I was never content to run just one blog, so it should come as no surprise that having discovered the world of podcasting, I wanted to try one of my own (in addition to the fun show I do with Lindsay: She’s Married She’s Single).
Today I launched Try This Thing, a recommendation podcast in which I review some of my favorite books, movies, tv shows, and video games. I will usually be choosing things that are outside of mainstream appeal, because we don’t really need one more podcast talking about Avengers.
…Although if I someday create an episode about Avengers, well. I sold out, I don’t care!
Today I released TWO episodes about the things most likely to be on my mind at any given moment: The Lymond Chronicles and Black Sails. Next week I will release the first of a mini-series in which I will try to summarize the plot of Final Fantasy 7. A diversity of interests!
I am rewatching Black Sails with a coworker, and I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the show’s themes and my work with women recovering from sexual exploitation and addictions.
The overarching question of Black Sails is: which is worse, piracy or civilization? History has made pirates into monsters, but the show is determined to make us see that civilization deliberately painted them that way, because civilized people need someone to point to and say: at least I’m not like THEM. To be fair, the pirates often do monstrous things. But civilization did monstrous things as well, only they had the resources to cover them up or blame someone else.
I see a lot of similarities in how the world views women who are prostitutes and/or addicts. It’s unfortunately common to insult or dismiss them, to call them names or use them as examples of The Bad (I’m looking at you, Proverbs). Adding addiction to the mix just makes it easier to alienate people and make monsters out of them. At least we’re not like that, we think.
A while ago, I had a conversation with a friend about fostering. I had always thought the hardest part of fostering would be knowing the relationship was temporary. My friend said that the hardest part was that often you were not just saying goodbye to a child, you were sending it back into a bad situation. I agreed with her, and then on my first day at my new job, I saw the “bad situation” children are sent back to.
On that day, a woman in the program tested positive during our random drug screening. We had to call in her social worker and determine what was to be done with her child. The woman was devastated, angry at herself for letting her addiction get the better of her, furious that she had jeopardized her relationship with her child for the sake of a temporary high. An extraordinary solution was found, and since then I’ve had a lot of one-on-one time with the mother and child. The thing is, she’s a great mother 90% of the time. She’s attentive and loving and protective. And sometimes she gets high and is wholly incapable of caring for her child. I’m not at all advocating that women with addictions should keep their children no matter what. But the story became much more complicated.
Perhaps it sounds silly to equate pirates with addicts, but if you think that then I have to assume you haven’t seen Black Sails. Stories matter, and when we make addicts into monsters, they internalize that role. Both the pirates in a tv show and the women I work with on a daily basis have done some truly horrific and criminal things. But that is not all that they are, and when those are the stories we tell, we erase the goodness in them and the potential for recovery.
So we have to ask ourselves: why do we tell these stories? To hide our worst impulses? To assure ourselves that even though we lost our temper with our kid, at least we didn’t do this? To make our sexual decisions seem better because at least we didn’t do that? To minimize our own selfishness and pettiness and vindictiveness? The thing that Black Sails tells us over and over again is this: civilization and pirates are not all that different. We all have the same dark impulses when pushed into a desperate corner. And if we haven’t yet been pushed into that desperate corner, the least we can do is thank God for our privilege and practice empathy for those that made a bad decision in a bad situation.
Society spins narratives to make sense of the world and our role within it. As someone who has always fared well from those narratives, I haven’t had to question them. But there are women and men who live behind the labels “prostitute” and “addict,” and if we don’t take the time to understand their reality and see them as whole people with stories and contexts and futures, we make them into monsters. And isn’t that a monstrous thing to do?
I have been watching this video several times a week for the last month. It is a fanvid about Black Sails that presents many of the show’s most tragic scenes building in emotional intensity as a woman sings “we live in a beautiful world” louder and louder over the chaos. I have a tendency to start accidentally crying while watching, and while I’m sure a huge amount of the emotional drive comes from being intimately acquainted with these characters, I’m sharing it here anyway.
It is the visual embodiment of my theology.
A couple years ago, I was quite obsessed with the theme of hope found in The Lord of the Rings (especially here and here), and in particular, this quote from The Two Towers:
Sam: It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand, I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.
This was particularly meaningful when I was emotionally preparing to move to Greece and to work in an anti-trafficking organization. It was necessarily personal and a little self-centered. I needed to find MY hope, the hope that would allow ME to choose the scary option and walk forward.
This video about Black Sails? It’s broader. I think it touches me so much right now because there isn’t a personal tragedy I’m working through – instead I am surrounded by other people’s tragedies. Husbands dying, babies dying, hurricanes, white supremacists, mothers with post-partum depression, friends with undiagnosable illnesses, and enough people with anxiety and depression to remind me that for so many people, we live in a scary and overwhelming world.
And…we do. We definitely do. That’s why this video shows scenes of betrayal, heartbreak, violence, fear, and death. But the thing that keeps me obsessed with this show, and with this video in particular, is that in the midst of this awfulness, there is an insistent theme that despite all this, “we live in a beautiful world.”
I think this is the most beautiful thing that Christianity offers. Christianity says yes, this world is broken, and you are guaranteed to bleed when you brush against anyone or anything. But Christianity says that inside that brokenness is beauty. God created the world and it was good. When it was broken it did not become evil, it just became a good thing broken. And a thing that is broken can be fixed, which is exactly what God promises is happening and will someday happen in fullness.
So I cannot help but be overwhelmed by this video. I cannot help but say, in hope, YES to the fact that we live in a beautiful world while watching destruction. There is nothing that inspires me more than staring into something ugly and affirming the beauty that it was, is, and will become. Christianity is a religion of paradoxes, and this is the one that touches me deepest.
The world is horrible, and we live in a beautiful world.
As reported elsewhere, I am currently obsessed with the absolutely amazing (four seasons and finished) television show Black Sails. Run by two women who understand how important it is to overanalyze every character, line, and scene, this podcast became so popular with its episode reviews that the hosts were able to interview actors and actresses from the show! If you love Black Sails, this is the podcast for you. If you don’t love Black Sails, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Go watch it immediately!
A husband and wife duo rewatch awesome 90s and 00s television shows, and since their tastes align with mine, I’m recommending it! Each 45-minute(ish) podcast episode covers three television episodes, so the pace is fast and mostly designed to make you say, “Yeah, that WAS awesome!” So far they’ve covered season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season one of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and they just started watching Firefly!
Mallory Ortberg won me over with The Toast, so when I heard she had an advice podcast, I was in. With rotating guests, she answers written-in questions about all sorts of topics while regularly reminding her listeners that we’re nosy for wanting to listen in on other peoples’ dirt. Which is very true, so keep the episodes coming!
I am about equal parts intrigued by and skeptical of self-help books, and this podcast indulges both impulses with two hosts with very different approaches to the self-help books they read, test, and report on for two weeks. So far I’ve mostly been interested in how they report on the books they didn’t like, though I did fall hard for The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up after they described the joy of a gigantic material purge.
For anyone who is mourning the end of The Road Back to You, never fear! Ian Morgan Cron continues its same format, interviewing someone with a different enneagram type each episode, helping us to learn more about ourselves and others via personality types.
Did I honestly say that I wouldn’t write more about Black Sails after watching the final series of the show? Don’t listen to that idiot from three days ago, she was delusional to think that there wouldn’t be More Feelings to share at the end of it all.
Less than 24 hours after spending a week devouring 38 hour-long episodes, I have a thesis statement for the show: Oppressed people groups are easily villainized, because the only options they have to claim their freedom are so often monstrous. The pirate world we are shown – full of orphans, criminals, lower class men and women, queer men and women, and slaves – all just want to get away from the civilization that abused them. But the only way they can escape is with money, and the only way they can get money is by stealing it. And when “civilization” tries to remind them of their place at the bottom of the world, well, there just might be some bloodshed.
This also leads to one of my absolute favorite parts of this show: it tells the story of history through the eyes of the oppressed. In the 1700s, if you were queer, you either married someone of the opposite sex and pretended you weren’t, or you were put in an insane asylum, or you were hung. In the 1700s, if you were an African in the New World, you were kidnapped and chained and forced to work for men and women who wanted to avoid the cost of hiring laborers. In the 1700s, if you were crippled, you were consigned to begging or relying on the care of your family.
But in the pirate world of Nassau? Queer men and women can be business moguls and pirate captains. African slaves can be princesses and revolutionary leaders. Crippled men can be pirate kings. And working together, they might just threaten to topple the regime that ostracized, shamed, and punished them.
I found this fanvid that perfectly summarizes the beauty of Black Sails. While “We live in a beautiful world” is hauntingly sung, we see all the moments of pain and violence that our beloved characters go through. That contradiction is the core of the show – that horrors must be endured, or even perpetrated, but all in the desperate hope that there is a beautiful world of possibilities and freedom worth fighting for.
I still cannot believe that a Pirate Show chose to make THIS a central premise of their story. Oh my word, Black Sails went so far beyond any of my expectations. If anyone reading this does decide to start watching, please know that season 1 is the equivalent of an M&M: tasty, but whatever. Seasons 2-4 are a 64-oz chocolate bar that will change your world.
Even though I had to watch a lot of it through my fingers…wow. What an astoundingly lovely television series.
I have spent the last week watching the first three seasons (28 episodes) of Black Sails, an impossibly compelling television show that could easily have been just a blood and boobs pirate tale, but instead chose to let its action-packed historical adventure be the foundation upon which discussions of race, gender, sexuality, storytelling, and the nature of mankind could unfold.
I have not interacted with a single person this week and not mentioned the fact that I am watching Black Sails. I successfully converted one friend and stayed up until 2:00 a.m. so that I could text with her while she finished binge-watching the entire first season in one day. I harassed strangers on Twitter so that I could engage with other obsessive fans. Every hour I could not watch the show, I had earbuds in listening to a podcast that analyzes the nuances of each episode so that I could relive past stories while ingesting new ones.
We Get It, You Like Black Sails – But WHY?
This is a show that understands storytelling, which is good, since one of its central themes is the power that a well-told story can wield (like the stories that circulate around pirate captains, transforming and growing so mythical that ships surrender without a fight for fear of a name). This is an intentionally slow-building story that gives us rich characters with myriad motivations who must form and reform political alliances in order to survive and maybe even create a better world.
I cannot summarize the show better than the essay that initially interested me, so here is an introduction to the plot (I recommend reading the whole thing, because they are better writers than me):
Flint [the main character] is violent, charismatic, and obsessively driven to ~save the pirate town of Nassau in the Bahamas. Nassau is run by a merchant’s daughter named Eleanor Guthrie, and she & Flint want the town to remain independent from the British Empire. To do this, they plan to steal an infamous haul of Spanish treasure, the Urca Gold. Other lead characters include real historical pirates like Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, plus Long John Silver and others from Treasure Island, and new fictional characters like Max, who begins her role as a sex worker, and later becomes a political fixer.
Black Sails is ultimately about the struggle over “civilization,” which the British Empire attempts to assert over Nassau and the pirates through slavery, capitalism, and the violent rule of law. The main characters all have different visions of how they can escape this fate through theft, violence, or manipulation. It’s wonderfully well-written from a structural and characterization POV. A perfect balance of machiavellian politics, queer romance, and sea battles.
All the Characters are Flawed and Lovely – Except for You, Dufresne
When we are introduced to our central character, Captain Flint, he is sullen, ruthless, weak, and about to be deposed. And YET, there is never any doubt that this show means for us to love him, despite any and all of the horrible things he will do. His backstory isn’t revealed until the second season, and the agonizing wait to discover just what is driving him to mania results in a beautiful payoff that has an equally long denouement. He is a tragic hero par excellence, and I felt his emotions so deeply that when someone vaguely complimented him I actually burst into tears.
There are so many other wonderful characters, from self-admittedly selfish and clever John Silver (yes, this IS in fact a prequel to Treasure Island) to brutally noble Captain Charles Vane to ambitious businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie to empathetic and brilliant Max to the best pirate couple Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny. It physically pains me to stop the list there, but these are arguably our central characters, and everyone else will be a delight for you to discover.
Other Reasons to Watch
Captain James Flint – I have only put silly pictures of him here because it is nice to see some version of humor at his tragic expense, but mostly because I LOVE HIM VERY MUCH. Toby Stephens gives a phenomenal performance, and there were multiple times that I either pumped my fists in the air at his triumphs or literally clapped my hands in delight when he launched into one of his world-shakingly charismatic speeches.
The ships and the sea and beautiful way they are portrayed – I’m ready to go!
The various relationships displayed, from toxic to uplifting and everything in between. I have never before watched a threesome develop and thought, “Wow, this is the healthiest relationship on television.”
Powerful women! It would be so easy to let a Pirate Show revolve entirely around men, but the showrunners of Black Sails remind viewers that, oh hey, women totally exist too. Whether its giving dignity and ambition to prostitutes at the Nassau brothel, allowing a woman to go toe-to-toe with the pirates and tradesmen, or letting us wonder at the mystery of a silent and deadly pirate queen, this show makes sure it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. None of these women feel anachronistic. Instead, the ambition they are allowed to pursue is indicative of the freedom Nassau offers from the tyranny of “civilization.”
The tyranny of “civilization”! We know pirates are murderous thieves, but Black Sails repeatedly forces its viewers to ask if they are actually any worse than British forces that enslave, bribe, and torture. It is a gorgeously thought out theme that takes us through an emotional roller coaster (the last two episodes of season 2 are especially brutal in this respect and I want to rewatch them fifty times), forcing us to consider uncomfortable philosophical questions.
A thoughtful and empowering story of escaped slaves – although admittedly, I found the treatment of African characters severely wanting in the first season, we are slowly introduced to their world until in season 3 we are literally treated to pirates and escaped slaves teaming up and respecting and defending each other and IT IS BEAUTIFUL.
[A single forewarning: at the top, I did say that Black Sails rises above being just a blood and boobs tale, but there is still a lot of blood and boobs. If explicit violence and sex is not your thing, you may need to let this Stunning Gift pass you by.]
Raise the Sails, Moving Onward
These are my feelings after three seasons, and I still have the final season – ten more episodes – to go. From scanning the Internet with half-closed eyes, I gather that the series ends beautifully and intentionally, so I doubt I’ll feel less in love with it when it’s over. Though I suppose I might find more things to love!
However, I intend for this to be my one and only rec post, because I don’t think I can say anything else with massively spoiling something.
Enjoy Black Sails, and I’m sorry for all the emotional devastation that I have introduced to you!