Out of the gate, Starz’ fledgling pirate drama didn’t immediately register as having the intangible “it” factor of a truly great show. Much like Showtime’s debuting series Penny Dreadful, which also ran for only eight episodes the same year, it was a solid, slickly made piece of pulpy entertainment based on classic genre adventures, but nevertheless seemed to have been missing that certain... something. But flash forward a year later to its amazing sophomore outing and it has surprisingly and quite quickly become my favorite show on TV not called Game of Thrones.
Why? Let me count the ways...
Why? Let me count the ways...
Following in the footsteps of Starz’ own Spartacus or HBO’s Deadwood, Black Sails combines a heavily fictionalized element with a broader series of real life events and figures. Legendary plunderers like Charles Vane, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Ned Low and Benjamin Hornigold are present and accounted for amid the Flints and Silvers of this little [throat] slice of tropical paradise. But then, I’m also just fascinated by the period that encapsulates the Golden Age of Piracy, from roughly the 1650’s to the 1730’s. This show is set in 1715, in the thick of the drama arising from the Spanish War of Succession, and at the height of pirate activity in the West Indies generally and the bustling black market economy of New Providence Island aka Nassau particularly.
Not that you necessarily have to be a connoisseur of the piratical arts per se, but there’s a reason I was bristling with excitement to see this show debut when it was first announced. The swashbuckling excitement of Treasure Island was promised to be combined with the viscerally stirring adult drama that marked the blood-soaked Spartacus, a heady blend of genres and styles that I simply couldn’t resist, even if it did have Michael Bay’s name attached to it. Thankfully, those fears of a commercially whorish mess haven’t been realized, and what resulted instead is a show whose storytelling is relatively grounded in the sun-scorched milieu of historical authenticity, from its beautifully lush locales to its ugly, grime-encrusted criminality.
Piracy isn’t romanticized by the filmmakers here, which is a welcome departure to the typical Hollywood approach, I think we’d all agree. To put a finer point on the subject, allow me to paint you a picture: if a clown like Jack Sparrow had set foot on this Nassau, he’d have been stabbed in the face, robbed of every shilling, and pissed on by rotten-toothed scoundrels. If that sounds like your kinda shindig, well... Welcome Aboard, matey!
Pardon the pun, but Stephens’ flinty performance as the infamous and feared Captain – indeed, the very same spectral presence that haunts every page of Robert Louis Stevenson’s young adult classic Treasure Island – is a marvelous showcase of intensity and, particularly in the show’s meatier second season, previously unsuspected pathos. Affecting flashbacks to the privileged life of former Navy Lieutenant James McGraw in Season 2 have given Stephens the space he needed, coming out of the abbreviated first season (and the necessary cloak of mystery surrounding Flint for the better part of it), to stretch himself as an actor who’s beyond capable of doing so. He’s a classically trained Brit well-versed in Shakespearean grandeur, so what do you expect, right?
Flint’s past exploits as the straight-laced Navy man with a sturdy moral compass, along with his complicated relationship with the mysterious Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes), provides us additional – and in the end, vital – insight into why Flint became as much of a hardcase as he is. With this revelatory information in the latter half of Season 2, the picture becomes clearer as to why he does what he does to achieve the fantastical goal of a self-sustaining pirate economy in Nassau, and perhaps more importantly, for whom.
Far from a cut-rate Michael Fassbender, former Bond baddie Stephens has made this already stellar show his own and then some. In fact, the flashbacks are made of some of the strongest dramatic material of anything found in the visual medium in the last several years. Of course, the TV landscape is littered with gold, so I won’t say it’s the absolute best thing you’ll find streaming or on the air when you have Game of Thrones and House of Cards as stiff competition, but god-damn if it doesn’t rate right up there.
“Long Con” Silver
For anybody who’s read the original Stevenson book and formed a grizzled, salty image of the famous peg-legged deceiver, then took a cursory look at the man cast as the twenty-years-younger John Silver (Luke Arnold, a virtual unknown), one might initially be taken aback. Who is this smirking, curly-headed little WB reject who dares try to convince us he’s got a charismatic pirate legend lurking beneath the surface? But convince me he did, this humble Aussie lad, though I can’t speak for anyone else. Silver and Flint’s begrudging admiration, respect and healthy caution for each other was given interesting enough dimension in the show’s first season, but even then it was superceded by the mission to capture the Spanish gold of the Urca de Lima (which, as a side note, can be assumed to be the titular “Treasure” in said Treasure Island, twenty years later).
So it’s in the second season that Silver steps out of Flint’s immense shadow and emerges as a sly threat to be reckoned with alongside his captain, and believably at that. Which is half the battle when you’re talking about an indomitable force of nature like Flint. The other half is in the writing (which I’ll get to more specifically in a minute), and the progression of Silver’s arc, from smarmy deckhand/con man with a minor talent for manipulation to a more rugged, ruthless tactician and opportunist has been glorious to watch unfold. It’s an evolution into the inevitable persona we all grew up with, and I firmly believe that this guy who started in one place as a character could eventually become the ultimate survivor of the high seas, a testament to Arnold’s talent.
I touched on the crux of the show’s primary conflict in the previous segment, which speaks to the overriding goal of every pirate in the Caribbean, from Captain Flint to Captain Vane – an independent Nassau. Though how the various pirates and their crews go about achieving that end is what makes it so dramatically nuanced and fun to watch. In Season 2, the stakes were raised even higher and bold strokes were made toward hastening Nassau to its ultimate destiny, with Flint’s acquisition of a Spanish man-o’-war and his knowledge of a beached bounty of Spanish gold on one side, and the wild card Captain Vane (Zach McGowan), with his seizure of Nassau’s only fort and defenses, on the other. Caught in the middle are a slew of other characters vying for power and/or a sustainable future, including the island’s de facto trade baroness Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), and Eleanor’s former prostitute lover turned sensual spymaster Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy).
With so many competing loyalties, alliances and threats looming (namely in the form of the British Navy, who will one day seek to take the island back from the pirate scourge), creators Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg have brought to life a living, breathing, vibrant and vulgar world full of alluring sexuality, brutal violence and intellectual gamesmanship that would make a Lannister proud. Because in this world survival is for the fittest, and trying to hold on to power is like trying to hold on to a handful of sand, unless one has a firm enough grip on every pirate captain’s purse strings.
The character of Eleanor is particularly interesting to watch, since all of her power essentially comes from being the glue that binds the relatively stable consortium of merchants and traders all over the island. Commerce via pirated goods versus commerce via lawful English trading practices is just one conflict of interest that rears its head in Season 2’s broader arc, which shows just how sophisticated and divisive the pirate culture was at the time. A far cry from the hordes of pillaging miscreants and rum-soaked barbarians that popular culture might have us believe ruled the day.
It can’t be stressed enough. In a matter of full disclosure, I’m something of an emerging writer, both as a novelist and screenwriter. And that’s why I tell you with full confidence that this show is one of those that has inspired my creative impulse (and frankly, jealousy) with its deft and seemingly effortless plotting and structure, whip-smart and endlessly quotable dialogue, and richly textured characterizations of figures both fictional and historical. I've already expounded on the virtues and lovable vices of some individual lead characters above, but it’s how those same characters (along with a motley assortment of supporting players and subplots) are weaved in, around and amongst each other in totally sensible, often surprising ways, with nary a wasted moment, scene or payoff to be found. It’s truly something to marvel at and get excited about as a viewer who craves kickass content in a Golden Age of TV that makes it harder and harder for perfectly decent shows to stand out. In this case, superior writing and an explosive season finale helps to solidify that creative distinction, with the writers pulling out all the stops and promising only great things for Season 3 to keep momentum going strong.
Some of the specifics I’ve mentioned already, in terms of the political turmoil of a borderline anarchic Nassau, and to say any more would be unforgiveable. But suffice it to say that Steinberg and Levine took Season 1’s more simple and direct plot of a “Great Galleon Robbery”, as it were, and spun it into an even more nuanced web of criss-crossing motives, psychosexual complexities, and at least two legitimately painful personal betrayals. Tag to all that solid gold an ending that does what any great ending should – closes out the story with a satisfying resolution to any number of dangling plot threads, reconciling Flint’s heartbreaking flashbacks with the “present day” storyline, all the while leaving open just enough doors to stoke your imagination for what’s surely to come.
|Shit that is an epic goddamn beard.|
Like Tween Girls At A ‘One Direction’ Concert, Blackbeard Is COMING
Initially teased in the first season in the most anticlimactic but hilariously dirty way, news has recently broken that Blackbeard, the famed pirate captain of his era (also known as Edward Teach), has been cast at long last for Season 3. He’s to be played by Ray Stevenson, who you may remember from such brutishly awesome roles as Titus Pullo in HBO’s “Rome” and Frank Castle himself in “Punisher: Warzone”. If you’ve seen any of this man’s work, you’re as excited at this prospect as I am.
Blackbeard was a walking, talking man-o’-war of a character, and Stevenson has the size and acting talent to pull off a really interesting and memorable interpretation of a man who embodied Nassau’s defiance to English rule. So what do I expect from his role in Season 3? In honor of Ian McShane, who some may remember (or wish they could forget, whatever the case may be) played Blackbeard in the fourth Pirates of the Carribean movie, here’s what I believe Blackbeard’s counteroffer to England’s counteroffer will be, based on historical evidence – “Go FUCK yourself.”
I. Can’t. WAIT.