'Black Sails' Gets Tragic

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 6, “XXXIV.”

Who is king of the new world?

Silver likely appeals to Julius from a chair in order to draw attention away from his handicap, but it’s impossible to escape the image of a king on a throne addressing his subjects. Tellingly, it doesn’t quite work. Silver wins Julius over not from his calculated regal display, but later when he’s on his crutch with his handicap in full view, literally thinking on his feet. This reinforces how Silver is the pirate king not because he’s tried to be – in fact, he’s not as impressive when he’s putting on an affectation of strength. In a rare misstep, he doesn’t stop to consider that the throne image might not present well with a former slave. Julius comes around because he recognizes Silver’s unconventional strength: his natural ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances.

Who is utterly screwed?

Eleanor Guthrie had to die because Black Sails never lets its characters off the hook for past misdeeds – and as Max mentioned in 4.04, hers have piled up. Further, before the show truly made itself known as A Tale of Two Pirates in terms of Silver and Flint, Charles Vane was Flint’s primary ideological and narrative foil. Considering the fact that Vane died for killing relatively minor character Richard Guthrie and Peter Ashe died for dooming Thomas Hamilton, it wouldn’t make sense with the show’s established morality system if the person who killed the second most prominent character escaped unscathed.

That said, nobody expected her death to come this soon or be this gutting. Following her Season 3 plot line, I was concerned that Black Sails wouldn’t be able to make me care when her time came. But to the credit of both the writing and Hannah New’s performance, the way it plays out is achingly sad. It’s impossible even for the most Eleanor-averse viewers not to feel moved.

In the end, she didn’t have the most obvious cause of death -- revenge from Jack. It wasn’t even a taste of her own medicine in the form of an intentional betrayal from a lover. In the ultimate karmic payoff, after a lifetime of turning on lovers, Eleanor chose the wrong one to be loyal to. Rogers’s betrayal was not done with malicious intent but rather with the carelessly condescending certainty that his plan was better than hers. Eleanor Guthrie, former Queen of Thieves who switched to civilization’s side, was literally killed by the patriarchy. Her death scene itself is intimate and deeply human, but it also speaks to the show’s larger themes about the “gnarled and grey" toxicity of the patriarchy.

Her death holds an extra tragic tinge because while Gates, Miranda, Vane, and Teach all died standing up for what they believed in, Eleanor’s capacity for self-delusion lasts until her final breath. Flint’s lie about Rogers’s culpability in the Spanish raid is an act of love, but in true Eleanor fashion, instead of appreciating the love coming from someone in front of her (Max, Vane, and finally Flint), she’s spending her energy on someone who doesn’t deserve it (Richard Guthrie, Rogers).

Teach’s death was the most brutal in execution; Vane’s in impact on the story; Miranda’s in suddenness. But Eleanor’s is the most perfect in its poetic tragedy. It’s senseless in its randomness -- because so many people want her dead for personal reasons, but this soldier is not among them. It’s inevitable in its connection to her own choices and history. And it brings her narrative full-circle as she dies with her truest love (Nassau) in the arms of her truest father figure. (Recall that one of her first Season 1 interactions with Flint was a hug). After her rocky Season 3 arc, it seemed impossible that Black Sails could bring Eleanor’s story to a satisfying finish. By weaving in nearly every disparate element of her arc, it does. As usual, never underestimate this show’s absurdly brilliant writing.

Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

Jack and Max’s interactions are the candy treats in the middle of this harrowing episode. Jack’s facial expressions have always been golden, but his reaction to Max’s presence on the beach might be his best yet. His ability to move past her betrayal speaks to his most underrated trait: His compassion. No other character would be able to move past complacency in attempted murder – as we see earlier in the episode with Billy’s response to Silver.

Although Jack and Max are fun together, they aren’t exactly the most competent – recall the state of Nassau at the beginning of Season 3. It fared much better when Eleanor and Flint were in control. But previously, Jack and Max have always connected through their mutual love for Anne. Now, their mutual hatred for Woodes Rogers propels them. It remains to be seen if hate will be a more incisive motivator than love and abstract ambition. Perhaps the open sea and an unwinnable war is just the thing they need.

To be underestimated is an incredible gift

It would be easy – and lazy -- for Black Sails to use Madi’s death as the inciting event that divides Flint and Silver. Not to name names, but that’s exactly what True Detective did. And if this was an earlier season, when Flint tells Silver “I need you to know I did everything to keep her safe,” the natural assumption would be that he simply needs Silver to continue trusting him. But it’s clear that Flint’s only motive is comforting the friend suffering the same agony he once did. For Silver’s part, as he says, “it wasn’t your fault” and sounds a thousand years old, it’s clear that even beneath his anguish, he recognizes this. I thought 3.03 -- in which Flint cries alone on his office floor -- would be the most heartbreaking scene in a ship office. But Black Sails continues one-upping itself.

Stray gold

· Eleanor Guthrie was a hard person who often made unpopular decisions. Characters of this nature are unwatchable if the actors playing them aren’t skilled enough. Hannah New’s performance went above and beyond in giving Eleanor depth and sensitivity. Her presence will be greatly missed. For more on Eleanor’s death, see our interview.

· RIP Miranda’s house, the last symbol of domesticity and Flint’s original vision in Nassau. But for now, I’m holding off on saying RIP Madi, too. The rules of TV are if you don’t see a body onscreen, there might not be one. Clearly time passed between Eleanor collapsing on the floor and Flint finding her outside. Madi could have conceivably gained consciousness and escaped. If I’m wrong, I’ll give her a proper RIP next week.

· I want to call attention to the fact that Black Sails handles sexual assault better than every other period drama. It features 99% less rape than comparable shows like Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Vikings -- but it also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging it. It would be unrealistic if the soldier had not tried to rape Eleanor, but the show understands what so few do: we didn’t need to see it happen in order for it to be horrifying and visceral. The horror of the threat was enough.

· This week in Toby Stephens Is A Sorcerer: In the scenes with Silver and Eleanor, his forehead veins alone convey more emotion than lesser actors can achieve with their entire bodies.

· Last episode, Rogers talked about the many faces of civilization, but this episode also showed the many faces of piracy. Flint, a maroon, and men wearing Redcoats all united to fight a common enemy.

· Ok Black Sails, funny joke giving Anne five minutes of screen time the past two episodes. The joke is over now.

· Related in the unfunny joke department: It was already a funny joke when the Emmys and Golden Globes ignored Toby Stephens for three years. But after this, if they ignore Luke Arnold too…

· Max and Featherstone’s conversation.

· It would be easy for Woodes Rogers to be cartoonish in his villainy, but it’s hard not to feel for him just a little as he cradles Eleanor’s body. It’s completely his fault and he completely deserves it, but he did love her in his terribly flawed way. He’s a monster to be sure, but he’s a very human one.

· For the love of all the seven seas Black Sails, please let Max crossdress now. Bonus points if she dons the alias ‘Mary,’ but I’d also settle for just crossdressing.

· “Hello Mr. Guthrie. Your granddaughter is dead, two thirds of our group is pleased about it, can we have your money?” It seems so preposterous that this can work, I cannot wait to see how it plays out.

· If you like podcasts, check out this Black Sails podcast.

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