Black Sails is a show filled with scheming, skullduggery, and 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. It is utterly unique in today’s television landscape. As it’s 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 1, “XXIX.”
Who is king of the new world?
John Silver might be the rising pirate king in name and Flint (Toby Stephens) might still be the driving force urging this war, but in “XXIX” it’s Madi (Zethu Dlomo) who comes out on top. As Woodes Rogers tells Jack in Season 3 episode 8 “it is fascinating to me how stubbornly you people…. expect the world to become what you want it to be despite all evidence and experience to the contrary.”
Because she has become a confidante to Silver, Madi has both evidence and experience of how dangerous Flint is to cross. But when she intervenes in Flint’s conversation with Billy about the chest, she outplays him smoothly and diplomatically. Black Sails’s biggest weakness used to be how it wrote female characters (e.g. Eleanor’s introductory scene in Season 1). Not only does Madi present an interesting third-party to the Flint, Silver, and Billy dynamic with her strong steady presence, but she also marks how far the show itself has evolved from its first season to its last. Part of what makes Black Sails a cut above other shows is its penchant for constant growth.
Who is utterly screwed?
John Silver (Luke Arnold) just can’t catch a break with regard to nearly drowning. Aside from being unpleasant, his water-logged sequence is a double call back to two significant aspects of his character development. The obvious parallel is to Season 3 episode 2, when he watched Muldoon die. He emerged from that experience darker and more serious. But there’s another parallel, too. The goat seems like a funny side detail -- but recall Silver’s Season 2 speeches to the crew. In an effort to win their favor and rise through the ranks, he presented his own unique brand of pirate journalism. During one memorable report, he spoke of a man who got too, um, friendly with the dairy goat. It earned him a punch in the face -- but it was also a turning point in how the crew and Flint alike regarded him. As Black Sails is meticulously detailed, the fact that this scene nods to not one but two important points in his evolution is noteworthy.
Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things
When Flint and Madi stand on the shore, scanning the horizon for Silver, the scene is an unexpected moment of bonding. In many regards, the two couldn’t be more different. Flint was an officer who used to belong to a society that enslaved Madi’s people. He subsequently became a leader out of a mixture of necessity and compulsion. Madi, on the other hand, was born into it. And though her people have suffered from the might of the British empire, with her childhood spent in the Maroon camp, she’s been shielded from its direct impact. And yet, John Silver has chosen them as the only two people in the world he loves. Sure, he hasn’t used the word, but he’s unguarded in front of each of them in a way that he isn’t with anyone else. When Flint and Madi tensely acknowledge their two-person membership to the John Silver’s People Club, it’s a brief but fascinating calm in the middle of the storm.
To be underestimated is an incredible gift
Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) is currently the smartest, most self-aware character in all of Black Sails. She’s not eloquent like Jack, nor does she have Flint or Silver’s steely intelligence or Max and Eleanor’s desire to get ahead. Anne is more along the lines of Charles Vane’s brand of no-frills instinctual street smarts. Her scene with Jack (Toby Schmitz) is one of the episode’s most emotionally resonant not only because their dynamic is consistently magnetic -- but also because it shows how unique Anne is and how far she’s come. She isn’t interested in proving anything to anyone – but she’s also smart enough to recognize when someone else is. As much as Black Sails is known for being a loquacious show, just like its characters, there’s always far more happening beneath the surface.
The most intriguing hostility
Even though we’re aware that Jack is shaken by Charles Vane’s death, it’s one thing to know it and another to see it. Although he’s fought before without Anne or Vane to protect him (in Season 2), that was sloppy and borderline comedic. It’s pleasantly shocking to see him out for blood. As much fun as speech-giving “If you behave like children, I will be your daddy,” Jack is, there’s a particular thrill to watching him unleash his rage. The scene’s very rawness comes from the fact that he’s usually so refined, in his own topsy-turvy way.
· Billy has a Leadership Beard now to signify his new status.
· This is the second time we’ve seen Silver have sex (the first being in the pilot). Just like in 1.01, the actual act here is skipped over in favor of the conversational intimacy afterwards. As sex is just as crucial to each character as their fighting style or methods of leadership, this is not a coincidence. Of course the conversational intimacy is the most important part to Silver.
· The new redcoat – who is incidentally played by Toby Stephens’s brother Chris Larkin – is sort of a Ned Low 2.0, only this time on the side of civilization.
· So, Eleanor and Woodes Rogers are married now. Ordinarily I like how Black Sails forces the viewer to actively engage and fill in blanks, but I question if that’s the right call here. While it makes sense that it happened off screen --as it isn’t crucial to the main narrative -- that’s a major life event, particularly for a woman who previously never saw herself as wanting or needing marriage. Shifting this off screen is different than the beginning of Season 3, when Flint, Vane, and Rackham fought about the gold off screen. That would have been fun to watch, but in missing it, we didn’t miss crucial parts of their personal evolutions.
· For those of you who like podcasts as well as reviews and recaps, might I direct your attention to this Black Sails podcast.