'Black Sails:' The End

Black Sails is a show with as many quiet character beats as epic action sequences. With pacing that rewards repeat viewing and writing that is downright literary, it’s almost a cross between a novel an a show. Each week, I break down the most pertinent beats of each episode — and it’s truly been my pleasure, as Season 4 episode 10 is the series finale.

Who is king of the new world?

It’s often difficult to find something eloquent to say about this show rather than dissolving into caps lock and exclamations — and the series finale is challenging that impulse most of all. Part of me just wants to write JACK AND ANNE LIVE, MARY READ, OARS AND SHOVELS, SILVER AND THE COOK, JACK AND HIS FLAG, SILVER AND JACK SHARING A MOMENT OF MUTUAL CRAFTINESS, GOVERNOR FEATHERSTONE, THOMAS FUCKING HAMILTON! But I’ll try to pull it together for my final review.

Improbably, impossibly, Jack Rackham — who began Season 1 as Charles Vane’s comic-relief sidekick and started Season 2 getting pissed on — is the last pirate left standing. The golden age of piracy is dead and Jack and Anne must continue the account in secret, washed-up and reminiscing about the good old days. It’s a bittersweet fate for them, but it’s unquestionably sweet for the audience that they still draw breath. Although it’s unclear exactly how much time has passed when we catch up to them at the end, their rhythm remains the same: Anne’s wordless glance that conveys a thousand words, her smirk at Jack’s lack of satisfaction in his famous flag, her reprimands about recruiting ‘new people’ that lacks true bite.

Black Sails, as a whole, is a tragedy. The majority of its characters have died or failed to achieve their goals. But the fact that it chose its final shot to be Jack and Anne setting sail on a new adventure shows that it’s a story of optimism and humanity at heart. It’s never been tragic merely for the sake of it. Part of the reason Jack and Anne have remained one of the best parts of the show is that no relationship has been more human. It’s full of flaws and a sense of bone-deep knowledge and history. Flint’s opening monologue about twins in the first episode of Season 4 rings through that final scene. Jack and Anne are two sides of each other’s coin and the Black Sails coin. Jack with his fastidiousness represents the carefully constructed parts of the show like the flowery monologues and subtle story beats; Anne with her utilitarian practicality represents the satisfying action. Through thick and thin, they remain partners till the fucking ground.

Who is utterly screwed?

James Flint is dead. John Silver killed him on Skeleton Island. But through a brilliant feat of writing, it remains up to our interpretation whether he’s literally dead or figuratively, while James McGraw lives on with his long lost love Thomas Hamilton. Both versions have valid arguments.

Supporting the ‘James really is alive and with Thomas’ argument is the cold open at the beginning of the episode. Although James and Thomas’s reunion is a story that is filtered through Silver, the cold open is not. The plantation is therefore real, and Silver really did send a man to inquire after Thomas. Last episode I said that Flint shooting Dooley showed that he loved Silver. It remains a question whether or not Silver loves Flint — but if he truly sent him to Thomas, that is an act of love. Silver is deeply sincere in his wish to not kill Flint, and he sincerely wanted to win Madi back. He was willing to wait “a day, a month, a year” for both Flint and Madi to see eye to eye with him. These are all reasons to believe that Flint’s fate is literal and plays out exactly how it’s shown onscreen. In an ending of unexpected grace, James McGraw lives on in Savannah with Thomas Hamilton.

On the other hand, supporting the ‘Flint is dead’ argument, the cold open does’t confirm that Flint is at the plantation with Thomas. It simply means Silver sent a man to investigate. The open didn’t reveal if he found anything conclusive — that comes filtered through Silver’s perspective. And when Silver tells the story of Flint and Thomas, it’s during a moment when he’s desperate to win Madi back. There’s no telling what lies John Silver will tell to get what he wants. As 4.09 revealed, just because Silver deeply cares about someone, it doesn’t mean he’ll stop lying. He still perpetuated his ‘boys home’ story to Flint even after they grew close. He only stopped when he was forced to, as Flint called him out on it. He had tears in his eyes as he told the story of James and Thomas, but they could have been wistful tears that that wasnt Flint’s fate, or tears of regret for killing him.

Further, after the camera cuts away from Flint and Silver’s confrontation in the forest, birds fly up from the spot as if spooked from the sound of a gunshot. And lastly, in the Flint and Thomas scene, Thomas is clad in angelic white — is that really practical if you’re working in a field?

Whichever story you chose to believe, Jack’s words at the end of the episode ring: “The truth matters not...The stories we want to believe, those are the ones that survive.” Like Silver’s backstory, Flint’s ending exists between the spaces. It’s there for you to make of what you will; to see him as redeemed or defeated.

Just like the characters themselves, different viewers will see this differently. It can’t be said enough how perfect this ending is. True ambiguity is impossibly tough to nail in a satisfying way. Black Sails makes it work because it brilliantly lays the groundwork for multiple interpretations, and it fits its theme of storytelling and legend within truth. As James Flint passes into the status of his legendary Treasure Island persona, he had to maintain an air of mystery to the audience too.

“They paint the world full of shadows and tell their children to stay close to the light, because in the darkness there be dragons. But it isn’t true. In the darkness there is....freedom.”

I have spent a week annoyed with whoever cut the trailer for this episode (sorry if you’re reading this, trailer-cutter) because Flint’s final monologue is the most powerful on recent television. It should have been a surprise reveal in its entirety and no part of it should have been excerpted beforehand.

When Flint and Silver have their final confrontation in the forest, it’s the pinnacle of both the show and each man’s arc. When Silver says “that isn’t a war. That is a fucking nightmare,” it cement the fact that whatever unknown horrors lie in his past, they’ve been embedded in his psyche to the point where they have informed his actions this entire time. Not only does it fill in the rest of his Season 4 characterization, but it also shows that he’s not as far from the man he was in Season 1 as you might think.

Season 4 has been odder than previous seasons in a sense, because Silver’s characterization is far more satisfying in retrospect than it was as the episodes unfolded. This snarky and self-centered con man might have grown more compassionate over time, but it seemed sudden for him to turn sentimental and embrace the pat motive of doing it for a girl — albeit an amazing one. Even Charles Vane, who ‘did it for a girl’ more than any other character, did it for idealism and his principles in the end. And even Anne Bonny didn’t only fight for Jack in 4.04; she fought for freedom.

As the forest scene reveals, however, what’s going on in Silver’s mind is also idealism and principles. Because of the shadows lurking in his backstory, he truly does see the world as a nightmare. Throughout four seasons, he’s fixated on various safe harbors to cling to: the idea of the gold, the idea of Flint, and finally Madi. His actions in Season 4 are all a part of that insecure place in his psyche, including the part where he unmakes one monster (Flint) and makes two more (Billy and himself). In many regards, Silver is light-years away from the man he was in Season 1. He’s compassionate and he’s a true pirate. But as this scene showed, at heart, he’s still a coward.

By ‘coward’ I don’t mean that he’s not brave or bold. But part of him is still that impish boy crouching in a ship hold, doing anything he can to avoid conflict and darkness. (Which is also why, right before the forest scene, he encounters the ghost of his former self in the form of a different cook and sneers at him, ‘Are you a fucking coward?’).When Silver stops Flint from continuing his war and ‘nightmare,’ it’s an extension of that impulse. Flint sees freedom in the darkness; Silver just sees darkness. The fact that Silver is changed yet unchanged — circling back to his roots — makes his character development even stronger than if he had changed entirely. Black Sails is Flint’s tragedy, but it’s also Silver’s.

Flint’s monologue, aside from being beautiful, also reveals his truest nature. Silver sees Flint as being filled with rage, and he is. But deep down, he’s also never relinquished Thomas’s idealism. Flint wanted to wage war against the world, but his belief in his ability to change it — and in Silver and Madi’s ability to see it through — was genuine. To say Flint only fought for rage is only half of the picture.

Even when Flint is gone, their fates remain intertwined, because Flint’s prophetic words about Silver’s chosen path not being “enough” are true. Someday in Treasure Island, Silver will come back to this wretched place, seeking Captain Flint’s treasure. To say Long John Silver’s venture is just for riches is like saying the conflict between Flint and Silver has just been over “money,” as Billy told Rogers in 4.08. Here, Silver tells Flint that he recognizes the impulse to watch the world burn — and even though he gets his reunion with Madi, that impulse clearly doesn’t go away. Whether or not he’s dead, James Flint lives on in Silver’s head, inciting him to return years later. Inciting him to feel unfulfilled with the life he thinks he wants.

For his part, to say Silver only fought for a woman or because he felt betrayed by Flint is also only half the picture. He fights for safe harbor and for avoiding the darkness — because to Silver, there isn’t freedom and discovery in the darkness. Whether he’s the con man who never wanted to be a pirate in Season 1 or whether he’s the pirate king in Season 4, he’s still the guy who shrinks back from darkness. But because the show is forcing the viewer to take a stance on Flint’s fate, Black Sails ultimately becomes a lethally smart möbius strip of a show which revolves around the way the audience sees and trusts Silver.

As Flint says, his efforts might be lost to the histories, pirates might go down in the books as the monsters in children’s stories — but Black Sails will go down among the most excellent shows of the modern era. In construction and craft, in writing, in care, in acting, and in sheer intelligence, television does not get better than this. Jack looks at his flag saying art must transcend, and Black Sails has. As my final word on the final episode, I quote Jack in his egregiously miscalculated understatement on the one symbol that will cement his name in history: Black Sails is fine. It’s fine.

Stray Gold

  • For post-finale interviews, I spoke with Toby Schmitz and the creators.
  • This is the part where there will be a lot of caps lock and exclamation points, so bear with me. FLINT TRADED HIS OARS FOR SHOVELS!! A moving, earned callback to the very beginning of Season 1.
  • The Latin inscription on the gate to the plantation translates to “Not for themselves but for others.” Although this connects to Georgia’s history, it’s also got a wickedly meta interpretation: Flint and Thomas’s reunion was not for themselves, but for Silver winning back Madi and therefore the audience. Flint and Thomas’s reunion was also not for the Black Sails story or writers, but for the audience to get to see Flint and Thomas reunited again. Whether or not this is intentional, it’s perfect.
  • When Silver says to Madi “you may think what you want of me. I’m not the villain you fear I am. I’m not him,” it has echoes of his Season 2 words to Flint: “The things you’ve done...it must be awful being you.”
  • MARY FUCKING READ! I’ve been waiting four seasons and resented Max for neither crossdressing nor picking up a sword for four seasons — assuming she was a Mary stand-in that the writers failed to go the distance with. BUT HERE SHE IS! That starstruck look she gives Anne is perfect.That being said, as Anne Bonny was not the only lady pirate in history, could they have introduced another before the final five minutes of the entire series? Yes. Or could they have made Eleanor more pirate-y for longer than five minutes before her death, or gone the distance with Max? Yes.
  • Silver: “Are you a fucking coward?” Cook: “Please Sir, I’m just the cook.” Although they look nothing alike, Silver meeting the ghost of his Season 1 self has echoes of the doppelgänger or fetch folktale — the double of a living person. It’s an omen of doom.
  • Of equal delight: Silver and Jack sharing a moment of recognizing each other’s cunning.
  • Rogers fate is deviously perfect too — Jack is literally writing the end of his book!
  • Billy got an earned and well-delivered villain monologue as a satisfying cap to his dark turn.
  • Anne Bonny’s lack of screen time remains my biggest criticism of Season 4. There was no narrative reason to make her healing period take longer than anyone else’s ever has on this show; no reason not to involve her in the final battle. If Billy could fight after being brutalized a few episodes ago, so can Anne. But it is vindicating that she gets the final ship command of the series.
  • Madi has the most undeserved fate. She’s arguably the most noble character: She’s a visionary, a compassionate leader, and a true queen. But now she’s resigned to live out her days with a man who not only imposed his will upon her the way Rogers imposed his upon Eleanor — but he also might have told a giant lie as a way to convince her to “keep” him. A man who, in his old age, will find her to be “not enough,” and run off on an adventure. My Black Sails vision of this story in a few years is that Madi will dump him, find someone she actually deserves — and after Jack and Anne die, Max will be too sad to stay in Nassau and will find Silver. She’ll have a girlfriend in their local village while he goes off on a Treasure Island adventure. He’ll be married to a partner who understands him and loves him in a nonromantic way, and he’ll lose the woman he truly loves. Did I just write Black Sails fan fiction?
  • Governor Featuerstone! Governor’s wife who runs the books Idelle!
  • Black Sails you sly devil: On first watch this ending seems shockingly happy, and the more you think about it the more you realize how quietly tragic it is.
  • On a personal note, some of you have been reading my work about Black Sails for two years now; others have found me recently. If you’re in the latter category, you can find all my previous words on the show here. As some of you might know, I got into Black Sails during a time when I was recovering from back surgery and desperately needed a distraction. I also noticed that there was a dearth of coverage on it. Once that time in my life was over and I was able to work full-time again, I decided to create that coverage myself. I never dreamed it would take off the way it has. It’s truly been a wild ride. Even if I don’t respond to all of them, I read and treasure all of your comments on my articles. It’s rare to find a group of fans so willing to have thoughtful discussions and so open to seeing beyond their own viewpoints. Black Sails is an amazing show because of its actual content, yes — but it’s also amazing because of the people who care about it. Thank you all, loyal crew.
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