'Black Sails' Gets Really Really Bloody

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 3, “XXXI.”

Who is king of the new world?

Silver might be the name and face of the resistance, but he wouldn’t even be breathing if Flint hadn’t come to his rescue. A glance on this show is worth a thousand words – and one between Flint and Silver a thousand more. It’s curious that they don’t hug when they reunite. After all, Flint hugged Billy when he returned from the dead in Season 2, and they were far less close. But it underscores how their relationship is almost at a spiritual level. A simple hug wouldn’t convey what a look can. Their ensuing banter (Silver: “I don’t understand. Billy?” Flint: “Yep” Silver: “Tried to kill you?” Flint: “Yep”) is a moment of levity demonstrating how Black Sails is peerless in balancing lightness with darkness. Now about that darkness….

Who is utterly screwed?

RIP Ray Stevenson’s Teach. Whether it needed to be that graphic is sure to be debated, but from its dreadful build-up to its sickening finish, the sequence holds a fascinating interplay between Teach, Rogers, Jack, and Anne. It initially seems odd that Teach -- who waxes poetic about everything from birds to wives to Nassau’s smell -- is not afforded last words. Both Vane and Miranda got a chance for fiery speeches before their send-offs. But Teach’s refusal to die the way Rogers wants is more impactful than a speech would have been. So, too, are Jack and Anne’s silent expressions as they watch, their wordless interplay, and Rogers’s registration of Jack’s presence.

Most powerful of all is Teach’s snarling smile before the bag is placed over his head – the last time we see his face whole. From his heartbreaking expression when the Readcoats first surround him, we know how anguishing this is. But the smile doesn’t feel like false bravado. It feels like a promise that he’s not going down without a fight and intends to be the master of his own end; the nonverbal equivalent of Vane’s “get on with it, motherfucker.”

It’s a horrifying gut punch of a scene, but these layers of subtlety illustrate how Black Sails is a show where watching characters think is as compelling as the action.

Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

That being said, this show is damn good at action and spectacle. Everything is perfectly atmospheric in that final scene: Flint and Silver’s eerie ride through silent streets; their Western-style standoff with Berringer; Billy’s last minute backup. The way the camera never looses sight of the characters in the chaotic fight echoes one of the best episodes: the Season 2 finale.

Speaking of Season 2, when Israel Hands kills Berringer, we’re watching history repeat itself. As Israel Hands told Silver, he “cut the cord” on the first Nassau governor. Although that happened before the events of the show, we’ve seen its impact in Season 2’s flashbacks. Years ago, that event forced James McGraw to return to Thomas Hamilton with the news that his plan for taming Nassau was doomed. Now that the same man has cut down Nassau’s most recent authority figure, the cycle begins anew.

To be underestimated is an incredible gift

While Eleanor is a polarizing character for obvious reasons (she killed a fan favorite lead and is now actively working against all the main characters) Max is polarizing for subtler reasons. It’s not what she does but what she doesn’t do. Even ruthless Flint has those he’s loyal to – hell, he doesn’t even have to love them; he was ready to rescue Charles Vane in Season 3. But Max stood passively in Season 3 while Jack and Anne were in peril. She felt bad, but she still did it. While many viewers love Max, many struggle with her because she shows less loyalty than even Flint yet also has less depth for most of the story, as her motives weren’t revealed until the penultimate season. Post Season 2, she’s been the Daenerys of Black Sails. She talks about how smart she is, then she proceeds to be passive or act with shaky competence (e.g., her Season 3 attempt to buy Rogers’s friendship with stolen pearls; her meeting with Silver last episode).

But in her scene with Berringer, Max finally – finally! -- grows a spine and shows integrity. It’s gloriously fitting that the person who inspires her loyalty in action is not someone she loves romantically like Anne or even as a respected partner like Jack. It’s Idelle, who has stood by her side as a friend. It underscores how, as skilled as Black Sails is at the dynamics of sex and relationships, it’s even better at one of the most underrated dynamics: intimate friendships.

Stray gold

· A moment of appreciation for the always-excellent Ray Stevenson. Both Teach’s Season 3 entrance and Season 4 exit were larger than life, yet Stevenson’s magnetism kept the character utterly convincing and a blast to watch. He’ll be missed.

· Teach: “Ever captained a ship this size before”? Jack “God no.” Teach: “Have you captained a ship this size before?” Jack: “Sure.” Teach: “Good.”

· Jack talks of how some underestimate Teach’s brilliance because of his physical prowess. The same applies to Anne: “You always wanted to stand next to giants, and there you are. And I’m wondering how it is you and I are ever gonna move on from this.”

· The keelhaul scene begins with a crew member wiping Rogers’s face like a make-up artist giving an actor a touch-up before a scene -- a callback to 3.07, when Rogers told Flint he’d “play the part” of the villain. Playing it involves looking it. Can’t have an unseemly amount of blood on his face before stepping onstage.

· When did Silver learn to be a competent fighter, between Season 3 and 4? Can the Season 4 DVDs have an extra that’s an 80’s style training montage?

· Flint’s expression as Silver kisses Madi. Is he sad about his own past? Jealous in a way he can’t consciously acknowledge? Thinking about how this complicates his agenda or could lead to conflict? The beauty of Flint is that all interpretations could be valid and concurrent.

· Last episode I compared Berringer to Ned Low because despite their superficial differences, they share a violent extremism. Now there’s another commonality: both are 3 episode characters. On one hand, Berringer’s death is a great moment. On the other, the events leading to it are another irksome turn for Eleanor’s believability. She was shaken to her core by Ned Low in Season 2. No woman who has ever been scared by a man forgets about it. Because of her history, it doesn’t track that Eleanor takes so long to realize Berringer can’t be reasoned with (especially after seeing him treat Max the same way Low once treated her). Max shouldn’t have to warn her about thinking she can control him; she should know. Black Sails usually excels at character consistency; I hope there’s some kind of long game going on with Eleanor. Otherwise, her arc is less of an evolution than it is her character being rewritten.

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

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