The Last Episode of Black Sails
As many of you may know I have spent the last four years reviewing a television show on Starz, which is called Black Sails. It’s about pirates, and DenofGeek.us wanted a pirate expert to lend some historical knowledge into the mix.
I was delighted, and I’ve followed the show for its entire four season run. I’ve watched as the characters run through their story arches; They have been raised up, cast down, and have scrambled back into power. I believe that it’s the best TV show ever made about pirates.
Pirates and TV don’t usually go well together. The classic pirate story is about the quest of r treasure… A full-throated quest for the one big score that will make everyone’s fortune for life. The theme was set by no less writer than Robert Lewis Stevenson, in his classic work, Treasure Island.
The problem is that, once the treasure has been found, there is no reason for the pirates to go on pirating. They can go ahead with their plans to move to London, buy a big house, and ride around in a carriage. Compared to the exciting life of a pirate, it seems like an enormous let-down.
Stevenson “fixed” the problem that he had created by taking the treasure away from the pirates in the end. And then he fixed the problem that was created by that disappointing fact by allowing the villainous and charismatic Long John Silver to escape – probably with a pocket full of gold and gems. I believe that the fascination with what Silver might be up to next is what cements the novel as a classic for the ages.
Black Sails is partially inspired by Colin Woodard’s wonderful non-fiction work, The Republic of Pirates. Woodard makes a brilliant case for the piratical quest, not for riches, but for freedom. This battle gives the show legs… Freedom is never as easy to win as cash, and holding it can be even harder. With this struggle connecting our pirates, the story might go on indefinitely.
Black Sails in a combination of the two images. The central conceit of the show is that the most powerful pirates from Treasure Island exist in the same world as the real-life pirates of Nassau. This is an interesting idea, especially since Captain Flint (his first name is never revealed) has been dead for several years before the novel starts. Flint appears as a nightmare, as a threat, and as the image of a ghost, but no more. Still, his image hovers over the book, and Flint manages to appear in all film versions of the story.
Sliver appears in the book as a hardened, aging man. He is missing a leg, yet his obsession with treasure drives every moment of the plot. Stevenson’s quote, “All men feared Flint, and Flint feared Silver” speaks volumes about a hard-driving cripple who was willing to rule form behind the throne.
The TV series is set in piracy’s Golden Age, some twenty years before the actions of the book. This pits them against such characters as Charles Vane, Ben Hornigold, and the historic Blackbeard. It also places them on the island of Nassau, center of what was trying to be a pirate kingdom.
Backing up this cast has been a bevy of background characters. Early on, we saw Dutch, English, Chinese and African pirates, working together in what looks like harmony. Ruling over them - in a fashion – are the Guthrie family. (The actual name of a merchant clan who made a fortune fencing pirate cargo and selling powder, shot and run in return.
Flint is Captain of the Walrus, a fantasy-huge pirate ship, run by terror and blood.
Onto the ship come John Silver, a man being transported in bondage via merchant ship. Who is he and where is he from? We don’t know, but he signs on with the pirates, as any desperate soul might do.
Flint, in this incarnation of pirate myth and legend, is the man bent on creating a free pirate nation. He is the driving force of the action – most of the other pirates want only a share of personal power, or money, or rum, or love.
The show has been far from perfect. In order to follow the rules of TV – weekly involvement of all the characters, regular cliffhangers, and a plot that’s always clear enough for the audience to follow, the writers have, on many, many occasions said “No one will notice.” Well, we have noticed. We noticed when, just because the writers had to waste a night for the sake of the timeline, it takes Flint and his band of cut-throats an entire night to get past a locked door.
Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham murder most of their own crew, for no good reason, and end up facing the consequences. Several characters appear to be immortal, surviving beatings that should have killed 18th century people with no access to surgery or antibiotics. One fellow even, literally, rises form the dead.
Yet the show has had many marvelous moments as well. The costumes have been good, sometimes brilliant. Background details, from old buildings slowly decaying into the jungle to period-appropriate rum bottles to the clean blue sea surrounding Nassau are better than good. Shots of characters moving through the darkness, waiting in fog, talking by candle light, are beautiful beyond description. Sometimes, amidst the smoke and broken building, I thought I saw the Pirate Republic.
So now it’s almost over. Stupid in places, brilliant in others, Black Sails has managed to line up what looks like a very strong finale. Friendship, grief, honor, ambition, lust, ships, loyalty, blood, and love are on the line. Oh, and a whole lot of money, neatly squirreled away in a single huge chest. All on a spooky island, that no is quite sure of how to reach.
Yes, it’s going to be good. April 2nd, 2017 is the fateful day. If you haven't been watching - Yes, you can catch up with it on the Starz site. And if you like, it’s also available on DVD.
Long live pirates!