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Black Sails, S01E03: III.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 8 February 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:  ★★ 1/2 stars

Plot-heavy episode provides set-up for far delayed pay-offs while lack of solid exposition causes confusion.

In second episode of Black Sails, all the characters had a simple goal: find the missing schedule. Now that that quest has ended, the third episode displays the same problem that plagued the pilot: too many characters with too many unclear goals. The story, here, seems as shaky as the camerawork. At this point, it’s unclear to the viewers that the writers have a plan. We eventually discover that they do, but they flounder in this episode by presenting the viewers with too many plans and schemes and not nearly enough exposition.

Eleanor faces a crisis in her shipping business as news of the attempted arrest of her father reaches his cohorts, who then will not return to Nassau. For some reason, Eleanor thinks her father can help her. What her goal is and how her father would be able to help her accomplish this goal remain unstated. Somehow, his assistance will make up for his attempted arrest. She also has a minor goal—to get a dozen 12-pound guns for Captain Flint to use in his pursuit of the Urca de Lima. At least, that’s a clear, concrete aim.

Billy also has a clear aim with well-defined stakes. He wants to find out which of the sailors on the Walrus still harbor resentment against Flint. He hopes this information will help him forestall a potential mutiny. This makes sense. Silver, after talking his way onto Flint’s crew, manages to ferret out the information that there are only three potential mutineers left. Of the three, Billy indicates that only one, Morley, is to be concerned about. This subplot, which follows Billy’s growing distrust of Flint, moves slowly. By the end of the season, we’ll see what it’s been moving towards. But, now, knowing as little as we do, we think the subplot is leading to Morley causing a mutiny. However, that’s not the case at all. Morley isn’t important or around much longer.

In this episode, we are introduced to Captain Benjamin Hornigold (Patrick Lyster), an older, well-respected captain. He is important, but nothing in the episode indicates that he’ll ever show up again. Hornigold controls the island’s fort. I only figured out that he controls the fort much later in the series. Yes, Gates visits him in the fort, but the script doesn’t make clear what he’s doing there. For all this episode tells me, it could be a regular pirate hangout. Nothing here suggests the fort and its control will become an issue.

Gates wants Hornigold’s crew and ship, the Royal Lion, to act as a consort for Flint and the Walrus while they track down the Urca de Lima. Hornigold agrees, offering this piece of wisdom to Gates: “No matter how many lies we tell ourselves or no matter how many stories we convince ourselves we’re part of, we’re all just thieves awaiting a noose.”

Hornigold also is somehow involved in Scottish politics. The conversation with Gates digresses into a discussion of it. I understand what the writers are attempting. They’re trying to create a rich canvas and give each of the characters histories and personalities. That’s a worthy project. However, they fail to indicate to the viewers which material is important and which is merely texture. The fort is important. The Scottish business isn’t. That’s not clear to an audience that is just learning about these characters and this world.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Ranger wants Rackham to pay for losing the ship’s reserve fund. Rackham convinces them to give him a little time to make it right before they kill him. He seizes the opportunity to suggest to Gates that the Ranger be the consort on the Urca mission. He points out that the Ranger is a better ship and is better equipped than Hornigold’s Royal Lion, and he highlights Gates’s shortcomings as a captain: his advanced age and the fact that he’s never had a command before. (Mark Ryan, who plays Gates, is in his late 50s, but the series suggests that Gates is about a decade older.)

Gates sees the wisdom of this suggestion and takes it to Flint. All Gates, Rackham, and Eleanor have to do is bring the archenemies Flint and Vane together, induce Vane to behave like a civilized person, and help Flint forget that Vane aided the mutineers who tried to overthrow him. Rackham’s job proves to be easy. Vane is quickly convinced to go along with the plan when Rackham suggests that Vane’s willing participation will please Eleanor. Flint requires more persuasion, cajoling, and berating before he’ll agree. Flint does want this mission to succeed more than anything, but he despises Vane, but it is not yet clear why his hatred runs so deep.

When the deal has been worked out, Rackham and Vane must handle “last night’s mess.” It’s a shocking moment when we discover that this “mess” is Max—naked, battered, and shackled. Max has been missing throughout most of the episode. Eleanor believes she has left Nassau for good. Instead, after betraying Vane in the previous episode, causing the loss of the Ranger’s reserve fund, Max was captured and gang raped by the crew of the Ranger. When Vane goes to set her free, he and Max have an odd moment of bonding over the fact that they’ve both been betrayed by Eleanor. Vane shows Max some respect when he tries to justify his actions to her. He’s wrong when he says he doesn’t have a choice. But he points to a key idea of the series when he states that a captain must answer to his crew. Vane, Flint, and the other captains on the show must constantly prove themselves to their crews because anything that goes wrong could lead to mutiny or death.

Vane tells Rackham to sneak Max onto a boat after dark and send her away, but Rackham points out that the safer course is simply to kill her. Rackham is right, but Vane is the captain. Rackham was also correct when he said that Eleanor would be pleased if Vane agreed to join the Urca mission. As she shows Vane her vigorous appreciation, Rackham gets caught by the Ranger crew trying to secret Max away. Hearing screams, Eleanor leaves Vane to find Rackham overwhelmed and Max being raped by a Ranger crew member. Appalled, Eleanor denounces Vane and uses her power to strip him of his ship and crew, which she gives to Flint. Vane is left with Rackham, Anne, a handful of loyal men, and, surprisingly, Max, who refuses Eleanor’s protection and returns to Vane, agreeing to work off her debt.

Eleanor’s actions, here, are rash. Yes, she got Flint a ship and a crew, but he had that when Gates made the deal with Hornigold. The issue of Gates’s inadequacy as a captain remains. Eleanor acts in the heat of her anger and doesn’t think about the larger consequences.

Max’s choice is simply bizarre. Yes, she makes it clear that she blames Eleanor for her predicament, not Vane, but refusing Eleanor’s protection and choosing to be a sex slave for pirates does not offer any benefit that I can imagine. Her goal here is obscure. Most of Max’s actions indicate cunning and the ability to see long-term, but this choice seems rooted in the writers’ desire for a dramatic moment and in the necessity of future plot developments, instead of developing organically from the character.

This episode also introduces the genteel woman we glimpsed at the end of the previous episode. Flint and this woman, whom he calls Miranda (Louise Barnes), have some sort of domestic arrangement. We see her change his bandages. He brings a wounded Richard Guthrie to stay with her. It’s a relief to viewers when Guthrie asks her point blank, “Who are you?” She replies that her name is Mrs. Barlow. It’s not, but at least it’s an answer. (Later in the episode, Guthrie searches her belongings and discovers a painting that identifies her as Mrs. Thomas Hamilton.) The series doesn’t explore this backstory until the second season, leaving the audience frustrated and a little bored by suggestions of a plot we don’t understand.

Guthrie then asks, “Who are you to him?” meaning Flint. She doesn’t even give him a false answer here. She just hands him a book of the writings of Marcus Aurelius. We find out that this book is significant, but we don’t learn what its import is until halfway through the second season.

This practice of withholding information and delaying actions makes this series maddening. It demands patience on the part of the viewers, frustrating their need to know what is going on and to see the consequences of actions. But when the show finally gives the viewers the pay-offs they’ve been waiting for, they’re huge. Unfortunately, the viewers can’t see what the writers are constructing until it’s complete, but then it’s magnificent.

That’s what makes reviewing the first season difficult. I know what all this is building towards. I know that the frustration here will be rewarded. But I also remember the tedium and confusion that I had when I first watched these episodes. These early episodes require better structure and greater clarity.

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