'Black Sails' Does Pirate Fight Club

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Black Sails is a show filled with as many quiet character beats as epic action sequences. With writing that is downright literary and pacing that rewards repeat viewing, it’s almost a hybrid between a novel and a show. As the fourth and final season is now airing on Starz, each week, I’ll break down the most pertinent beats of each episode. Without further ado, here’s Season 4 episode 4, “XXXII.”

Who is king of the new world?

This episode is about severing. Flint and Silver discuss it in relation to each other (as Billy tries to wedge them apart) and their wish for the war versus Silver’s conflicting wish to protect Madi. Eleanor discusses it with Max in relation to her ties to Nassau. But Anne Bonny is the only one who does it literally, as she puts an end to Pirate Fight Club by severing Redcoats with broken glass. The fight is ugly and brutal, but it reinforces her bravery, wits, grit, and refusal to be backed into a corner. Like Vane and Teach, no matter how hard Anne is knocked down; no matter how the fight is rigged against her, she always keeps swinging and snarling. Long John Silver might be the pirate king in name, but all hail Anne Bonny.


Who is utterly screwed?

In addition to underestimating this Silver who is fiercely loyal to Flint and Madi, Billy has inadvertently given rise to a rogue slave army that’s gunning for both slave owners and pirates. Surely this will end well for everyone. On the home front, his meeting with Silver pulses with a tense power dynamic. Though the massive Billy has always dwarfed Silver, Silver looms over him during their conversation. It isn’t just because he’s standing while Billy sits; it’s in his body language and expression. For the first time, it’s clear how the Billy of Treasure Island will come to be terrified of Long John Silver. Luke Arnold continues to impress with each passing episode.


Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

Eleanor and Flint’s friendship was one of the strongest aspects of her story the first two seasons. They shared a curious mixture of pragmatism and a will to accomplish seemingly impossible goals. More than any other character, their identities are also both tied to Nassau in ways they aren’t even fully cognizant of – though each thinks they are.

It’s deliciously fitting that their reunion (and Silver and Flint’s parting) happens in the fort passageway where Eleanor and Vane had their last civil conversation in Season 2. The shadow of that iconic scene looms as Flint and Silver now regard each other from opposite sides of those bars. Because of its emotional history, this final shot is even more dramatic than Berringer’s dripping blood last episode.


To be underestimated is an incredible gift

Usually, Jack or Silver take charge of the comic relief moments, but Season 4 has delivered them through someone truly unexpected: Flint. The way he’s delivered his “yeahs” and “yeps” have been priceless. Last episode it was in his catch-up conversation with Silver, this episode it’s in his responses when Billy attempts to diffuse the tension to the pissed-off posse of Flint, Silver, and Madi. The way Toby Stephens delivers his “yeahs” and “that’s goods” with utter disdain, he sounds like a surly teenager blatantly lying to his teacher about having done his homework. He does it again later, when Israel Hands rambles and Flint snaps, “what?” and “Is there a point you’re trying to make?”

The fact that the man filled with such rage and tragedy could believably be the comic relief character at this point in the story -- even for a moment -- yet again shows the stunning range of both Black Sails and Toby Stephens.


‘Give us your submission and we will give you all the comfort you need. I can think of no measure of comfort worth that price.— Charles Vane

I want to take an aside from my usual episode breakdown model to talk about domesticity, the topic Flint and Vane discussed in 3.08. It’s tied to the idea of the nuclear family – or heterosexual marriage with traditional gender roles and children. As I once said, part of what makes Black Sails unique and exceptional is how it has avoided it until now, preferring to focus on relationships that fall outside of what 1700’s society deems “acceptable.” Open, polyamorous, and queer relationships abound. Even the two predominant heterosexual relationships have not been “standard” as Silver and Madi’s is interracial at a time when that was illegal and Eleanor and Vane’s was often non-monogamous. Further, she instigated all their sexual encounters, and whenever they manhandled each other, she was the aggressor. Imagine how 3.09 would look if their roles were reversed; if Vane had attacked Eleanor while she sat helplessly in chains.

But with Eleanor married and now pregnant, the show is definitively presenting its first nuclear family. To Vane, domesticity was a shackle; to Flint, a temptation he forces himself to turn from. To Eleanor, it’s too soon to tell whether it will be her undoing or salvation. I can’t say I’m enthused by Married and Pregnant Eleanor as a plot point itself, as Season 3 didn’t do enough to establish why she loves a man who, until recently, was her glorified jailor. Their uneasy power imbalance remains glossed over, yet the show seems to want us to buy Rogers and Eleanor’s love at face value. Nevertheless, its larger significance – the continued thread of what domesticity means to different characters and the narrative itself -- highlights how Black Sails is a smart, singular story that always circles back to earlier themes. Even in its weaker subplots, Black Sails is stronger than 99% of other shows.


Stray gold

· Why would they bring up the possibility that Thomas Hamilton is alive as a Chekhov's gun if it wasn’t leading anywhere? On the other hand, as Toby Stephens straight-up said Flint will not get a happy ending, why would Thomas be alive? Explain yourself, Black Sails.

· Silver: “It is some kind of hell to chose one irreplaceable thing over another.” Definitely no ominous foreshadowing here!

· I’ve been waiting four seasons for a woman besides Anne to have a genuine action scene. Eleanor’s Fast and Furious: Nassau Drift chase does not disappoint. This episode is also Hannah New’s best performance to date.

· Even though Silver came out on top in his conversation with Billy, Billy is….kind of right. “We survived him, you and I. And now you want to follow him into a massive slave revolt, a war against the British Empire? How is that not just the next storm in a very long line of them?”

· Nerd corner: Anne’s “any man” echoes that moment in Lord of The Rings when Eowyn slays the Witch-king of Angmar (who boasts that no living man can beat him) and says, “I am no man.”

· Jack continues to have questionable competency as a captain because his love for Anne interferes with his ability to strategize. Last week, he surrendered to Rogers before he should have; now he let half his crew die, unwilling to end Pirate Fight Club with the most obvious solution because it put Anne in danger. Were Jack played by a lesser actor, his shaky competence might make it hard to like or root for him -- but Toby Schmitz’s performance proves how far stellar acting goes. It’s also impossible to fault Jack for loving Anne so deeply.

· So they’re really trying to redeem Eleanor, huh. Is it working for you or too little, too late? If that’s truly the goal, her 3.09 cell scene with Vane — in which she accuses him of being inhuman while herself acting inhumanly — seems like it should have been written differently. Anne Bonny, who is far more vicious in theory, can’t even bring herself to do that to a former lover.

· Flint’s “all life begins with violence and wailing” is the fourth birth reference this season (after Flint’s opening monologue, Israel Hands’s talk of “cutting the cord”, and Eleanor’s pregnancy.) Something to file away as Season 4 progresses.

· For those who like podcasts as well as reviews, try this Black Sails podcast

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