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!