'Black Sails' Shakes Up Its Chessboard

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 5, “XXXIII.”

Who is king of the new world?

This episode is about compromise and pivoting plans. Silver and Madi clash over whether they could walk away from Nassau; Woodes Rogers pivots to a new angle; Silver frets over his next move before acting. But Flint’s plan is the one that is the most uprooted by the episode’s end.

Flint has always been a better pirate than Jack: He’s a superior fighter, a more cunning strategist, a more ruthless decision-maker. And yet when they meet on that beach for the first time since the Season 3 finale, Jack isn’t the hanger-on that Flint tolerates because of more important figures like Vane and Teach. For the first time, they talk as equals. Few people can cow Flint into silence when he’s on a mission, but he listens as Jack explains why Rogers is a wild card whose behavior no plan can depend on. It’s a serious scene but there’s also a delightful sitcom quality to their mutual bemused “what are you doing here?!” Black Sails is a master at episode closers, and as we leave Jack, Flint, and Eleanor on that beach, it’s impossible to predict where the story goes from here.

Who is utterly screwed?

When Jacob Garrett reveals to Billy that Silver has conspired to kill him, it’s a surprising moment. Earlier, Silver was genuine in his inner turmoil about “fucking Billy” versus “fucking Flint.” The writing cleverly led us to believe his loyalty to Flint was wavering, as he told Madi with dismay, “Jesus, you sound just like him.” He also seemed to regain some of his old rapport with Billy.

But that changes when Israel Hands – who has proven to be quite the guard dog for Silver -- attacks Billy while Silver watches calmly from the shrubbery. The scene reinforces how not unlike Jack, Silver is at his most dangerous right after he’s seemingly at his most uncertain and wrong-footed. As Garrett points out, Long John Silver is a fiction while Billy has truly led these men. But their willingness to turn on Billy shows that fiction has supplanted reality.

Strange pairs can achieve the most unexpected things

Silver’s dramatic evolution, which is arguably the best on television, works because it’s happened in fits and bursts rather than all at once. Although he’s now Long John Silver the pirate king, his old self who never wanted this life is still there beneath the surface. He emerges in this episode when he says of Flint and Madi, “the road they’re going on is one I’m losing the ability to understand.” Flint is the man who once expressed the desire to live in a place where oars are mistaken for shovels. But in his scenes with both Madi and Israel Hands, it’s Silver who seems to hunger for that life now.

Israel Hands is proving to be something of a combined angel and devil on his shoulder, as he goads him into action by pointing out, “why should I follow you if you don’t know?” Clearly his straightforward and unorthodox council has an impact.

To be underestimated is an incredible gift

I’ve struggled with Eleanor above any other character on Black Sails not just because she killed Vane. While that exacerbated it, the true reason is that her plot lines always involve her trying to solve problems while ultimately being rescued by men who take care of them for her. When she seemed screwed in Season 2 with Ned Low, Charles Vane swooped in to fix that. She then repaid him with sex and hid behind his name. When she was imprisoned in Season 3, Woodes Rogers swooped in to fix that. She then repaid him with sex and hid behind his name on a literal level. Late Season 3 and early Season 4 had begun making me feel slightly disingenuous all those times I’ve made the case for Black Sails by imploring, “Ignore Michael Bay’s name; there’s absolutely no Bay-esque female character bullshit!”

But this episode revealed that what I had assumed was a storytelling flaw (the fact that Eleanor often feels like a female character presented by male writers) has been a deliberately woven web. While Jack’s tragic flaw is his vanity, Eleanor’s is this pathological reliance on men (“So many goddamn men here,” she says bitterly). By having her acknowledge this in a scene with her two truest father figures – Flint in person; Mr. Scott in reference -- Black Sails is turning an issue into a virtue and executing an emotional payoff I had given up hoping for.

The last time Eleanor wore a green dress while talking to a pirate in a cell, it was her ugliest moment. She’s the only character we’ve seen be deliberately cruel to someone who loved her. Keelhauling and curb stomping are both greater acts of cruelty on a physical level, but they weren’t personal, as Rogers and Silver hardly shared any love with their victims. Here, Eleanor is also wearing a green dress talking to a pirate in a cell, but this time it’s perhaps her best moment as a character. Whatever impulse it is inside her that keeps her hiding behind men, it’s irked her just as much as it’s irked me. And yet it’s baked into her unconscious, she’s unable to stop even as she acknowledges it. There’s a tragedy to that. Eleanor began the show as a tough love trash talking Wendy on this island of Lost Boys but now she’s the most lost of all. Flint knows it too, as his parting words are a gentle chiding: “Woodes Rogers. Is he really so different from the rest of us?” What seemed like one of the story’s biggest blind spots turned out to be an example of its exquisitely crafted character psychologies.

Stray gold

· Jacob Garret: “Your oaths…were given to this man while that man was a fiction. To hell with all of you who can’t tell the difference!” Presuming he’s not merely injured, pour one out for Garrett, the ultimate pirate with a conscience (“I can’t believe I’m the only one who knows this isn’t right.”) Recall that when he was first introduced in Season 2, he was the endearingly polite john who approached Anne Bonny during her identity crisis.

· Speaking of Anne, this episode had an egregious lack of her. On the plus side, Jack would hardly be taking beach strolls if her injuries from last episode were mortal.

· That last scene showed it’s too bad Jack lost his Season 1 pirate sunglasses.

· Flint is downright serene reading a book during his fort sojourn. What do we think it is, Don Quixote? Meditations? The Odyssey?

· Rogers joins Charles Vane in characters who apparently spend their downtime listening to Spanish language Rosetta Stone tapes. Even though I’m sad for the pirates that Spain is coming, narratively I’m glad the threat of Spain is not being left unaddressed.

· Silver asks Madi if he would be enough for her “if this all ended,” but the real question is would she be enough for him? As Flint said to him in Season 2, ‘where else would you wake up in the morning and matter?’

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

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