“Mr Holmes doesn’t work here any more.”
That line in itself sums up everything that is excellent about Black Sails. When I first came across the promo shots of this four season television series I thought, ‘pirates, not too sure about pirates.’ I enjoyed the first couple of Pirates of the Caribbean films, but the prospect of a lot of yo ho ho-ing and shivering timbers put me off. What a mistake.
The first ever episode of Black Sails was broadcast for free on Youtube in 2014 and the little known production company behind it, Starz, launched the programme without the backing of major networks. Reviews and ratings suggest it was a resounding success.
In short, Black Sails is set on the island of Nassau, a British colony abandoned to the pirates who are left to get on with it untouched and untouchable. The programme centres around four principal characters: pirate captains James Flint (Toby Stephens) and Charles Vane (Zach McGowan); Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the island’s ‘fence’ who buys and sells the pirates’ stolen cargo; and John Silver (Luke Arnold) before he lost a leg.
Flint, a former British naval officer, has a back story that unveils throughout the four seasons, and at various times is both ally and enemy of Vane, Guthrie and Silver. Objectives shift, allegiances warp, motivations come and go in clouds of opacity and ambiguity.
In addition to the production values, (each season is no more than ten episodes which probably allowed Starz to concentrate the budget on highly detailed sets and designs) the writing is impeccable. Stories and characters are allowed to develop in their own space and time, the acting is world class and the life of a pirate in 1715 is presented as plausible and possible. No parrots on shoulders, no eye patches, no cackling characters with bad Cornish accents. If I recreated the dialogue here it would be a string of asterisks!
When people ask me what Black Sails is like I describe it as The Wire with pirates. And it’s a long time since I’ve watched genre television that actually respected its audience, didn’t play on the usual stereotypes, wasn’t afraid to make its heroes and anti-heroes ambiguous. You might argue everyone in Black Sails is a villain, but even in that context there is an ethical code that is kept to consistently.
The characters themselves are engrossing. Flint is the former gentleman turned into a savage by his past treatment and drive to achieve a new order for Nassau; Vane is the uncompromising criminal everyone fears; Guthrie is the ambitious business woman controlling the island in the face of an overwhelmingly masculine threat that could revolt at any time; and Silver is the impish trickster who approaches every situation with guile and intelligence.
In fact, throughout the series problems are dealt with using intelligence and wit as much as gunpowder and cutlasses. Don’t get me wrong, when there’s violence it’s unflinching. (The scene where pirate Ned Lowe cuts off the head of his quartermaster is truly stomach churning.) But Black Sails doesn’t use violence for shock value, it’s part of a bigger arsenal of tricks to tell its story, paint its canvas, entertain.
And the line I used to start this review. It’s from season two. An episode I made a point of staying up late to watch because the inevitable confrontation brewing from the first episode had to be seen. It was television storytelling at its finest.
If you haven’t yet discovered Black Sails check it out. The Urca de Lima is not the only source of unmeasurable treasure.