter White from Breaking Bad, who transcends from a tighty-whitey wearing school teacher to a fearsome murdering drug emperor. We root for Walter as the little guy, and then we’re tugging at our heartstrings and battling it out in our brains when we realise his innocence has morphed into an incorrigible thirst for power. Black Sails manages to invoke the same… journey.
We meet John Silver in the very first scene, a two-bit Jack Rackham type who intrigues his way into the lives of deadly and fearsome pirates. The classic good guy protagonist who bumbles along and means no harm to anybody becomes something else entirely by Season 3. You’ll know exactly why he’s called that when you hear the words “Long John Silver” for the very first time in the Season 3 finale. He transmogrifies from a guy trying to weasel his way out of everything into a vicious and fearsome pirate leader, from caring about nothing but survival to caring about nothing but his goal. And it all seems believable because the show does well to tell us what he’s lost in kind to counterbalance what he’s gained in spirit.
We see the same with Captain Flint. His name has always commanded respect in the seas, but his hunt for the Urca de Lima gold and what follows afterwards is a sinuous attachment between devilish self-ambition and genuine martyrdom. At first he’s not in it for Nassau, just himself. Then he’s in it for his girl, and then he’s in it for simply pouring hellfire on those that took everything from him – the Crown of England.
“England is Coming” – There’s a perpetual sense of foreboding from a strong, sleeping enemy.
Pirate attacks in IRL history were savage and unforgiving; slavery, murder, rape, theft, pillaging and sacking entire towns were commonplace in the Golden Age of Piracy, the late 17th and 18th centuries. Most of us (the English speaking world) have either been colonized or descended from England, and so history has a way of writing itself in favour of the victors. Black Sails is the opposite of that.
In Black Sails Season 2, you’ll find people eating each other, plucking out eyeballs and collapsing their own fort for the chance to gain treasure and climb the power ladder. Yet there’s always a sense of a ‘greater being’, a sleeping giant waiting to hurl its fist and wipe out everything you’ve ever known. That giant is the colonial powers of England and Spain, whose ships and resources vastly outnumber anything that the unruled citizens of New Providence Island have to throw at them. England is the ice that’s going to crack, it’s the White Walkers beyond the wall, it’s judgement day before thy kingdom comes, and we know it.
The acting in Black Sails is actually quite amazing.
To me, nothing will ever come close to the moment in Season 1 of Game of Thrones when Charles Dance’s Tywin Lannister is introduced for the very first time. He’s skinning a deer, explaining the importance of dynasty to his son Jaime.
“A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of sheep.”
There are scenes from Black Sails that gives it a run for its money though. Luke Arnold, who plays John Silver truly rises to the level of his character after Season 2. Toby Stephens, who happens to be the son of Maggie Smith (Professor McGonagall), is a treat to watch in his role as Captain Flint. Hannah New as Elanor Guthrie, the overseer of trade and ‘boss’ of Nassau, does the part that her versatile character requires. One of the many things that made Game of Thrones come to life was its perfect casting, and Black Sails replicates that.
“My name is John Silver, and I’ve got a long fucking memory.”
Where Black Sails falls short
Black Sails Season 1 was quite decidedly so-so. The glamour and allure of the free city of Nassau felt lacklustre. They exacerbated this with the forced nudity, over-the-top beatdowns and unnecessary violence that later seasons managed to refine. I’m not against any of these things, but a good TV show manages to convey the reasoning for everything that happens. It felt like the essence of Nassau was lost till later in the series when the characters start introspecting and realise why they’re fighting for this freedom. Once people like Captain Flint, Benjamin Hornigold and Jack Rackham realise this, their actions propagate the show in a new direction. It really feels like the show cultivated itself and unshackled its restraints only Season 2 onwards.
How I’d rate Black Sails, and should you watch Season 4?
Black Sails Season 4 comes out January 29th. For me it’s a definite must watch, but the show isn’t for everybody. If you’re not into historical fiction, or know a bit too much about pirates, you might groan at the inaccuracies and artistic licenses taken with reality. It’s produced by Michael Bay, but trust me when I say it’s not all hot chicks and explosions, although the special effects are mindblowing. Hard to believe, but Black Sails strikes an excellent balance between perverse action, exciting adventure and heartfelt drama. It’s not a show that’s in my “untouchable” tier, where the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Community and Game of Thrones reside. But it’s right below them. And that means it’s a very good spot of television.
You can watch the first 3 Seasons of Black Sails on Netflix (in certain countries) and Season 4 on Starz.