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 9, “XXXVII.”
Who is king of the new world?
This episode is about stories characters tell themselves. Jack tells himself a story of his upcoming victory. Ben Gunn succumbs to the eerie lore of the island. Rogers tells himself a false story about who Madi is and who Eleanor was (why would he see her with knitting needles, of all things?). And both the audience and Flint learn that the story of John Silver is a lie.
As “XXVII” reveals in flashbacks to the time between Seasons 3 and 4, both Silver and Black Sails have been conning the audience. He didn’t learn his Season 2 pirate journalism tricks growing up in a boys’ home. As the music builds ominously and Silver looks shifty, we realize, with dawning trepidation, that this man we’ve grown to care for could be a serial killer. He could be a murderer, an 18th century Jason Bourne, some lost prince like the male version of Anastasia, or all of the above. On one hand, a mystery with no solution is frustrating on a basic level. Some Black Sails fans might now be feeling akin to how Lost fans felt. But on the other hand, it’s the most perfect for his character. In his words about being unable to bare Flint knowing his story, much of his Season 4 characterization is filled in. I had found it jarring to his characterization that Silver is so deeply devoted to a woman he hasn’t known long, as he isn’t exactly sentimental. But his attitude about his backstory solidifies it: John Silver — master manipulator who has faced down angry pirates with a smile — is kind of insecure.
He’s the ultimate Nowhere Man and therefore nobody has power over him. Or so he thinks. In the most delicious irony, for a man who refuses to be defined by narrative, he’ll end up forever defined by the one he’s currently in. In that regard, even if he bests Flint in the show’s upcoming final hour, Flint already has more power over Silver than he intended.
Who is utterly screwed?
Madi is in a position of ultimate turmoil as Rogers’s prisoner, but instead of giving in to despair or lashing out in anger, she remains cool as a cucumber. Rogers seems to regard her as a twin during their conversation, as he implores her not to make “his” mistake. He’s forgetting that it’s Eleanor who is Madi’s true twin – both in the narrative and in Madi’s mind, as she has said “you were my sister.” Eleanor mistakenly held love for someone shady up as equally important to her cause. As this episode revealed, Silver, too, is rather shady. But Madi is improving upon Eleanor’s mistake by choosing her idealism over her morally dubious lover. The fact that Madi is willing to let Silver die because her convictions are larger than one life casts Silver’s goals in an even more short-sighted and impulsive light. The two have a fundamental disparity in world views. Madi is a true visionary. Presuming she’s his wife in Treasure Island, this makes the fate of domesticity and life as a tavern wife (to a wretch and a liar, no less) nearly as tragic a fate as Eleanor’s.
Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things
Jack and Featherstone are essentially the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this episode – an irreverent side-story from the main tragedy. But in typical Jack fashion, he sees himself as the Hamlet. When he talks of how many men have known true freedom, “how remarkable a moment is this,” it has echoes of Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man” soliloquy. But when the man leading Jack to this victory drops dead, it reinforces the notion that whenever Jack Rackham thinks he’s in a tragedy, he’s in a comedy – and whenever he thinks he’s in a comedy, he’s in a tragedy. John Silver thinks narrative is not relevant; Jack Rackham’s insistence upon it is his Achillies’ heel.
To be underestimated is an incredible gift
While it’s satisfying to have an explanation for why Silver has suddenly been a competent fighter all season – and who doesn’t love a training montage -- the show would hardly spend half its penultimate episode filling in a minor plot hole. The only other time Black Sails has featured flashbacks has been to convey monumental information about Flint’s emotional state in Season 2. Aside from the fact that they’re gorgeously rendered and fun, some might wonder what the point of the flashbacks in this episode are since the only reveal is an absence of information. But I’d argue that Flint’s emotional state is still the point -- specifically, his love for Silver. As a brief caveat, I’m aware that this is a topic many of you have strong opinions about. As always, this is simply my reading of the text. If yours is different, this is in no way attempting to negate it.
Now, let’s start at the end of the episode. When Flint shoots Dooley, he’s choosing Silver’s life over his own as a reflex. It’s not a conscious decision but a reactionary one – he would rather eliminate someone who is trying to kill Silver even if it means that Silver is now free to kill him. His gut instinct is simply that this man cannot die. Black Sails is best at the kind of love that doesn’t involve character spelling it out. Gestures always speak louder than words: Vane beheading Ned Low; Jack being uncharacteristically brutal slaying Redcoats as Anne lay bleeding on the floor; Max and Anne holding hands in the snow. Idelle slicing bread for Anne; Jack blowing up the fort he’d spent ages rebuilding in Season 3 so that Charles could escape. Just like these actions, Flint shooting Dooley is an act of love.
Flint and Silver’s relationship is among the boldest and most beautiful on television in part because no other show depicts such deep emotional intimacy between a gay man and a man who is not gay. (At this point everything about Silver is a question, but he’s into one woman. That doesn’t mean he’s straight, but ‘not gay’ is one of the only definitive things we know). Flint is at his most ruthless and brutal here as he slaughters his own good men (RIP Joji). Naturally because this is Flint, his deepest emotions are revealed within his deepest brutality.
By “loves” Silver do I mean “begrudges his relationship with Madi?” Nope. Miranda never begrudged James and Thomas. Rather, she championed it because she valued their happiness. Flint loves Silver in the same way that Miranda loved him. It was complex and nebulous and not necessarily reciprocated in the exact same way -- but it was no less real and deep for it. When Silver and Madi kissed in 4.03 and the camera cut to Flint’s face looking complicated and bittersweet, it was the mirror image of the scene in the fifth episode of Season 2 when James and Thomas kissed. Recall that the camera cut to Miranda’s face looking complicated and bittersweet.
Flint hardly knew how to articulate his relationship with Miranda. As she said in Season 3, she was alternately his wife, mother, and lover. His love for Silver is similarly undefined, because Flint has never been a person who is interested in categorizing such things. Silver is that kind of person, and his conclusion is “respect.” But Flint wouldn’t have let the issue of Silver’s past go if he didn’t value him above everyone else; wouldn’t have shot Dooley point-blank. And for James Flint, love is a destructive force. Flint is brutal and cruel and harsh, but never underestimate his capacity for love. John Silver might be a void with no story -- but the experience of being loved in this fierce and destructive way by this fierce and destructive person is Long John Silver’s backstory.
· RIP Joji, the silent yet loyal crew member who has been quietly kicking ass from the very beginning. RIP Dooley too.
Aside from being among the most gorgeously shot scenes, even the way Silver wears his hair in the sword-fight flashbacks is symbolic. After Flint confronts him about his story, he wears it in a tight ponytail, the way he did when things were uncertain between them after the Season 3 storm. As their sessions continue and he grows more confident in his skill and in the fact that Flint won’t press him on his story, he wears it loose and free.
· Eleanor out of focus with her knitting needles is one of the most haunting and inspired nods to a dead character this show has done. The fact that Rogers envisions her knitting -- of all activities -- is yet another parallel between the Rogers/Eleanor and Silver/Madi relationship. In both, the men fundamentally don’t understand the women. This goes both ways, as Eleanor was blind to Rogers’s most glaring flaws. Will Madi be blind to Silver’s?
· Even though the story of Billy and His Merry Men has largely been offscreen post-Season 3, that single moment in which Billy hesitates with a gun aimed at Ben sketches out a history of friendship and camaraderie.
· ‘Silver is a serial killer’ is my official nutty Black Sails conspiracy theory. Consider this: it explains why an average guy was generally unfazed by death and killing in Season 1 and why he was so keen to do a get-rich quick scheme in a dangerous world away from the bounds of the law.
· As an alternate, however, his words are chilling: “Events of the kind no one can divine any meaning from, other than the world is a place of unending horrors…You know of me all I can bear to be known.” The implication is that his story is the most unspeakably traumatic of all. Though what could possibly be more traumatic than Vane and Max’s childhoods in slavery?
· Flint: “Every moment we waste is a moment we could be working to retrieve her.” Not only does Flint know Madi better than Silver does (as he recognizes how important this cause is to the fabric of her being) but he’s right. Running around in the woods is hardly the most efficient way of saving her. As Black Sails neared its end, I expected to feel conflicted about Silver for being devious. I never expected it to be because he’s not being smart.
· Two out of ten episodes in this show’s final season have not featured Anne Bonny, while an additional three have benched her. Anne Bonny, famous historical pirate queen who has been in this show since the pilot, has gotten roughly as much screen time as side characters who entered this story in the final two seasons. This is fine.
· I’ll repeat it once more for luck: Regarding my analysis of the Flint and Silver dynamic, I’m not positing this as the definitive reading. It’s simply my reading. Black Sails is a show that is about different people seeing things in different ways, and one of the pleasures in engaging with its audience is that that attitude is reflected.
· If you like podcasts check out this one.