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Black Sails, S01E07: VII.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 8 Mar 2014
Written by Michael Angeli
Directed by Marc Munden

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Toby Schmitz, Mark Ryan, Jannes Eiselen, and Louise Barnes

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Complex episode gets pieces in place for the season finale.

This episode is about getting the pieces in place for the season finale next episode. The episode touches on each major storyline to establish where they stand.

Or, in the case of Rackham, where they don’t stand. Poor Rackham is having trouble maintaining an erection. He’s too preoccupied with his situation—no captain, no ship, no crew, and no money. The brothel that he and Anne took over with Vane (before Vane disappeared to parts unknown) has not been showing a profit. Max must step in and stop the other prostitutes from cheating Rackham. For Rackham, the choice to go along with Anne’s plan to murder the remainder of Vane’s crew in order to free Max from their sexual slavery begins to bear fruit, and we see the beginnings of a partnership between Rackham, Anne, and Max. For Max, taking action in support of Rackham represents a return of her agency and power.

Mr. Scott is also regaining control of his life after being betrayed and kidnapped to be resold. He convinces Eleanor to find jobs for the other slaves freed from The Andromache. He takes the more important step of freeing himself from his devotion to Eleanor by accepting a job with Captain Hornigold.

After missing most of the previous episode, Vane reappears in this one, on an island not far from Nassau, in a lumber camp run by the massive man Vane had been imagining before he set sail. According to the credits, the man’s name is Albinus (Garth Collins), but I didn’t notice any point where that name is mentioned in the show. Vane initially requests a dozen of Albinus’s men to help wrest Nassau from Guthrie control. Albinus consents in return for a share of the profits.

Vane has everything he needs, but he goes even further. He attempts to recruit all of Albinus’s workers to his cause in a speech that seems more desperate than rousing. Vane’s dealings with Albinus and the scarification mark on his chest suggest that Vane was once involuntarily in Albinus’s employ. Albinus responds by attacking Vane. The fight is mercifully brief. Although Vane initially gains the upper hand, he’s obviously overmatched, and Albinus quickly beats him to death. We see Albinus’s men dump Vane’s naked body into a hole and bury him.

The death of a major character in the middle of an episode, in an occurrence that’s only tangential to the series’ main plotlines seems, initially, to be poorly handled. While Vane’s power has steadily declined over the season, nothing has led up to this abrupt termination of his story.

Like many episodes in the first season, this one features a scene that makes little sense without knowing the backstory that won’t be revealed until season two. Flint confronts Miranda about writing the letter asking a Boston official for a pardon. Flint references the things “they took from us” and claims that asking for a pardon means admitting “they were right.” It’s all very difficult to follow. Who are “they”? What did they take from Flint and Miranda? What were they right or not right about? As Flint storms out, Miranda calls out, “If he were here, he’d agree with me!” Who is he? Why is he not there?

It’s an exercise in frustration trying to understand the argument between Flint and Miranda. Watching this scene the first time around, I knew that there was loss involved and that this loss somehow justified Flint’s actions in his mind, but that wasn’t enough for me. I wasn’t comfortable not fully understanding what was going on. Coming so quickly after Vane’s apparently pointless death, this scene with its oblique references to a backstory I didn’t understand increased my dissatisfaction with the series.

Watching the scene now, knowing the revelations in season two, the feelings and positions of Flint and Miranda make complete sense. I actually even enjoyed how the series held back the story of their past. However, I can’t help thinking that there could have been some way to write the scene so that it could display the same ideas without being so exasperating on first viewing.

The story, then, quickly returns to Nassau and the major action of the episode. As Flint’s crew prepares to seek out the Urca de Lima, they deal with the fallout from Billy’s apparent death last episode. Suspicions run rampant that Flint may have had a hand in Billy’s going overboard. Compounding the problem is brain-damaged Randall’s repeated accusation that Silver is a thief, referring to Silver’s theft of the Urca de Lima schedule. As Silver pleads with Randall (Lawrence Joffe) to remain quiet, we can’t help see in the grizzled, old, one-legged pirate a vision of Silver’s future.

The crew members spend much of their time discussing Flint’s alleged crimes and trying to reason how to balance their doubts about him with their desire for the Urca de Lima treasure, the quest for which would be effectively ended if they mutiny against the captain. Among the crew, the accountant-turned-quartermaster, Dufresne, seems most thoughtful in weighing the issue. The intelligence Jannes Eiselen brings to the role is missed in the second season when the role is recast. (Eiselen left the show after season one because of a recurrence of brain cancer.)

Even Gates, Flint’s most ardent supporter is losing faith in the captain. In a key scene, Gates accuses Flint of treating the crew members like they are expendable. He, then, says passionately, “Billy was not expendable to me.” Throughout the season, while outwardly supporting him, Gates has acted as Flint’s conscience, shielding him from both the crew and his own worst instincts. But Gates has had enough. He tells Flint, “I’m tired of the energy it takes to believe you—to believe in you.” Mark Ryan’s performance in the scene reflects a deep soul-weariness that a life of piracy has inflicted on an essentially good man.

Late in the episode, Flint finally gets support from Eleanor, who tells him that she believes in him and his vision for Nassau. For a moment, the scene is filmed in such a way that it looks like they share an attraction and will kiss. Flint, instead, kisses her on the forehead. This scene plays on our narrative expectation that the main male and female characters in a series will have a romantic attraction. However, no such attraction exists, and I can’t help but believe that the writer and director are deliberately leading us viewers on in order to thwart our expectations.

This episode wouldn’t be complete without at least one secret plan or betrayal. Near the end of the episode, Dufresne reveals that Gates was the one who informed him about Billy’s suspicions of the captain and Flint’s possible role in Billy’s apparent death. They also go over their plot to assassinate Flint once the Urca de Lima quest is over. Yet, we viewers remain unsure whether Gates is really going along with Dufresne’s faction or whether he has a plan to thwart them.

As the two ships, The Walrus and The Ranger (which viewers must recall was going to be captained by Gates as consort in capturing the Urca de Lima—the show doesn’t remind us), set sail to track down the Spanish treasure galleon, Flint and Gates share a significant look as each stands on the deck of the ship he will be captaining. We viewers are left to judge whether Gates really plans to murder the captain and wonder whether Flint has any inkling of the plot against him.

After a magnificent shot of the two ships sailing off together, the screen fades to black. For a moment, the episode appears to be over. But a new shot begins.

A murky extreme close-up of something we can’t quite make out appears. The shot cuts to show us the ground as two fingers work their way to the surface. Another cut shows us Albinus’s camp, and the big man eating in front of the fire when his expression changes to one of shock. He falls forward, revealing a large wooden stake in his back and behind him a naked, dirt-caked Vane. As Albinus dies, Vane beats him and then stands before Albinus’s men, who cower down in awed surprise.

Thematically, the episode focuses on regaining power. Max, Mr. Scott, and Vane all recover the power they had been stripped of previously in the season. Max helps return control of the brothel to Rackham. Eleanor boasts to Flint how she regained control of Nassau. Dufresne and Gates possibly take steps to wrest control of The Walrus from Flint.

For the first time in a series that revels in female nudity, the episode contains two instances of full-frontal male nudity. Unlike the female nudity, which usually is employed to titillate viewers, neither instance is one that is sexually appealing. At the beginning, we’re shown Rackham’s flaccid, uncooperative member. At the end, Vane stands in front of Albinus’s men in all his naked, dirt-caked glory. Using male genitals as a symbol of power, however, is not original. The female form on the show is used as an object for the gaze of the male viewers. In both cases, the nudity locates power with men.

My objections in regard to this episode don’t reflect a lack of admiration for the series or the episode. Far from it. It’s a testimony to the complexity of the show that it leads to detailed examination.


One comment on “Black Sails, S01E07: VII.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

  1. Hi Robin-I have nominated you for a Liebster Award. Congrats!
    -Summer Reeves | serendipitousanachronisms.wordpress.com | @kitschmeonce

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