'Black Sails' Gives Rise to Calico Jack

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 7, “XXXV.”

Who is king of the new world?

Jack Rackham owns this episode. His scene with the pirate enthusiast (who I will refer to as Pirate Groupie) is the first time Black Sails has truly conveyed just how much pirates were the rock stars of their day. It’s one thing to have seen the Ranger crew strut around Nassau in early seasons; it’s another to see their fame and legend through the eyes of an excited outsider living in a vastly different world across an ocean.

The scene is delightful on a surface level for Jack’s reactions -- his initial preening when he hears himself named alongside figures like Teach, Vane and Flint; his transition to earnest disapproval in defending Vane. But it’s the latter that’s most significant. When he shoots down the Pirate Groupie’s information about Charles Vane as the Black Sails version of fake news, it reinforces how the show is above all else a story about story. This scene comes full circle on the many layers of storytelling in this narrative; as the Pirate Groupie mixes real events with exaggeration (”I hear he sometimes butchers his enemies for amusement...he was truly an animal!”)

As the Black Sails creators and producers told me in our pre-season interview, they are treating Treasure Island as its own “fake news” of sorts, based on the events of the show. This scene is thus simultaneously a fun aside with Jack during a season where Fun Jack has been sorely lacking and a crucial set-up for the final stretch of Season 4.

Who is utterly screwed?

Four four seasons, Flint has been the emotional one who is driven by rage and revenge for personal reasons. Silver is the big-picture thinker. Logically, one would expect this to deepen as the fracture in their relationship looms on the horizon. But curiously, Black Sails is reversing this dynamic. It’s been happening for several episodes, but this made it explicit: Flint is levelheaded, talking in quiet tones, and gently solicitous of Silver’s needs. (“When I was drowning after Miranda...you helped me find my way out. Look at me. I will do the same for you.”) As odd as it sounds, Flint is currently the best person on Black Sails at being a friend.

Silver, on the other hand, has his guns blazing and his emotions careering. I can’t say I love it on a storytelling level if Madi is Silver’s main motive in his split with Flint, as I’d hoped it would be something more complex and less easy. But there are three episodes left for this to evolve. And Silver and Flint’s role-reveral reinforces how, for a show with most of its ending already set in stone — because of history and Treasure Island Black Sails is far more unpredictable than it has any right to be.

Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

Billy’s appeal to Rogers shows how far this former idealist has changed. Using the principle, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and leveraging a human life in the process (Madi’s) is everything Billy has always hated about Flint. But this development fits with the storytelling theme in Jack’s subplot because it shows how this darker version of Billy is a creature of Silver’s making just as much as Long John Silver is a creature of Billy’s.

Depending on how you look at it, Silver made an error in his power trip attempt to take Billy out or he made an error in being too kindhearted to kill him. His ultimate mistake was opting for an in-between choice. Just as Billy is the peddler of Long John Silver’s story, Silver inadvertently gave life to this darkest and most vindictive version of Billy. The endless cycle of storytelling continues.

To be underestimated is an incredible gift

After a multiple episode build-up to the mysterious and powerful Guthrie patriarch, it’s a glorious bait-and-switch for the show to render him almost immediately irrelevant because his wife is the true power player. It continues to underscore how one of Black Sails’s strongest achievements is taking a story that was literally conceived as an adventure tale for boys — and written in the height of the gentleman’s club sexism-and-cigars era — and flipping it to include powerful women and LGBTQ characters.

Stray Gold

· JACK WAS WEARING CALICO. CALICO JACK AT LAST.

· Words cannot express how much joy this exchange gave me. Pirate Groupie: “I hear Charles Vane cooks his enemies in stew!” Jack: “A stew? For what possible — Charles Vane was a good man...put down the newspapers and read a book.” Also Jack’s imitation of Max’s accent is one of the best things that’s ever happened on television.

· So how has news of events like Vane beheading Ned Low spread so quickly from Nassau to newspapers in The New World? Some journalist likely has a pirate informant on his payroll for inside scoops. My money is on Joji.

· The second best scene after Jack and the Pirate Groupie: Jack and Anne having a quiet moment while he changed her bandages, and talking and sharing a kiss at the end. They’re truly the best developed, most real feeling relationship on any show.

· Goddanmit, I had liked Miss Hudson. But the fact that she tried to get Jack killed puts her on my black list now.

· Rogers could easily be a one-note villain, and on a lesser show he would. Even discounting what he did to Teach and Eleanor, it’s hard to sympathize with someone who casually threatens to enslave people. But both the show and Luke Roberts continue resisting the urge to demonize him entirely. His scene apologizing to Eleanor’s body is disconcertingly humanizing.

· Whose idea was it to keep Eleanor’s eyes open? That was up there with Charles Vane’s twitching on the noose in levels of disturbing.

· Silver’s relationship with Madi has worked better for me than Eleanor and Woodes Rogers’s relationship did, but this episode still illustrates the fact that Black Sails is far better at understated, long-running, or previously established romantic relationships than it is at building new ones that start in the show’s timeline. Madi’s great, but she and Silver have been together for what, a month? And Silver is more emotional about rescuing her than her own mother is? He’s ready to betray his first real friend who he’s known longer, been through more with, and loves as much in his own way? I trust the writing to present Silver with more interesting and complex motivations for his upcoming split with Flint. I hope I’m not wrong.

· “Eleanor died fighting, as will I.” The saving grace of this Madi storyline is that she’s an excellent character by herself, divorced from her current place in the narrative. This gives me hope that the show is self-aware enough to not reduce her to a pawn or make her the sole reason that Silver will turn on Flint. After all, Madi herself wouldn’t approve of what Silver is doing. She might be alive after last week’s ambiguous episode ending, but I maintain that it’s still possible she isn’t the endgame to be Silver’s wife.

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

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