For a show that I absolutely adore I have trouble convincing anyone to watch it. No matter how much I praise Black Sails it has never been enough to convert those who have fallen prey to my waffling. I once described it as ‘Game of Thrones with pirates’ but that’s like saying any contemporary US TV show featuring nudity and violence is like Game of Thrones. It’s actually more akin to Breaking Bad. Black Sails isn’t about a nautical drug cartel but Captain James Flint is charismatic, manipulative, and always has an ulterior motive; he’s the Walter White of the high seas, and if that doesn’t float your boat then I’m happy to see you drown.
With Season 3 airing in the New Year it’s not too late to sail your way through the first two seasons. Here are a handful of reasons why.
SPOILERS – Season 3 trailer
Pirates Like You Have Never Seen Them
Black Sails has to compete with the preconceived notions of what a pirate is. My perception of pirates has been wrongfully shaped by Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean and Halloween, and I’m confident none of those are historically accurate. That’s because historically accurate pirates are fucking boring. That’s why civilisation has turned ‘the pirate’ into a cardboard cut-out villain.
Black Sails aims to undo all of that and re-establishes pirates as real human beings. Piracy isn’t an occupation; it’s an occupational hazard. Pirating is how these men and women survive since their homelands exiled them. There are definitely characters that purposely chose the pirate way of life but many of them have had no choice but to fall headfirst into it.
One significant part of the plot is how England paints pirates as heartless monsters, which induces fear in its people, which in turn sets the gears of war in motion. Flint takes advantage of England’s lies and employs theatrics in his attacks to garner the reputation of a stereotypical pirate – the type of pirate we lovingly loath to this day. On more than one occasion the show explores the origins of our modern-day perception of ‘the pirate’ but it digs deeper into the sand to unveil something that’s not a cartoonish facsimile.
The likes of David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and Admiral Ackbar don’t interest me. Real-life politics depresses me. You won’t stumble into my lounge and accidentally catch me, with penis in hand, watching The Good Wife or House of Cards. Fictional politics though, well they have a grasp over me. Fictional politics aren’t weighed down by pesky life-changing consequences so watching people drop like flies as a conspiracy spirals out of control is damn right entertaining. We all enjoy watching our heroes get backed into a corner and having to fight their way out.
Black Sails has political intrigue in abundance. Captain Flint is a man struggling to keep the support of his crew, constantly tiptoeing around mutinies. Eleanor Guthrie fights for control of her pirate-run island with her father, who would rather see Eleanor slit at the throat than usurp him. Charles Vane is a savage whose own philosophy spits in the face of Flint’s ideals. John Silver is a trader of secrets who will stab anyone in the back to stay alive. It’s as if honour and treachery are interchangeable.
Black Sails has the difficult task of convincing you that pirates are not the paint-by-numbers villains you think they are. Inherently, you will find yourselves sympathising with Flint and his men because they are the protagonists, and even though they are murdering and thieving rascals the show gives us time to learn what’s motivating their behaviour – and it’s not bloodlust.
So Black Sails has to introduce another villainous component, one that makes the pirates seem less frightening, and it comes in the form as Charles Vane. He enjoys inflicting pain and taking what’s not his, but the more time you spend with him the more you realise his villainous behaviour can also be justified.
So another villainous component is introduced, like Eleanor’s father, Richard Guthrie. He makes some terrible decisions to jeopardise Eleanor’s control of the pirate-run island but no matter how evil his actions may seem it is born from a paternal need to see his daughter as far away from the pirates as possible. There’s no clear black-and-white enemy as everyone is stepping on someone else’s toes. A commendable action from Flint will piss off Vane, which in turn will force Vane’s hand to do something reckless, which in turn will please his crew but piss off Eleanor. You want to see them all succeed but for one of them to walk away victorious at least one of them has to die.
Better Than Treasure Island
For all intents and purposes Black Sails is a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. If you haven’t read Treasure Island, don’t. It’s pretty shit. It’s also not a requirement. In fact, prior knowledge of the characters can ruin Black Sails. You are definitely more likely to spot a few call-backs to the short novel but if anything they are more of a distraction than a delightful nod.
Thankfully, Black Sails doesn’t heavily rely on the source material because 90% of the characters are brand new fabrications. The only creative restrictions imposed by Treasure Island is that John Silver must become a one-legged psychopath and a shit load of gold needs to get buried – apart from that though the writers have total freedom to carry on creating complex individuals with human relationships. It’s in a league of its own.
The best title sequence since Dexter
Hopefully I have persuaded you to jump on board but if I haven’t, well, then you’re an absolute plank.
Want to retaliate? Post a comment. I lament once a week but you can follow me on Twitter @LeeLaments where I moan every day.