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Black Sails, S01E08: VIII.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black sails season 1Originally aired 15 Mar 2014
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by T.J. Scott

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Mark Ryan, and Jannes Eiselen

My rating:  ★★1/2 stars

First season finale fails to excite.

An episode that contains the murder of a major character, a mutiny, and a sea battle really should be more compelling. If this episode were not a season finale, it would be adequate. But something is missing—an intangible quality that all season finales need, one that exhilarates the viewers and makes them wait in breathless anticipation for the next season.

Part of the problem is the length of the talky scenes. In an ordinary episode, these dramatic interludes would be fine, character-building moments. In a season finale, they stop the action when it should be building. I did like the scenes where Flint and Gates reminisce about old times and reflect on the perilous nature of a life of piracy and where Eleanor and Vane negotiate. The former, certainly, is necessary given what happens later. The latter develops a key, ongoing relationship in the series. However, these scenes go on too long. A season finale needs action to build unencumbered.

We’ve finally reached the point in the season when all the plots and schemes are revealed. Dufresne and the crew plan to mutiny. Gates supports them but hopes he can spirit Flint and Mrs. Barlow away before they’re killed. From this point on, the situations shift so quickly, causing the characters to reorient themselves over and over, that close attention is needed in order to follow the plot. This need for viewers to process the shifting situation continuously undermines what should be a visceral experience.

Flint teeters on the brink of reaching his goal. The question is whether the crew will mutiny before they reach the Urca de Lima. I expected them to find it and that a sea battle would ensue. But I didn’t know my maritime history. When The Walrus and The Ranger sail into the bay where the Urca de Lima is supposed to be, they find nothing but calm waters. At that point, mutiny is inevitable. But a Spanish man o’ war is sighted, delaying action from the mutineers. Flint sees the presence of the man ‘o war as a sign that the Urca de Lima can’t be far, as he believes the man o’ war must be there as an escort for the treasure galleon.

Gates rejects Flint’s orders to engage the man o’ war and tries to impress upon the captain the folly of attempting to fight the massive, heavily-armed ship. Seeing Gates as an impediment to achieving his goal when the end is in sight, in a jaw-dropping turn of events, Flint breaks his best friend’s neck, all the while apologizing to him. The sight is pathetic as Flint sinks down into a corner of his cabin under the weight of Gates’s body.

Silver, Flint’s last ally (only because Silver believes it to be in his best interest to help Flint) tries to cover up Flint’s crime saying that Gates had a heart attack, but the mutineers don’t believe this feeble excuse. Flint tries to fire on the man o’ war and start a battle that would put an end to the mutiny. He’s shot before he can, but Silver manages to light the cannon.

As a result, The Walrus and The Ranger are forced to fight the man ‘o war. The sea battle fails to engross the viewers because the damage is impersonal. Cannons fire. Bits of ships are hit. Bodies go flying. But there’s no involvement of anyone we know or care about. However, the scene does have one great moment. At the end of The Walrus and The Ranger’s first cannonade, the man o’ war turns about, so that it’s in a position to fire on the two pirate ships. Simultaneously, the man o’ war’s multitudinous gun ports open, and there’s a moment of silence giving the pirates and the audience time to anticipate what’s about to happen. Then, the man o’ war’s cannons fire and rip apart the two pirate ships.

As the pirates are thrown into the water, the scene fades out, and a new scene fades in. Flint finds himself on shore, his gunshot wound bandaged, the wreckage of The Walrus nearby (the fate of The Ranger is not shown). He asks why the mutineers haven’t killed him. They lead him to the beach. There, he sees the wreckage of the Urca de Lima and the entire beach covered in gold, being watching by Spanish soldiers.

The reason the treasure galleon wasn’t in the bay it was supposed to be in was because it had been wrecked during the monstrous storm in the previous episode. What I didn’t know was that the Urca de Lima was a famous shipwreck that occurred off the coast of Florida in 1715. The blending of the factual and the fictional history makes for an intriguing story.

The episode ends with Flint given a chance to redeem himself among his crew if he can figure out a way to get the treasure. As a cliffhanger, this ending in merely adequate. The unanswered questions that it raises—will Flint become captain again? And will Flint get the treasure?—aren’t compelling. We know the answer. Treasure Island tells us that Captain Flint stayed captain, made Silver his quartermaster, and acquired a treasure. Even viewers not familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson’s story can guess what will happen, if not how.

What this ending does is set up the story for next season, which picks up the moment this one ends. Flint’s next quest will be to get the treasure back to Nassau despite the fact that he and his crew are stranded in Florida.

This episode is not a failure. The death of Gates alone makes for an incredibly powerful moment. But the episode is not a success either. I want a season finale to leave me feeling exhilarated and to have me waiting in breathless anticipation for the next season. Instead, my response to the finale was, “Eh, I’ll probably watch next season, I guess.” And, boy, I’m glad I did.

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