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Black Sails, S01E04: IV.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 15 February 2014
Written by Brad Caleb Kane
Directed by Sam Miller

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Louise Barnes, Sean Cameron Michael, Zach McGowan, Tom Hopper, and Mark Ryan

My rating:  ★★ stars

Frustrating episode features confusing plans and exposition but shines with a wonderful action sequence of a massive ship tipping over. 

The fourth episode of Black Sails makes frustrating viewing. It contains so many unanswered questions and secret plots that it’s difficult for viewers to determine what is going on, let alone keep track of it.

The episode contains key information about the relationship between Flint and Miranda Barlow, and deserves revisiting after their back-story is fully revealed in season two. When we first see them, they are participating in a sexual encounter that appears to be at best monotonous and perfunctory. Whatever binds these two together, it’s certainly not their sex life.

Miranda divines that Flint is angry at her for showing the Marcus Aurelius book to Guthrie in the previous episode. She mentions that the book was special to her late husband and that she no longer plans to ignore that part of her life. We think Flint is jealous of her past with her husband. This scene, like most on the show, is filmed with a hand-held camera. It doesn’t need to be. Louise Barnes is acting her toches off, and I was distracted by the bobbing of the camera.

In a later scene, Guthrie relates to Miranda the rumors that he’s heard about her and her husband. According to Guthrie, back in London, she was known to be unfaithful, “a cheating sort,” when she began an affair with a naval officer. Her husband, devastated by the affair, was committed to an asylum where he later killed himself, and Miranda and her lover fled London in shame. Guthrie figures that Flint must have been the naval officer in question.

This scene is one of the most tedious of the series. Yes, the exposition is necessary, but watching Guthrie relate this long tale does not make for good television. Sean Cameron Michael is, certainly, the least compelling speaker on the show. The scene was so boring that my mind wandered as Guthrie spoke. At the time, I didn’t realize how important this information would be to the whole series. I didn’t suspect that Guthrie has key parts of the story wrong. There’s nothing in the way the scene is executed to show that his version is incorrect or incomplete.

Between the scene with the discussion of the book and Guthrie’s tale, a sailor on The Walrus, Morley, tells Billy a tale about Flint and Mrs. Barlow. According to Morley, Flint had The Walrus hunt down another ship, which turned out to have a much less valuable cargo than the crew was promised. Morley then caught Flint slaughtering two of the passengers. When they returned to Nassau, Morley saw Flint inform Mrs. Barlow that the deed was done. Morley figures that “the Barlow woman,” as he calls her, sent Flint to hunt and kill those passengers. We’re not told how this piece of the puzzle fits in with any of the others, and I was having trouble keeping all these stories and hints of stories straight. There was just too much exposition for a single episode, and none of it was complete.

Furthermore, the episode leaves the viewers with unanswered questions about Vane, as well. Since Eleanor laid the embargo against him and he was stripped of his ship and crew in the previous episode, he’s spent his time getting drunk and smoking opium. Not surprisingly, he starts having visions. One recurring vision is of a behemoth of a man. Who this man is and why we viewers should care is something we are not told. Maybe this mystery would have been more intriguing if the episode hadn’t been filled with other unexplained or partially explained happenings.

The episode also deals with Eleanor’s plan to get the large cannons from her family’s merchant ship to give to Flint for the mission to take the Urca de Lima, the Spanish treasure galleon. Mr. Scott urges her to let Captain Bryson, the captain of the merchant ship, go peacefully if he refuses her request for the guns. But, as usual, she ignores Mr. Scott, who later discovers her covert plan to take the guns by force if need be. Meanwhile, Captain Bryson enters into a secret pact with Guthrie to undermine Eleanor’s attempt to the get the guns. Guthrie manages to convince Mr. Scott that his plan with Bryson is the only way to protect Eleanor from herself.

This episode has too much plotting and planning. As we’re struggling to figure out Miranda’s back-story and the identity of the giant in Vane’s visions, we now have to juggle competing schemes about the cannons. All of this business with Captain Bryson is tied up with the Guthrie family shipping company in Boston, and there are hints that there’s a whole back-story about how Guthrie and Eleanor ended up exiled in Nassau by the rest of the family.

Stripped of all of these plans and partial bits of stories, the episode has merit. The set-piece in the middle, involving scraping the hull of The Walrus, is one of the biggest the series has done so far. Here, Silver informs Flint that he saw Morley talking with Billy about Mrs. Barlow. Flint knows that Morley is one of the last of the dissatisfied crew members. When the mooring lines on the ship fail and it starts to collapse, trapping simple-minded Randall, both Morley and Flint run to help. Unable to free Randall, Flint must chop off the poor man’s leg. He pulls Randall to safety just in time while Morley gets crushed by the ship. Billy and the viewers are forced to wonder if Flint took advantage of the accident to rid himself of a problem. This question adds to the mystique of Flint. That the show chooses not to resolve this mystery works. We’re left to decide what we think of him. The ambiguity of his character is one of the key aspects of the show.

The visual elements of The Walrus scene are spectacular. It is impossible to tell if the ship is made from CGI effects and partial sets, miniatures and partial sets, or is actually one massive set. It looks that real. I could see no flaws to take me out of the story.

We also learn a bit about Mr. Scott in this episode. Initially, he was Guthrie’s slave. Then, he became Eleanor’s teacher and advisor. Guthrie makes an astute observation when he says that Eleanor and Mr. Scott desperately want to preserve Nassau as it is because, there, they matter—they’re important in a way that a woman and a slave cannot be in the “civilized” society of the time.

Max, Rackham, Anne, and Hornigold also put in appearances, all suggesting problems and plotlines that will be important in other episodes. They’re not worth discussing here because there is simply too much going on.

Black Sails is novelistic in structure. It gives us foreshadowing, mountains of exposition, unreliable narrators, and mysteries that remain unresolved for some time. I appreciate its attempt to tell a big story, but the individual episodes and scenes are not chapters in a book. At the time of this early episode, the series has yet to show that it understands how to fit that story into a structure that’s appropriate for the television medium.

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