Tonight one of my favourite television shows draws to a close after four seasons. Loosely constructed as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Black Sails tells the story of Captain James Flint and the pirates of Nassau during the Golden Age of Piracy.
Despite the action sequences, the gorgeous scenery (the show was shot in South Africa and is particularly stunning in HD), and one of the more attractive casts on television, the most riveting parts of the show are often the conversations between two individuals. This is a testament to the superb writing and to an incredibly strong cast, led by Toby Stephens (Captain Flint) and Luke Arnold (John Silver).
I can’t say enough good things about Toby Stephens, who you may recognize from his turn as Mr. Rochester in the 2006 Jane Eyre or from the recent miniseries of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in this show. His Flint is a multi-faceted character who is driven, ruthless, and also a brilliant strategist with the ability to sway men with his words. Although he is an enigmatic figure in the first season of the show, the audience gradually learns more about Flint, building to a wonderful episode in season two where we finally learn what motivates him.
He is matched by Luke Arnold, whose John Silver has a wonderful arc over the course of the show, growing from a thief driven purely by self-interest and profit to the pirate legend we know from Treasure Island. His Silver is clever, likable, and shrewd, and serves over the course of the show as both an antagonist and as a partner and even friend to Flint. Together these characters are mesmerizing to watch, particularly in the first episode of the second season, which I have taken to calling “two Slytherins take over a ship”, a favourite episode of mine. The fact that neither the show itself or its lead actors have been nominated for Emmys and other television industry awards is, in my opinion, the biggest snub since John Noble was consistently ignored by the Academy despite his always excellent work on Fringe.
The first season of Black Sails does have its flaws but, in a refreshing change from the norm, the creators appear to have taken note of these weaknesses and the second season is some of the best television I’ve ever seen. The show is also very re watchable because you will catch foreshadowing and tidbits of information that lay the groundwork for plot points and interactions to come.
If you love Game of Thrones but have issues with its treatment of female characters, or if you quit Game of Thrones for the same reason, Black Sails is the show for you. The writers present a variety of women, from the mysterious Mrs. Barlow, Flint’s confidant, to Elinor Guthrie who controls commerce on the island, Anne Bonny, one of the deadliest pirates, and Max, a WoC whore whose intelligence and ambition allow her to rise above her station. Later seasons introduce Madi, a WoC and formidable force in her own right. The women are all well-written characters who have a say and a stake in Nassau’s future.
Black Sails also features multiple characters who are gay or bisexual, including some in leading roles. The characters are shaped by their sexuality, but this is not their defining feature.
It’s also a visually gorgeous show. When I got a blu-ray player and watched the show for the first time in blu-ray I was shocked by just how gorgeous the ocean and the colours of Nassau are. There is a vividness to the world and some gorgeous costumes (I’d love some of Max’s dresses, but also some of the great pirate coats worn by others on the show!). The naval battles are also impressive and the quality of production on a storm sequence one season would not be out of place on a movie theatre screen.
What ultimately gets me though, is how Black Sails can make a conversation between two people, particularly Flint and Silver, but conversations between Flint and Barlow, and Max and Anne also come to mind, so riveting. I would watch an entire show of just Flint and Silver talking around a campfire!
As part of a passionate fanbase for this show, I bid it farewell with great sadness, and with fear for the lives and happiness of these characters that I care about so deeply. I also say goodbye to Black Sails with some lingering bitterness. This is a show that deserves to be more widely known and appreciated than it is but that has flown completely under the radar, perhaps because of the network it’s on (Starz), the fact that it isn’t on Netflix (in North America), or because it isn’t based on a known property like Outlander or Game of Thrones. Whatever the reason, it’s a fabulous show featuring some of the best written female characters on television, multiple gay and bisexual main characters even though the show is set in the 1700s, strong WoC characters, strong acting and writing, and, of course, pirates! What’s not to love? I certainly hope Black Sails is a show that people continue to discover over the years, and if you haven’t watched it yet, well then what are you waiting for?