Black Sails

A tale set up as a prequel to ‘Treasure Island’, it could be argued that ‘Black Sails’ is probably more of re-imagining of a possible prequel given that some characters and outcomes don’t necessarily tally with what transpires later.

As drama, this excels in the ‘Game of Thrones’ sub-genre that now exists in television.  ‘Game of Thrones’ comparisons abound and as a formula that works there, it really works here.  The competing factions, I think maybe 5 or 6 at any one time all working to their own goals, double-crossing and the shock killing off of major characters.  Very few characters are safe and I think it’s only (Long) John Silver, Billy Bones and Ben Gunn that are really required to be alive at the very end.  They also do that semi-regular thing of having the major shock / upheaval happen in the penultimate rather than last episode with the finale being saved for the cliff-hanger link into the next season. And again, like ‘Game of Thrones’ there is a ton of graphic sex and violence and similarly as the story progresses, there’s less sex and the violence gets much worse!  Understandably, the sex is there to establish relationships between characters (or just to give you a further insight into a character) and as those get established, the need for it becomes less.  Conversely, with this kind of action/adventure, the violent scenes become more graphic as the stakes are set higher and the competing factions become more desperate and ruthless.

As well as portraying many of the characters you see or hear about in ‘Treasure Island’, this show appeals to my love of history in that many historical figures are significant characters in this.  Basically, all the main people that aren’t from the book are historical figures, mainly pirates: Captain Vane, Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny etc.  Though, it should be made clear that ‘Black Sails’ isn’t bound by any historical accuracy so this shouldn’t be taken as too much of a history lesson.

There are some fascinating character studies and without being spoiler-ish, the tracking of the descent of one character from aspiring saviour to despicable villain is devastating and tragic to watch but brilliantly and subtly executed.  However, the true heart of ‘Black Sails’ is the creation of the legends that become Captain Flint and ‘Long’ John Silver.  The dynamic between them shifts from disinterest to irritation to disdain then develops into as close a friendship as two people can possibly get, especially challenging given the environment of deceit, double-crossing and of course, piracy.  The heroes in ‘Black Sails’ are undoubtedly the pirates and the villains are the establishment, particularly the English Government.

Toby Stephens has quickly become one of my favourite actors, I’ve only seen him in this and the superb ‘Lost in Space‘ and based on just those two roles, he excels at the very flawed tough guy that you root for.  I’ve been very impressed also with Zach McGowan in ‘Agents of Shield’ and ‘The 100’ and he plays a very complex role here as Captain Vane, a protege of Blackbeard who’s both ruthless but fiercely loyal, to a fault.

I first saw Luke Roberts in ‘Mile High’ on Sky One back in the day; I really loved his character in that and I was excited to see him come in to this show in seasons 3 & 4.  He really couldn’t be more different in the character of Woodes Rogers, another historical figure (he’s the guy who rescued castaway Alexander Selkirk).  He gives the air of someone wanting to be noble but there’s an underlying fury that as it gets worse, gradually shows that he really is not one of the good guys.

I felt the gender politics were handled sensitively and knowingly without being too 21st Century revisionist about it.  Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie is pretty much in charge of operations at Nassau as the show opens and this is portrayed effortlessly and logically.  The portrayals of the other major female characters, Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max and Clara Paget as Anne Bonny show how the choices they make are essential for them to just stand even a chance of survival.  This is a tough existence for everyone.   Sometimes, it feels like a cop-out is coming where you see something more traditional for one of the female characters but this typically gets subverted and becomes more of an honest depiction.

I was also happy and comforted in the depiction of sexuality in ‘Black Sails’; I honestly don’t know how same-sex relationships were looked upon in this period, I’m guessing not very favourably.  However, the environment of Nassau is far-removed from that of Great Britain with attitudes being more liberal and so the characters seem freer to love whoever they want to.  Same-sex relationships here are viewed as unremarkable and just as valid as the heterosexual relationships and this, I feel, is a refreshing move in high-profile television programming.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 4 season run, if I had to choose a favourite season it would be the second.  Season two marks a significant shift in the story and the motivations of Captain Flint become clear through the use of progressively revealing flashbacks.  Then everything changes in one instant.  A beautiful touch to signify this change comes at the end of that particular episode where the credits are played out using Nick Cave’s haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’; this being the only occurrence in the entire run where a song is used instead of the original score.

Lastly, the production values are stunning and meticulously executed in this show.  Every care, down to the smallest of detail is taken to portray life onboard a pirate ship or in the bustling and dangerous town of Nassau.    Flashbacks to Flints’ life in London are also cast with a drab hue in contrast to the blazing sun of the Caribbean.

This is a powerful story that arcs across the 4 seasons with an all encompassing moral that you really have to strive for happiness in love over the acquisition of money or power.

NetworkStarz (viewed on Amazon Prime Video)
CastToby Stephens, as James McGraw / Captain Flint
Hannah New, as Eleanor Guthrie
Luke Arnold, as ‘Long’ John Silver
Jessica Parker Kennedy, as Max
Tom Hopper, as William ‘Billy Bones’ Manderly
Zach McGowan, as Charles Vane
Toby Schmidt, as Jack Rackham
Clara Paget, as Anne Bonny
Luke Roberts, as Woodes Rogers
SeasonS1 (2014): 8 episodes
S2 (2015): 10 episodes
S3 (2016): 10 episodes
S4 (2017): 10 episodes

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