Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”

Original Airdate: February 7th, 2015 on Starz

First things first—I’m sorry it took me so long to get this review posted! Black Sails is exactly the kind of super-plotty serialized drama that’s the most difficult to cover in this space, although of course super-plotty serialized dramas are hotter than ever. Yes, I watched each and every minute of the first eleven episodes of Black Sails and I came out the other side with only a few cutlass wounds and a venereal disease to show for it. I also found that it wasn’t exactly the kind of show that lent itself to binging. If I’m going to watch eleven hours of nautical-terrorism-themed chess I’m certainly not going to make them consecutive hours. Anyway, Sails is an attempt by Starz to keep producing questionably relevant “historical” dramas after Spartacus: Blood and Sand went off the air in 2013. It’s also an attempt to get anyone to care about a Starz original series. It’s looking like it didn’t succeed: at the end of this season Sails is getting put in dry dock. For those of you wondering—no, this is not the pirate show with John Malkovich. That would be the hastily cancelled NBC vehicle Crossbones. One more fun fact before we get into the pros and cons: Sails is part of the Treasure Island Universe! Yes, everything has a universe now, even 19th century novels. What this means in practice is that three of the characters can be found in the novel. On the other hand, an equal number of characters are based on actual pirates with varying degrees of legitimacy in the historical record, so this all amounts to a definite sense that no one involved is taking either history or Robert Louis Stevenson too seriously.

Strengths

  • Intricate power struggles. This may be the main reason why people watch plot-heavy prestige dramas, and Sails certainly delivers. Everybody’s got an angle. The overarching plot of these episodes concerns the efforts of a crew of pirates led by one Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) to haul in the Score Of The Century. The big problem with that is that Flint is by turns secretive and murderous and is constantly finding himself in danger of mutiny or worse. It also means that people who aren’t on his crew have a hard time trusting him. Here, he butts heads with the bloodthirsty Charles Vane (Zach McGowan.) Vane has recently taken control over the fort protecting the pirate haven of New Providence Island, but for the moment he’s more preoccupied by a pissing contest with the even more bloodthirsty Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy, Alexander.) Why should Vane care about Low? Well, Low’s creating problems for the island’s chief fence of stolen treasure, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and Vane’s still carrying a torch for her. Speaking of old flames, Flint also has a semi-secret lover: seemingly respectable lady about town Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes.) She isn’t so interested in the Score Of The Century. Instead, she wants Flint to go straight and beg for acceptance back into polite society. Barlow also helped Guthrie’s well-connected father go into hiding, and here we see Eleanor negotiate with Barlow to try and salvage some of her father’s few remaining relationships. Then there’s the trio of Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz,) Anne Bonny (Clara Paget, Fast & Furious 6) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy.) They’re currently managing a whorehouse and personal romantic entanglements, but you know what they’d rather be doing? Finding the Score Of The Century. Vane extracts information about Low from Max in return for repairing Rackham’s reputation. It’s certainly fun to watch all the gears turn and there’s genuine suspense in wondering who’ll come out on top and how. The only downside is that all the Machiavellian machinations can take the place of actual substance. But if you want a complicated plot? They’ve got a complicated plot. It may be a little unfair to say the show elides substance entirely. You could make the case that all this is an extended lesson on how to fail or succeed at leadership. Flint has an instinct for tactics but struggles to manage his crew effectively. John Silver (Luke Arnold) Is charismatic and manages to ingratiate himself with a wide array of parties, but circumstance is frequently weighted against him. (Of course, we all know that Silver will eventually be a big success, so in some ways Sails is really all about his rise to power.) Eleanor is apparently supposed to be about 19, which is a big fucking stretch, but nevertheless, hers is a story about a young woman struggling to hold onto power in an old man’s world. And of course, Vane and Low rule by dint of force. However, this isn’t a theme explored in this episode explicitly but rather in the series as a whole, and more pointedly elsewhere at that.
  • Action! Michael Bay is an EP on Sails so it was easy to predict that it would feature thrills, chills and/or spills. In this episode they’re parcelled out sparingly but to great effect. Both moments involve Vane—when we first see him, he’s engaging in a swordfight with a crew member for practice and so we the viewer can enjoy a swordfight. This is just an appetizer, though. The big climax has him straight-up decapitating Low after some close-quarters combat. Anyone coming into a pirate drama is going to be expecting cutlasses and cannonballs, and while there’s more to be found elsewhere in the series, there’s also more to come: the cliffhanger has us poised for a violent confrontation between Flint’s men and Vane’s.

Weaknesses

  • Pointless, parsimonious flashbacks. This season has us spending part of our time watching Flint’s backstory in London slowly, slowly unfold. Once upon a time not long ago, Flint was a Royal Navy Lieutenant assigned to a special project with the goal of rooting out piracy in the West Indies. Instead, he ran off with his boss’s wife, aka Mrs. Barlow. This is all well and good, but I take exception to the structure. Each episode in season two, we’re treated to one or two scenes of his old life. This might be okay if they were thematically relevant, but there are no real themes here. Instead we’re getting a slow drip of something not all that interesting. If we must get the long version of Flint’s origin story, why not put it all in one episode, where we could actually get immersed instead of just getting jerked around between the exciting events of the present day and the tangentially relevant recent past?
  • Gratuitous girl on girl action. If there’s one thing pirate ships full of sweaty, lonely, drunken men are known for, it’s lesbian sex. Look, I’m always glad to see queer characters on television, but I don’t think the pairings between Eleanor and Max or Max and Anne are intended for queer audiences. Every episode of this show involves bare breasts. Many episodes feature the sight of a mons pubis. Sure, pirates aren’t famous for their decorum, but if there’s going to be a bacchanal, let’s make it equal opportunity, hm? We managed to go eleven episodes without any men having sex with men, but three out of the four female characters have gotten down with each other. Many scenes are set at the brothel run by Anne, Jack and Max, but the conspicuous naked women are never accompanying naked men. Apparently, later this season we learn that Flint fucked both Barlow and her husband. Good progress! Unfortunately, it’s still a demerit from this episode.
  • Solving problems with sex. Look, I understand the temptation. It ties up plot threads and we get to see boobs, because those are so hard to find pictures of in 2016. But it makes otherwise powerful characters like Eleanor seem flighty when she’ll throw down her convictions and best judgment to hop onto Vane’s dick just because he chopped off somebody’s head, and if Jack, Anne and Max are going to form a happy little triad, what was the point of setting up a love triangle between the two of them in the first place? All I’m trying to say here is if you’re going to take away time from sword-fights and manipulation, it had better be for either meaningful character development or thematic richness, not so I can watch every single woman on this show make orgasm faces.

Final Judgment: 7/10. Sure, it’s fun while it’s happening, but when you take a step back it’s pretty unfocused. Where is all this leading and why should I care? In the first few episodes of this show, it seemed like they wanted to develop a story about pirates on the margins of the world stage staking a claim to legitimate statehood. That really could be a fascinating story. Instead, it feels like we got caught up in an endless power struggle. It’s satisfying in some ways, but these are ultimately empty calories.

NEXT TIME: I return to the collected works of Norman Lear as I review One Day At A Time!

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Case Study 69: Black Sails–“XI”