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Black Sails, S01E01: I.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 25 January 2014
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by Neil Marshall

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Luke Arnold, Zach McGowan, Jessica Parker Kennedy, Tom Hopper, and Mark Ryan

My rating:  ★★ stars

Promising series, but a messy, overstuffed pilot.

Set in the early 18th century, Black Sails acts as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a very grown-up prequel. It follows Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), the legendary pirate whose treasure is the object of Stevenson’s novel.

In the pilot episode, Flint hasn’t gotten the treasure yet, but he’s hot on the trail. He and his crew take a merchant ship with a small cargo but reportedly holding an important document—the schedule for the largest Spanish treasure galleon in the Americas, the Urca de Lima. Unfortunately for Flint, when he goes to the captain’s log, the schedule he thought he’d find has been torn out.

The schedule has come into the hands of an opportunistic sailor on the merchant ship, John Silver (Luke Arnold)—yes, “Long” John Silver—who doesn’t know what he has, but knows it’s important. He just has to figure out how to make this piece of paper pay off for him.

Flint’s vessel, The Walrus, docks at the pirate base at Nassau, where most of the action of the series will take place. For the pirates, Nassau stands as a bastion of freedom, surrounded by ever-encroaching civilization. The threat of the outside world coming to Nassau approaches, as The Walrus spots a British navy vessel not far from New Providence Island, where Nassau is located.

Besides the missing schedule and the oncoming British navy, Flint also has to contend with rising dissension among his crew. He hasn’t told them about the search for the Urca de Lima, and they are getting restless taking in only small hauls while Flint searches for it. One of the crew members, Singleton, is in open rebellion against Flint, proposing himself as the new captain and attempting to hold a vote among the crew members.

Flint, disdaining these petty concerns while focused on his larger goal, tasks the quartermaster of The Walrus, Hal Gates (Mark Ryan), with dealing with the matter of Singleton’s rebellion. Gates, who knows the bigger picture, spends most of the episode hustling votes for Flint only to come up short due to the treachery of rival captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan). Vane’s plan is to put the incompetent Singleton in charge of The Walrus.  Vane would then pick off the best of The Walrus’s crew members to augment his own crew when Singleton inevitably fails. Vane is aided by his quartermaster, Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), and another crew member, the murderous Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), who is also Rackham’s lover.

Flint focuses on trying to recreate the missing information from the schedule by visiting the local merchant boss, Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael). Gates sends The Walrus’s boatswain, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), to watch over Flint and make sure he doesn’t overreact if Guthrie turns down his request for help. Flint barely has a chance to threaten Guthrie when representatives of the British navy come to arrest Guthrie for dealing with pirates. Flint and Billy kill the naval representatives and take Guthrie prisoner. Billy isn’t sure whether to support Flint, but Flint gives Billy, and thus the audience, a glimpse of the bigger picture—he tells him that what he’s doing will prevent their world from being obliterated by the forces of civilization. His argument apparently proves persuasive because, in the end, after Flint beats Singleton to death to maintain control of the ship, Billy lies to the crew in order to support Flint’s agenda.

When we first meet Flint, he’s calm, aloof, and erudite, subverting our expectations for a pirate captain. Vane, on the other hand, is younger, less well groomed, more direct, and quicker to use violence—in general, more of what we would expect a pirate captain to be. Indeed, the contrast between these two men will provide much of the conflict over the first two seasons. However, by the end of this pilot episode, Flint’s absolute savagery in dealing with Singleton upends our earlier impression of him. We understand why he is the most feared of all the pirate captains.

What we don’t understand about Flint is his relentless, single-minded obsession with tracking down the Urca de Lima, and his absolute conviction that what he’s doing is for the greater good, that all his dastardly deeds (and they are numerous) are justified by the end he has in mind. The series holds this information back, not just in the pilot, but for the whole first season. It’s a reckless choice, and the payoff is shocking and intense in the second season. However, the absence of this information weakens the first season. All of Flint’s actions seem unmotivated. The viewers can’t engage with him because they don’t know what drives him. None of this is the fault of Stephens, who does a good job at conveying the multi-faceted nature of the character and who seems natural bouncing back and forth between civilized and savage.

The lack of understanding that the audience feels toward Flint is a weakness of the whole first season, but the weaknesses of the pilot episode specifically are numerous. For one thing, the pilot introduces nearly every major character and possible storyline. It’s simply too much for 65 minutes. We can process who Flint is, and Gates, Billy, and Silver. But, then, we’re introduced to Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who for some reason is running her father’s merchant concern. She was once the lover of Vane, but is now having an affair with Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a prostitute, who is working with Silver to fence the missing schedule, possibly to Rackham and Anne, who work for Vane. And I still haven’t mentioned Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), who acts as an advisor to Eleanor, but who may work for her father. By the time, Guthrie appeared on the screen, I didn’t care who he was. It was all just too much.

With Black Sails, Starz attempts to launch a prestige series to rival those of HBO and Showtime. Certainly, shows like Game of Thrones can also be criticized for having numerous characters and a labyrinthine plot, but the show-runners of that series didn’t dump all the characters and storylines into the pilot. They also gave the audience a clear person to root for (Eddard Stark). Black Sails doesn’t do that. It’s hard to root for Flint, when he’s lying to and manipulating his crew and beating someone to death, and we’re not even sure what his purpose is.

None of the other characters emerge in the pilot as someone whom the audience can side with. Gates shows an admirable loyalty, but he’s clearly a second-in-command. And his work in this episode seems boring; watching him try to whip up votes is like watching live coverage on C-SPAN. Black Sails manages the nearly impossible feat of making piracy seem tedious. Silver is clearly a self-serving opportunist even if Arnold makes him irrepressibly charming and amusing. Eleanor, who is supposed to be the female lead on the show, makes a poor first impression with bad dialogue and an uninspired performance by New.

The sex scene between Eleanor and Max smacks of gratuitous lesbianism—there’s nothing wrong with lesbianism, but it becomes gratuitous if it appears to be less about the lesbian relationship than about titillating the male viewers with exploitative girl-on-girl action. Here again, Black Sails seems to be competing with HBO and Showtime series for the amount of racy content and topless females it can feature every hour.

Despite the pilot’s flaws, the production values are a high point, equaling those of HBO and Showtime series and certainly outdoing network television. Many of the battles scenes, sets, and locations are created by CGI, yet we’re rarely aware of that. Nassau looks like a real, fully populated place.

The series is ambitious. It mixes literary history (existing characters from Treasure Island like Flint, Silver, and Billy) with real history (historical figures like Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, and Anne Bonny), with entirely new fictional creations (characters like Eleanor Guthrie, Max, and Gates).

The pilot episode tries to create an entire world for us. Visually, it succeeds. The writing, however, doesn’t match the level of ambition. What’s most frustrating is that the series clearly has strong ideas it wants to convey about autonomy, civilization, freedom, and relative morality, but the storytelling elements of the script need polish. Some of the dialogue is laughably bad. Too often, the action stops for Flint to expound on what he’s doing without ever really explaining his reasons for doing it or, worse, for Gates to wheel and deal. The latter might be interesting if written well, but here comes off as just dull minutiae. Even the shot of sharks circling fish at the beginning seems like a ham-fisted, obvious metaphor.

The series appears to have potential for interesting conflicts and ideas. The pilot gave enough indication of that to convince me to continue watching the show, but, in the final accounting, the flaws outweigh the positives. This episode does play better now that I’ve seen the whole of the first two seasons and know who the characters are, what their goals are, and where the narrative is going. But first-time viewers may feel that the episode looks impressive yet may not be impressed with what goes on in it.

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