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Black Sails, S01E05: V.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 22 February 2014
Written by Doris Egan
Directed by Mark Munden

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Toby Schmitz, Clara Paget, Jessica Parker Kennedy, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Episode advances long-term story arcs with simple, direct action and plot developments.

This episode improves on the previous one. Instead of being filled with convoluted schemes and exposition overload, episode five is lean, direct, and exciting.

Much of the action takes place at sea, as The Walrus chases down the merchant ship The Andromache, which holds the cannons Flint and his crew need to take the Urca de Lima. This episode does a great job of interweaving exposition with conflict and character development. One scene shows Flint arguing with his crew over the physics of sailing, the discussion of which could have been boring in the extreme. However, the inherent interest of conflict prevents that. Also, the scene allows viewers a further glimpse of Flint’s monomania, as he appears willing to risk his ship and crew to accomplish his goal.

Another scene features Billy, newly promoted to quartermaster, setting out the battle plan to several crewmembers. At each point, a crewmember expresses incredulity about the possibility of success, forcing Billy to clarify what will happen and how it will succeed. Really, the scene functions to explain the upcoming battle to the audience, but the conflict prevents this explanation from just being a rote description along the lines of, “First, we’ll do this. Then, we’ll do this. Then, this will happen,” and so on. We also see Billy’s rapport with the crew and his ability to make them believe in what he’s saying.

The series makes each battle unique so the viewers don’t tire of the same process—the pirates boarding the ship, the merchant crew resisting the pirates, and the action that follows. While most battles on the show, particularly in the first season, proceed this way, each is handled differently. In this case, the battle is shown through the perspective of The Walrus’s timid accountant, Mr. Dufrense (Jannes Eiselen), who faces his first experience boarding the merchant ship with the other crew members, all of them being needed to take on the heavily manned Andromache.

On land, Eleanor must fight for the survival of her enterprise after her father betrays her “for her own good” (just a wee bit patronizing). She shows great intelligence in recreating a merchant organization after being stripped of the Guthrie ships, legal standing, and power. She makes a deal with the local appraiser, who holds a commission to sell goods at any port in the Americas; the two least successful pirate captains, who have ships that can transport goods; and Captain Hornigold, who has the respect and power to make the operation a success. However, Hornigold demands that Eleanor prove that she can put business above her personal feelings by rescinding the ban she put on Captain Vane. The request is reasonable, and Eleanor’s whining about it and her continuing stubbornness make her look like a petulant child, not a HBIC.

Hannah New’s miscasting as Eleanor remains one of the weaknesses of the series. Even as the script shows Eleanor’s innovation and boldness, New fails to convey the strength that must underlie such a character. To use an analogy to classic cinema, it’s like watching winsome Joan Fontaine try to play a character that was written for tough broad Barbara Stanwyck.

Vane’s actions remain enigmatic. After stumbling into killing brothel-master Noonan in the previous episode, Vane now finds himself in possession of a brothel, but he leaves it in the care of his few remaining allies and heads off in a skiff to parts unknown. One of the episode’s best scenes shows Rackham, Vane’s clever quartermaster, convincing the madam to accept the change of ownership without protest despite the fact that it’s obvious Vane murdered Noonan.

In this episode, Rackham’s life-companion, Anne Bonny, finally gets a significant scene when she helps Max deal with primitive birth control measures. (Every woman who watches this scene must be grateful that women’s healthcare has come a long way in the last 300 years.) Anne doesn’t talk much, but she shows great care with Max. Max wonders why Anne is being so nice to her, recalling (and revealing to the audience who didn’t witness the scene) that Anne was the one who threw her to Vane’s crew in the first place. Anne quietly responds, “I only thought they’d kill you.” In Anne’s estimation, the crew’s killing Max for her role in the loss of the Ranger’s reserve fund would have been fine, but their continued mistreatment of her is beyond the pale.

Anne gently chides Max for failing to accept Eleanor’s help and choosing to remain with Vane and expresses scorn for Max’s attempt to use charm to win over the pirates. She relates to Max that she castrated a pirate who tried to sexually assault her. It’s certainly a more direct approach, and it explains how Anne manages to survive unmolested as the only female in a rough pirate crew. From what we’ve seen of her so far, she’s quicker to kill than any of the other pirates.

The series’ approach to relating information about Anne in small bits keeps the audience intrigued about her but also leads to a separation between her and us viewers. We haven’t known enough to care about her. She’s merely been a mysterious presence who follows Rackham around and, every now and then, stabs someone. Here, we, finally, get to see her do something non-stabby and learn her views on some of the happenings.

The reason this episode works is its uncomplicatedness. The three main plot threads can be summed up simply: 1) The Walrus hunts and captures The Andromache; 2) Eleanor sets up a new business venture; and 3) Vane, Rackham, and Anne take over a brothel. There are no labyrinthine plans, no convoluted betrayals, and no complicated backstory.

Those elements have a place on the show, but in small doses. We do learn of a betrayal in this episode, but it’s straightforward—Guthrie arranged to have Mr. Scott kidnapped back into slavery by the captain of the Andromache for supporting Eleanor. The audience can process that easily. The episode also features a mystery—the unusual behavior of the crew of the Andromache after the ship is taken baffles Flint and his men. But that mystery is solved at the end of the show. The Andromache captain reveals that he told the British Navy of his route and the fact that he would be chased by Flint and a naval warship is on its way to rescue them. Nothing is left unexplained.

The series has long narrative arcs with big payoffs at the end. In this episode, it finds a way to present small, manageable pieces of those arcs.

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