Well, it’s January again, and for the third time, we’re welcoming the opening shots of Starz’ bloody, violent, sexy pirate series, Black Sails!
Last season’s overriding theme was that the world the pirates left behind – the world of “law and order” – is not such a nice place. 18th century society was based on position drawn from birth, cash on hand, and complete intolerance of anything the least bit out of the ordinary. (The crowning injustice being the incarceration of one of the characters for the crime of being gay, and the ruination of the character’s family and associates. Actual historical practice would have hanged all participants in the gay sex, so the series’ Death-by-Incarceration-in-a-Brutal-Mental-Institution was actually quite merciful.)
At the end of Season 2, the pirates also realized, to quote the famous pirate associate Benjamin Franklin, “We must all hang together or we will hang separately.” No matter how much the Nassau pirates dislike each other, they must overcome their differences if they are to survive.
Season 3 opens with the problem of repairing Fort Nassau, the repository of the massive haul of gold won from the Spanish ship Urca. With plenty of cash and plenty of booze and women, the working-class pirates just aren’t interested in the hard drudgery of repairing their fortifications.
So, while the mad pirate Flint (the fictional Flint, from Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) sails up and down the east coast of what will someday be the US, murdering any magistrate who dares to hang a pirate, Jack Rackham and Charles Vane (based on real-life pirates of the same names from the Golden Age) try to scare up some labor to repair the fort.
The easy answer is to employ slaves. But they run into a problem or morals. These pirates are fighting for freedom. Is it moral for them to use slaves (captured as cargo on the high seas) to further their own ends? This is when the series is at its best, when the real life personalities and the problems of real pirates come to the fore.
From a historical perspective, there’s a lot wrong with the show. The costumes are far more fantasy than reality (thought the actors look good in them) and the blatant inclusion of fictional characters in an otherwise real world leaves us with some problematic plot twists.
Still, it was possibly a great idea to pitch the show as “All the pirates from Treasure Island are real, and they meet the pirates from history.” The thing is that the real pirates make far more believable characters.
My favorite out of the whole bunch is Charles Vane. I’m not real fond of the historic Vane – he had far too much fun torturing his captives. But the Vane of Black Sails is a different animal – brutal, and sold initially as a cigar smoking, leather pants wearing bad boy, Vane has been revealed as a deep and nuanced character, hopelessly in love with the wrong woman and haunted by his past.
A wide swath of the real pirating world is here – Ben Hornigold, Edward Lowe, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny. This year we’ve also been promised Blackbeard. So far, the part, played by Ray Stevenson with quiet, cultivated control, understated menace and offstage megaviolence. I’m looking for great things from this character, and not in the least because the writers already have a couple of thing right, including that the real Blackbeard was buddies with the real Vane.
Also appearing this season is Woods Rogers, the man who ultimately broke the power of the pirates in Nassau. This incarnation of Rogers (played by Luke Roberts) shows us a golden boy, not quite the same man who historically fumbled his way through life, one step ahead of a series of disasters that might have never started for a luckier or more careful man.
The historic Rogers passed out bibles and religious pamphlets to the pirates of Nassau, who signed the papers to accept the Royal pardons mostly because pirate leader Ben Hornigold told them it was a good idea, and everyone who might have disagreed with Hornigold was too drunk to argue. (Pirates + rum = poor decision making.)
This is the year when we find out if Black Sails will make a serious break from history. With the addition of Stevenson’s fictional characters, anything COULD happen, and I’m hoping that in this version of history, the Nassau bunch maintain their pirate stronghold.
If you can’t get Starz on your TV subscription, the Starz website lets you stream all the episodes for free, starting right back in Season 1, and continuing through the latest release. I will warn you, it’s an intense show, with a lot of gratuitous nudity, blood, and violence – especially against women. But if you’re up for it, the men are handsome (and sometimes naked) the women are beautiful (and often naked) and the production values are first rate.
Try it out and see if you like it.
Or, if you want slightly less megaviolent stories, still based on the real-life pirates of Nassau, try my pirate series The Pirate Empire. It stars a hard-drinking female pirate captain who fights, robs and loves her way through the Caribbean, meeting many of the historic pirates along the way. The Pirate Empire’s three books – Gentlemen and Fortune, Bloody Seas and Storm Season – are available in paperback or as a Kindle download for your instant reading pleasure. Take home a pirate today!
And join me in watching Black Sails Saturday nights on Starz.