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Black Sails, S02E01: IX.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black-sails-season-2Originally aired 24 Jan 2015
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by Steve Boyum

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Luke Arnold, and Rupert Penry-Jones

My rating:  ★★★1/2 stars

A promising start to a great season.

The first episode of the second season of Black Sails opens with the same problem that plagued season one. A merchant ship surrenders to pirates. This group is led by a captain we haven’t seen before, Ned Low (Tadhg Murphy). Low and his crew discover a prize aboard the ship worth more than its cargo. To keep that prize a secret, they mercilessly slaughter the entire crew of the merchant ship and set it ablaze as they sail away. We’re shown a glimpse of the prize—it’s a young woman in a drugged sleep. Who she is, why she’s valuable, and why her capture is worth the slaughter of an entire crew are not explained.

Yet, this mystery doesn’t seem as frustrating as those of the previous season. For one thing, we’ve come to expect this slow revelation of information from Black Sails. Secondly, the rest of the episode, for once, provides more answers than questions.

Ned Low, like Charles Vane and Jack Rackham, was a real historical figure from the golden age of piracy. His first appearance is striking, not because Murphy is a physically imposing man, but, because his blindness in one eye, lends him an unnerving appearance. When he turned up on Vikings, his character wore an eye patch. Here, the unseeing eye is left open to stare at nothing, while his good eye focuses in on whomever he’s talking to.

Immediately, Low and his crew come into conflict with Eleanor. He warns her that he’s a man who’s unremorseful about the use of violence. Eleanor shouldn’t be unnerved by the implied threat since she spent the past season juggling Flint and Vane, neither of whom has been rueful when using violence. Yet, the script and Hannah New’s performance leave Eleanor’s reaction to this new antagonist unclear. Director Steve Boyum may have directed New to show an ambiguous reaction because our desire to see how Eleanor will respond to Low creates momentum for the next episode.

Eleanor, however, is not pleased with Vane. Apparently, he’s not taking his new duties as steward of the fort as seriously as Captain Hornigold did. The argument between Eleanor and Vane sets up a conflict for upcoming episodes. Vane suggests that her pique with him is a response to her not knowing if he’ll blow Captain Flint’s ship out of the water when/if he returns to Nassau with the Spanish gold. Vane offers Eleanor a partnership; he proposes that they split the treasure and cut Flint out. She leaves in disgust. The conflict indicated by this scene is not simple. It reflects the ongoing interpersonal contention between Eleanor and Vane—Eleanor isn’t pleased to have to wait until Vane’s finished fornicating to ream him out for missing a meeting of the consortium. (Is having Vane naked through much of this scene a way to balance the appeal for male and female fans given the girl-on-girl action later in the episode?) This scene also heralds a peril to Flint’s plans that Flint doesn’t know exists—he was gone when Vane took the fort and with it the ability to sink any ship that sails into Nassau. Plus, it hints at the possibility of a breach in Flint and Eleanor’s partnership when, so far, they’ve been in perfect accord.

Rackham starts the season in an unenviable position. He bears the lion’s share of the blame for Anne’s murder of the remainder of the Ranger’s crew in the past season. His reputation has taken a hit now that he’s known as the quartermaster who let his crew be slaughtered. Not helping matters is the fact that his life companion, Anne, is seduced by Max at the end of the episode. Again, the episode sets up conflict to be explored in the new season, given that Rackham, Anne, and Max must run the brothel together. Yet, I found it exploitative that three of the four regular female characters are now bisexual (Miranda is the lone heterosexual). This presentation of their sexuality seems more to titillate male viewers than to explore female sexuality. This development also changes the nature of Anne’s rescue of Max in the previous season. Instead of aiding her out of a sense of female solidarity, as someone who, like Max, has been abused and wants to fight back against violence against women, her actions now, the show suggests, were prompted by a latent attraction to Max.

Disappointment was my immediate response to this storyline. However, after seeing how it plays out over the course of the season, I must admit that the story takes a surprising and ultimately satisfying direction.

Rupert Penry-Jones (Whitechapel) joins the cast as the late Lord Thomas Hamilton, Miranda’s husband and the first champion of an independent Nassau. Penry-Jones’s status as a regular indicates that flashbacks will be featured prominently in the upcoming season. The navy lieutenant sent to advise Lord Hamilton calls himself “James McGraw,” but we know him as Captain Flint. In these first flashback scenes, which take place in 1705, McGraw presents the idealistic Lord Hamilton with a view of the vicious side of human nature when he takes him to view of the public hanging of a pirate. McGraw tells Hamilton that the obstacle his project will have to overcome is humanity’s need to create monsters.

The episode paints the idealism of Lord Hamilton as his most compelling quality. When Miranda notices that McGraw is drawn to follow him, she explains her admiration for her husband. She says that great men are great because of “the relentless pursuit of a better world.” She goes on, “The great men don’t give up that pursuit. They don’t know how. That’s what makes them invincible.”

There’s a dissonance between the admiration Miranda and McGraw show Hamilton in this scene and the story we heard in the previous season about Miranda and Flint’s adulterous affair driving Hamilton to suicide. This dissonance would have been better highlighted if the episode had reminded viewers of that story. However, none of the scenes in the episode presents an opportunity for it to do so.

As for Flint, the episode picks up the moment the last season ended, with him surveying the Spanish soldiers on the beach guarding the treasure of the wrecked Urca de Lima. The remaining members of Flint’s former crew need his help. They are stranded on the Florida coast with no way to get the treasure or to sail away with The Walrus having been wrecked.

Dufresne, the leader of the mutineers, offers Flint a deal—his help in exchange for his life (a pardon for his crimes against the crew). Viewers might notice that Dufresne looks slightly different this season; he’s now played by Roland Reed, taking over for Jannes Eiselen, who had to quit for health reasons. Reed doesn’t convey the same innate intelligence as Eiselen, and, unfortunately, he’s never given the opportunity to make the role his own. Reed and Eiselen look enough alike that I didn’t realize that the role had been cast until I rewatched the first season. I just knew that Dufresne had gone from a character I liked to one that irritated me by seeming perpetually peevish.

Flint delivers a speech to his former crew that reminds them and the viewers why he makes such an exceptional captain. He has the ability to take charge and motivate people. He informs them that, because the beach is protected not only by a Spanish man o’ war but by a hundred soldiers on the beach, it’s impossible for them to steal the treasure. However, there’s one thing they can steal: the man o’ war. Because there are a hundred soldiers on the beach, they’re not guarding the ship. He lays out a plan that involves two men infiltrating the ship and rendering it vulnerable to attack by the remaining sailors now under Dufresne’s command.

On the one hand, Flint’s instantly coming up with a plan to take the man o’ war proves his prowess as a tactician. However, the plan seems contrived by the writers as a way to allow Flint and Silver to earn their way back into their fellow crewmembers’ good graces. Why two men? Because there are two men who need pardons. Why must anyone infiltrate the ship at all? Why not just attack in force? Darned if I know.

This plan, though, does provide a fun and exciting sequence as Flint and Silver infiltrate the ship and discover it filled with sleeping soldiers. They make it through the bunk room, only having to kill a couple of soldiers who wake unexpectedly, and up to the deck before they get captured. Their captors try to play the game of “Prisoner’s Dilemma” with them—a ploy, often used by film and TV shows, where the captors offer two prisoners the deal that the first one who turns on the other will be offered a pardon while the other will be killed. Instead of being played for tension, however, this scenario is played for humor as Silver rushes to reveal everything before the captor can even finish the offer.

That Silver’s defining characteristic is opportunistic self-interest has been well established by the series and is well known to readers of Treasure Island. But Treasure Island readers also know that, more than anything else, Silver wants the treasure. And, now, he sees Flint as his best chance of getting it. Instead of taking his release from the captors and fleeing, he steals a pistol and helps Flint get free. Together, they prepare to fight the Spanish soldiers and sailors, but the rest of their crew then makes its assault and they are rescued. The scene where Joshua (Richard Lukunku) breaks through the doors of the hold mirrors the first season opener when the same character burst through the doors of the hold on the merchant ship The Walrus had attacked. When the crew has taken the ship and all is calm, Silver informs Flint that their fates are now tied, something we’ll see explored over the course of the season.

Flint’s actions in this episode mimic Miranda’s speech to McGraw that a man’s greatness is defined by “the relentless pursuit of a better world.” Flint believes that he is building a better world. And he is relentless. When Silver asks him how he plans to swim to the man o’ war after being shot in the shoulder in the previous episode, Flint simply walks into the water and starts paddling one-handed. He overcomes the pain to pull himself up a rope onto the ship. He quickly kills anyone who gets in his way. As often as he loses his command and comes close to death in the first two seasons, he always manages to surmount his difficulties and come out on top. He does seem invincible. Ironically, however, in his employment of violence and destruction to get what he wants, he hardly seems like a great man, nor does he seem to be building a better world. Yet, that is his alleged intention.

This episode succeeds mightily in the primary purpose of a season opener: introducing complex conflicts in terms of story, theme, and character for the season to explore. Already, we’re seeing a show more in command of itself than it seemed in its first season and one more willing to bring the audience into the characters’ minds to understand their plans and their motivations.

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