'Black Sails' Introduces Skeleton Island

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 8, “XXXVI.”

Who is king of the new world?

This episode is about Black Sails circling back to every part of its own history. The name Henry Avery has been tossed around a lot in Black Sails. Teach mentioned sailing with Avery before his duel with Flint in Season 3 episode 6; Jack has mentioned his name several times in an aspirational way. But this episode makes him more prominent than ever by bringing his own written words into the story and tying them to almost every subplot – Billy and Rogers; Jack and Featherstone; Flint’s eerie story to Dooley.

This dead pirate king has been woven into the world of Black Sails since the beginning, but ‘XXXVI’ makes him less of a reference and more of a ghost. He looms in the background with a hand in everything — much in the same way Flint does in Treasure Island. Like Jack’s Pirate Groupie scene last episode, the specter of Henry Avery is both a neat piece of history and important foreshadowing for the end.

Who is utterly screwed?

Last episode I expressed concern over the fact that Madi seems to be Silver’s motive in his clash with Flint. This was firstly because using a woman to instigate conflict between two men is the kind of trite storytelling Black Sails is usually above. Secondly, it’s because Silver took three whole seasons just to make one friend – a journey the show tracked meticulously. Meanwhile, his development into a person who is in love happened offscreen. Flint has been working towards his goal for years the viewer has been privy to; Silver’s motives happened in a month that is cloaked from the audience. It makes the show’s most important conflict feel uneven and far more arbitrary on Silver’s end than it should.

Luckily, this episode goes miles in remedying this. When Flint and Silver fight below deck, it’s entirely rooted in their relationship history. On the surface their fight is indeed about external factors: the cache, the chances of saving Madi versus the war. But beneath the surface it’s really about ideology – as it should be. Silver is furious that after everything the two men have been through and all Flint’s talk of having no daylight between them, Flint still isn’t treating him like an equal when push comes to shove. Silver has always followed Flint’s crazy plans that seem to have no feasible solution. Now, when their roles are reversed, Flint is unwilling to do the same.

Granted, Flint feels personally betrayed by Silver’s cache maneuver; whereas Silver never had personal stakes when Flint murdered Gates in Season 1 or commandeered the Spanish warship in Season 2. But Silver is blinded to how personal this is for Flint – he didn’t see his face on the deck. As their relationship spirals, Black Sails is keeping it firmly rooted in their emotional history, solidifying its place among the most intelligent storytelling.

Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

Idelle has quietly had one of the best arcs on Black Sails. Over the course of four seasons, she’s evolved from being the requisite background nudity to a chacter who is important enough to change Anne Bonny’s mind – something Jack and Max can’t even do. She’s gone from whore to true pirate strategist; from the comic relief to a character that I’d argue is the most compassionate on the entire show. She’s shown consistent loyalty in the face of danger and been subtly kind even when it’s not reciprocated.

Her excellent monologue about Charlotte and Max ties into the rest of this episode’s call-backs to previous events. Anne’s quiet watchfulness as Idelle talks also recalls the last time these two women were alone together – when Idelle rescued Anne from either murdering or sleeping with Jacob Garrett during her Season 2 identity crisis. (Who knows what Anne would have done with Garrett). When Idelle picks up the knife, for an instant it seems she will seek revenge for Charlotte’s death. But when she slices the bread for Anne and leaves, it’s one of the subtle moments of grace that exemplifies Black Sails at its best.

To be underestimated is an incredible gift

The most perfectly heart-wrenching aspect of Flint and Silver’s dynamic this episode is how hurt each one is by the other’s actions — even though each man is only being himself. Neither Flint nor Silver should be surprised by the other’s betrayal, but they’ve gotten to a place where each thought the other was better than that.

Silver will always play his own game to achieve his goals. Flint knows this. And yet, his face on the deck when Silver brings out the cache is so hurt because he doesn’t think Silver would do it to him at this point in their relationship. Silver is the first new person Flint has allowed to truly know him in over a decade. In bringing out the cache, Silver is essentially raising his middle finger towards their fireside chat in the Season 3 finale. In Flint’s silent expression, we see something break inside of him. He’s been far more James McGraw than Flint all season -- but in his face on that deck, Flint emerges again.

For his part, at the episode’s end Silver is hurt that Flint has double-crossed him for his goal even though this is what Flint has always done and Silver knows it. Just as Flint thought he was the exception to Silver’s nature, Silver thought he was the exception to Flint’s. It remains to be seen whether Silver and Flint are as divided as it seems or whether Silver lied to Rogers and Billy and is working on a con (who are we kidding, it’s Silver). But their mutual hurt is real. The twists and turns in their emotional connection — and the way it impacts the story — reinforces how Black Sails is peerless at using character rather than plot to drive the narrative.

Stray Gold

  • RIP Kofi, top-notch path-clearer and whistle-blower.
  • Idelle’s dead friend Charlotte is the one who was designing Jack’s flag in Season 2 — the famous skull and crossbones flag that is Calico Jack’s true historic legacy.
  • Goddamn does this show know how to make an entrance in character introductions and place introductions. Skeleton Island is instantly uncanny after just a few set-up shots (and Flint’s killer story).
  • That being said about this episode improving upon Silver’s motives, I hope when he refers to Madi as “wife” it’s figurative and not literal. Eleanor and Rogers getting married offscreen was already not great in terms of emotionally distancing the viewer from Eleanor. If Silver -- the guy who took three seasons to make one friend-- is suddenly married, that is not an event that should have happened offscreen.
  • That was very kind of Charles Vane to leave his Season 2 Magical Charleston Jetpack to Jack. It sure came in handy for Jack to use to get from Philadelphia to Nassau!
  • This week in “oh no:” assuming Flint’s actions in Treasure Island are not total exaggerations like Charles Vane cooking his enemies in stew, Flint is going to kill that entire group of men who set off to find him….which includes Joji.
  • Eleanor’s grandmother’s comment about having a marriage and finding sexual gratification elsewhere seems too specific to be in the show by chance. Although we’ve seen this in the past (with the Hamiltons) stick a flag in that. I predict it will be relevant in the future too.
  • Max’s story also has an interesting call-back to the Hamiltons, as Max has effectively rejected the life Miranda lived.
  • The final season has benched Anne Bonny for three episodes and had two whole episodes where Jack Rackham has gotten less than five minutes of screen time. This will not stand.
  • If you dig podcasts too check out this one.
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