“Black Sails” – STARZ
Created by Robert Levine & Jonathon E. Steinberg
Well, damn. Another brilliant television series just closed its shingle for good. While you were suffering through a second season of “Highlander”, STARZ’ “Black Sails” continued to get progressively better (and better) each season – coming to a perfect end on its thirty-eighth episode. The pirate adventure possessed some of the best writing on television…smart, intelligent and gorgeous to listen to…coming from a large cast of brilliant British, Canadian and African actors, with better production values than 98% of period cinematic dramas. And lest you think it was a simple show about “pirates”, know that it was really about the yoke of imperialism, the politics of freedom (both from slavery and from that imperialism), the nature and nurture of love (straight, gay, lesbian and platonic), the real dangers of living in an age of wind-powered seafaring, and so much more. And, when was the last time you heard of a “pirate” tale where the most powerful characters, both economically and emotionally, were its women.
Taking place twenty years before “Treasure Island”, “Black Sails” is an origin story of sorts. It details the early lives of Captains Flint, Teach (Blackbeard), Vane and Rackham. Tells of the rise of John Silver from obscurity to legend. Explains how Nassau was ruled with wisdom and economic acumen by Eleanor Guthrie and a French prostitute named Max. Dramatizes, with held breath, the efforts of Woodes Rogers to bend Nassau to his will, and illustrates both the sufferings, and self-empowerment, of Africans both enslaved and liberated. And most surprising for me, introduced a kick-ass woman by the name of Anne Bonny, who was, quite literally, tougher than any man of the era. All with prescient/currently relevant writing such as this:
“When the king brands us pirates, he doesn’t mean to make us adversaries. He doesn’t mean to make us criminals. He means to make us monsters. For that’s the only way his god-fearing, tax-paying subjects can make sense of men who keep what is theirs and fear no one. When I say there’s a war coming, I don’t mean with King George or England. Civilization is coming. And it means to exterminate us.” – Captain Flint (Toby Stephens)
And the acting is other-worldly, filled with dozens of British classical actors, almost none of whom have any credits beyond UK television. However, once observed, you’ll feel as though you’ve seen them in a million different things. I’ve racked my brain for any performances that seemed even remotely disingenuous, but have not come up with a one in its four seasons. The leads are brilliant. Toby Stephens (Flint), Luke Arnold (Silver), Toby Schmitz (Rackham), Tom Hopper (Billy Bones), Zach McGowan (Charles Vane) and Luke Roberts (Rogers) are all note-perfect and utterly believable…even as they speak words MUCH too beautiful to have ever been uttered by men in these circumstances. But the women…Hannah New (Eleanor Guthrie), Jessica Parker Kennedy (Max), Zethu Dlomo (Madi) and Clara Paget (Anne Bonny)…may give the best television period ensemble performances over the last several years.
But, keep in mind, this is a show about ideas. While there exists plenty of action, violence and sex, what makes it so smart and enjoyable is the slow burn of its psychological shifts, the architecture of sought-after power, and the building of trust, respect, love and hate among its combatants. The stakes are as high as high can be in almost every frame, and, let me reiterate, it never feels false. It never comes close to emulating the cartoonish qualities that invade EVERY other pirate production ever created. And, finally, “Sails” is as beautifully photographed as anything “Game of Thrones” has to offer.
And then there’s Bear McReary’s score. The brilliant opening theme is dark, evocative of “pirate music”, yes, but with the slight atonal qualities of scraped violin, the rowdy feel of a standup piano in a disgusting bar, and the dark and exhausted strains of a bagpipe breathing its last breath. This is music matched to its subject in a way that most television scores never can. Yes, MANY have brilliant themes, but not SO specific to the world they precede.
It may sound like I’m overselling the show. But, while I don’t think I am, I did just ingest a GORGEOUS series finale which presented its closing arguments to perfection. Therefore, simultaneously satiated and heartbroken, it is possible I’ve over-reached. But I DO know its thirty-eight episodes (recently acquired by Hulu), will be held in high esteem by me for years to come – something that can not be said for “Highlander” which, let’s face it, is why most of you even HAVE STARZ.
“Black Sails” is a seminal show. If you’re looking for something to binge, there exists not even the tiniest excuse to avoid putting it on your list – especially since it only gets better as it progresses.
(The trailers spend their time hyping the action – which, to me, undermines what makes the show so strong. Therefore I’ve chosen not to present them here.)
Written on 4/5/2017