Black Sails is a show filled with scheming, skullduggery, and as many quiet character beats as epic action sequences. With writing that’s 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 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 2, “XXX.”
Who is king of the new world?
It’s hard to say what Black Sails does better: season finales or character introductions. Because Israel Hands (David Wilmot) has a past with Teach, he’s woven into this world’s history. But his status as a Treasure Island character also ties him to its future. When Silver parses out his identity, the camera’s focus on Hands’s eyes echoes Teach’s Season 3 introduction. This suggests that he’s an old-school pirate like Teach rather than a visionary like Flint or an idealist like Jack. But as “XXX” unfolds, it reveals Hands as a new, dangerous sort: a man with nothing to lose.
In a powerful monologue, Silver tells Hands that he is “no one from nowhere belonging to nothing,” but that’s a lie -- he has ties to Flint, his crew, and Madi. But Israel Hands really does come from nowhere (as the Wrecks are a no man’s land) and belong to nothing (as he’s an outcast even from outcast society). With that on his side, Silver now has a unique weapon.
Who is utterly screwed?
Last episode I compared the new ex-Redcoat Berringer to Season 2’s Ned Low. While Berringer fights for the side of “civilization,” he’s got a similarly violent extremist outlook. Considering her history with Low, then, it’s remarkable that Eleanor is blasé about Berringer simply because he wears a red coat where Low wore leather and cloaks his blood lust in righteousness. Eleanor maintains that Nassau is of the utmost importance -- but she continues to show blind spots in her understanding of its character. First she hung one of its most renowned captains and was surprised by the blowback from the streets; now she’s handing its reins over to a power-hungry loose cannon. Though she assures Max that Berringer’s control is temporary, it’s hard to imagine this won’t backfire.
Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things
Ray Stevenson’s Teach entered the show as a swaggering cowboy unimpressed with how soft his old stomping grounds had become. He looked at flamboyant Jack as an insult to the very notion of piracy. Yet it turns out that he’s the most unabashedly romantic character on Black Sails. His speech is downright Wordsworthian: “I knew right away he and I somehow were fated to matter to one another…It felt meaningful. The answer to a question I did not yet know how to ask.” Though their relationships with Charles Vane seems like their only commonality, “XXX” showed that Jack and Teach share something else: A sentimental nature and the self-awareness to recognize it.
This simple scene is arguably the episode’s strongest. By giving us new information about Vane, Black Sails enables him to remain a presence for the viewer just as he is for Jack and Teach-- which is integral for getting us on board with a turn we don’t necessarily want. Quite frankly if they don’t kill Eleanor, that will be narratively unsatisfying. (Like Peter Ashe, Dufresne, and Hornigold, she did something unjust for personal reasons she convinced herself were for the greater good. They all saw comeuppance). But the beauty of Black Sails is that story is always driven by character, and characters act in deeply human ways. The audience – or at least most of it -- wants Eleanor’s head on a stick accompanied by a “I angered Jack Rackham” note. But we also want Jack to go back to fretting over flag designs instead of suffering. When those two desires are in conflict, it forces us to confront the difference between what we want and what we need-- just as the characters themselves are. Even the seemingly straightforward concept of revenge comes steeped in philosophical quandaries on Black Sails.
To be underestimated is an incredible gift
With all this talk of pirate kings, so far, Billy is the only one demonstrating it. His men willingly follow him where Flint always needs to manipulate them into it. And yet, Flint is able to see the big picture of the situation with the slaves while Billy’s focus on being more humane in the moment could prove to be more detrimental in the long run. His tense fight with Flint poses the question Black Sails has always mulled over: Is a good leader someone who is fair and efficient, or someone who isn’t afraid to make unsavory decisions for a larger goal?
The most intriguing hostility
Of all the relationships on Black Sails, Silver and Max’s has always been most in line with mob narratives. They have mutual respect, but their language is one of business rather than genuine friendship. In the final scene when Silver says, “You owe me. Certainly your fortune, probably your life,” he’s laying out the facts of this transaction. So far, so usual. And yet, his tone and posture are aggressive in a way that’s new. He’s still trying to sweet-talk his way out of a bind, but he’s also throwing his newly acquired weight around. The fearsome Long John Silver is beginning to cross over from Billy’s invented fiction into reality. It’s a wickedly clever turn.
· Serious question: how many times has Woodes Rogers reread his own book?
· That bird soliloquy, aside from being beautiful, is doing a great job of keeping Charles Vane an important presence.
· “There are men on both sides of this war whose identities are so enmeshed in this conflict that they are more afraid of ending it than they are of losing it.”
· Jack and Teach’s scene also runs parallel to Anne’s earlier scene when she struggles with how unsatisfying it would be to get revenge on Max. Her insightfulness is glorious.
· Contrary to Anne, someone whose insightfulness is not glorious: “Long John Silver. So big a name for so small a man.” When you reunite with your frenemy after he’s become a notorious pirate murderer since you last spoke, maybe don’t begin with an insult? You’d think after years of living and working with pirates, Max would stop underestimating them. In Season 3 it was Jack and Anne; now it’s Silver. For someone who loves talking about how smart she is, Max hasn’t followed through in action since Season 2. Get your house in order, girl.
· For those who like podcasts as well as reviews and recaps, see this Black Sails podcast.