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Black Sails, S02E02: X.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black-sails-season-2Originally aired 31 Jan 2015
Written by Michael Chernuchin
Directed by Clark Johnson

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Luke Arnold, and Jessica Parker Kennedy

My rating:  ★★★★ stars

The themes of the instability of circumstances and of the importance of the perception of power connect thoughtful, complex, character-driven scenes and engrossing conflicts.

With this episode, Black Sails begins to repay the viewers for their patience last season. All the laying out of characters and information is now paying off. Without all that build-up, the scenes and conflicts of this episode, so rich and multi-layered that they defy easy parsing, would not be possible.

The episode opens with an enigmatic scene that causes some of the same frustration that much of the first season did. A man lies pinned down to the beach, sewn into a leather shirt, shrinking as it dries in the sun, making it hard for him to breath. A naval officer above him taunts him, telling him that, when the leather gets dry enough, the pressure will cause his ribs to break and pierce his vital organs. We don’t recognize the naval officer. We’re not shown the face of the man bound on the beach. Some viewers might guess that the long frame of the man belongs to Billy Bones (played by the 6’5” Tom Hopper). Other viewers, knowing that Billy must have survived his tumble overboard last season, might guess that this could be the character’s reintroduction.

Soon, however, the naval officer demands the man’s cooperation in some kind of plan, and the camera finally shows Billy’s face. The initial reaction to this scene is that it doesn’t seem different from the first season. Enigmatic characters with obscure plans was the defining characteristic of the first season and one of the chief sources of frustration for viewers. But, while this is the same show, it has taken its storytelling to a new, more fully developed level. This first scene is merely a teaser for episodes to come. It lets the audience know of a factor unknown to the other characters—Billy’s survival—that could impact them in ways that are yet unclear. For one thing, just because Billy survived doesn’t mean that Flint didn’t throw him overboard in the first place.

Ned Low is another element introduced into the environment whose arrival impacts the story in ways the other characters can’t foresee. His quartermaster, Mr. Meeks, develops misgivings about the malevolence Low holds towards Eleanor. Like any capable quartermaster, Meeks wants what’s good for the crew, and he doesn’t think that developing a hostile relationship with Eleanor is in the best interest of the crew. Ned’s line dismissing Meek’s concern—“It’s an uncertain world, Mr. Meeks. Best to live in the now”—expresses the underlying idea of the episode—that circumstances change quickly despite anyone’s best efforts to control them—and the purpose of his character. Low unsettles the equilibrium, such as there is, in Nassau. He makes the world uncertain.

Meeks, again, in the interest of his crew, asks Eleanor to depose Low as captain—he’s heard she does that kind of thing. He claims that Ned is madman who can’t be dealt with. If there were any doubts about that, Low eliminates them when he tracks Meeks down and cuts his head off in the middle of Eleanor’s tavern. This is the grisliest scene we’ve seen since the first episode when Flint beat Singleton to death. It’s not a quick beheading with a sword like we’ve seen on other shows. It takes Low a while to saw Meeks’s head off with a dagger, as Eleanor and her horrified customers look on.

Eleanor’s position is precarious. She doesn’t have the power to depose Low, but she can’t let anyone know it. Her shipping consortium is struggling. The stronger of her two captains, Captain Lawrence, returns from delivering goods and reports finding resistance from officials at every point in the voyage. The Guthrie name doesn’t carry the weight it once did. He claims he had to resort to threats of retaliation from Vane to get the goods delivered. Although Vane is reluctant to be part of the consortium, he is the only one with a reputation that forces people to comply with the consortium.

Vane privately tells Eleanor that she lacks the power to back up her actions, that all that’s carrying her is the perception of the power the Guthries once had. Out of “concern” for her, he advises, “If you are not strong enough to protect yourself, Eleanor, than I urge you to cease behaving as if you are.” He warns Eleanor that he cannot protect her because his crew will only do what is in their best interests, and he can’t convince them that “protecting a tyrant too weak to enforce her own tyranny” would benefit them.

Eleanor rejects him initially, but the actions of Low force her to reconsider. Knowing Low will come after her, she goes to the fort to ask for Vane’s help. She tells him that, if he needs to justify his actions to his crew, he can inform them that Low recently secured an item of immeasurable value, something she learned from Meeks before he lost his head. I’m hard on Hannah New, but she’s good here at playing the vulnerable side of Eleanor. It humbles her to ask Vane for help, but she’s out of options.

Also facing uncertainty are Rackham and Anne, who have been together for fifteen years. Rackham doesn’t know how to handle the fact that Max has suddenly come between them. For that matter, neither does Anne. It upsets Rackham’s personal relationship with Anne and his business relationship with Max. His response, however, is utterly unexpected. When Anne sneaks out of bed with him to jump into bed with Max, he walks in on them, proposes a three-way business partnership, and walks out, telling Anne to come back to bed when she’s through. Rackham, here, shows a great ability to process and adapt to changing circumstances, and his proposal will leave him with a greater status than he had before. If Max will provide them with the leads on merchant ships that she gleans from the brothel, he and Anne will get a ship and form their own crew to hunt them down. All the characters on the show must adapt to swiftly changing circumstances, but Rackham, even if he has some initial trouble, does it with aplomb.

This episode features three major flashback sequences. The first shows Lieutenant McGraw (our man Flint from 10 years ago) expressing doubt in Lord Thomas Hamilton’s plan to pacify Nassau. McGraw gives a seemingly impossible list of things that would need to be accomplished to make Nassau prosper. Thomas responds with a calm conviction that the impossible is possible. The scene, which began with Thomas quoting from “Genesis” about man’s need for a partner, asks McGraw to be his, saying, “Strange pairs, Lieutenant—they can achieve the most unexpected things.” This line provides a nice segue into the present day where Flint and Silver must determine their next move.

When Flint and Silver discuss their immediate future, Silver delivers a complexly ironic speech about why he doesn’t just find another crew to join. He says, “I don’t want to be a pirate. I’m not interested in the life. I’m not interested in the fighting. I’m not interested in the ships. I don’t care much for the sea while we’re on the subject. But being a pirate on this crew for a little while longer, it offers me an opportunity I don’t believe I can find anywhere else on earth–one big prize and with it freedom from water…from hunger, from wages, from you.” But anyone with a basic knowledge of the character, even those who haven’t read Treasure Island, knows that Silver grows old being a pirate. His goal of finding one big prize that will lead to freedom from the life of piracy is the very thing that keeps him in that life. And the specter of Flint and the treasure follows him until he’s an old man.

As much as this scene is about Silver, Flint lays out a goal that will structure his actions over the course of the episode. Both Silver and Flint want to return for the treasure, but Silver doesn’t see how they can achieve that when they’ll both be dumped off the ship when it reaches Nassau in two days. Flint declares, “In less than two days, I intend to be a captain again.” And, here, we see a difference from the first season. We have a concrete goal. We know that whatever his plans or actions are they will be in service of this goal. We also have a sense of the larger picture. Flint wants to be captain because he wants to get the treasure. And he wants to get the treasure because he wants to use it to rebuild Nassau according to the vision of Lord Hamilton. We have concrete goals, and so we understand much of what motivates Flint, even if we don’t yet understand why he wants to rebuild Nassau when, in the flashbacks, he expresses so much incredulity at the project.

The second flashback scene, where McGraw reports to his admiral about his mission to be a liaison to Hamilton, devolves into a bar fight. The first minute of the scene, upon initial viewing, seems unimportant. McGraw states that Thomas’s idealism is starting to rub off on him but that he’s still objective about the mission. When the admiral excuses himself, another officer approaches McGraw and snidely insults him, the son of a mere carpenter’s mate, for getting a plum assignment. The officer says, “I suppose there is no end to the benefits Thomas Hamilton’s favor could bestow upon you—future employment, status—hell, I understand, that if he likes you well enough, he may even let you fuck his wife.” And McGraw explodes. All of a sudden, the quiet, ambitious naval officer disappears, and the future Captain Flint comes out. He savagely beats the officer and his friend who tries to come to his aid. As soon as the admiral reappears, McGraw snaps back into form as the civilized young officer he is. The conflict with the snide officer and the ensuing fight stand out as the dramatic part of the scene. But the first part, where McGraw admits that he’s coming under the influence of Thomas, is vital to the entire narrative of the series. It’s McGraw’s adoption of Thomas’s vision as his own that drives everything that has happened in the series so far.

The third flashback scene picks up right where the second left off with McGraw apologizing to the admiral for his loss of temper. The admiral tells McGraw about his concern over “that thing which arises in you when passions are aroused…All men have it, but yours is different, darker, wilder…when exposed to extremes I could not imagine what it is capable of, and, of greater concern, I’m not sure you do either.”

Flint’s darkness is never more apparent than in how he handles Dufresne in this episode. After telling Silver about his plan to become captain again, Flint strolls into the captain’s quarters to meet with Dufresne, who’s now acting as captain. He manages not to react when he sees Dufresne in the captain’s chair or when Dufresne calls him “Mr. Flint,” as captains address their subordinates. He instead tells Dufresne that, ironically, he (Flint) misses Gates most of all. He delivers this speech to the wall instead of looking at Dufresne, perhaps out of genuine shame. We believe him. But, we also know his purpose, and, when Flint follows this confession with “good counsel,” we’re poised to distrust him. He tells Dufresne that the ship should not go east around the coast to take advantage of the wind because that would lead them into the common shipping lanes, and the crew would want to try to take a prize (a ship), which they are too depleted to do. He advises Dufresne to take the slower route southwest to Nassau to give the crew a rest and to get reinforcements before they go pirating again.

Naturally, Dufresne doubts Flint’s sincerity. He asks De Groot (Andre Jacobs), a sailor with seniority in the crew (perhaps Billy’s replacement as boatswain—but his position isn’t specifically named) who backed Dufresne in the mutiny, why Flint would try to scuttle the option of going east through the common shipping lanes. De Groot, also distrusting Flint, thinks that Flint wants to prevent the crew from discovering that they can take a prize without him.

But both Dufresne and De Groot have underestimated Flint. The “good counsel” he gave Dufresne was just that. He told Dufresne exactly what he should do. When Dufresne sets the course east through the shipping lanes and the crew tries to take a prize, they are soundly defeated. The failed attempt has some good special effects shots showing the vast difference in size between a man o’ war and a common merchant ship, something we haven’t seen before. The problem, however, is not the size of the ship or the crew. It’s Dufresne. The merchant ship surrenders when it sees Flint’s flag. When the sailors realize that Flint is nowhere to be seen, though, they’re no longer afraid and begin to fight back. As with Eleanor and Low, the perception of power is what’s important. Dufresne doesn’t know what to do.

Suddenly, Flint stands up and starts to give orders, the first of which is to sink the merchant ship as it sails off. That way no one can report their failure to take it and undermine the carefully cultivated fear that Flint’s flag strikes in sailors and that helps him and his crew take prizes. The crew, at first, doesn’t know what to do. But Flint is the only one acting like a captain in the moment. The man o’ war easily sinks the merchant ship.

It’s only later, after the battle and the vote that then returns Flint as captain, that Dufresne, meeting Flint alone in the captain’s quarters, realizes how he’s been manipulated. Flint got him into a position where he was over his head by telling him not to do it and, in that way, putting the idea in his head. Roland Reed had a hard job taking over for Jannes Eiselen, but he’s very good in this scene. Dufresne is heartbroken, but it is not because of his great desire to be captain. As he explains, it is because a man could be so evil as to orchestrate, with mere cunning, so much destruction—including the deaths of all the men on the merchant ship and of the members of their own crew who were killed in the battle—just to regain his position of power. Defeated, Dufresne congratulates Flint and walks away. Flint puts on the Spanish captain’s leather coat and surveys his domain. The whole scene is stunningly filmed in low light with deep, saturated colors, but the final shot is perfect.

Toby Stephens’s performance in this episode is phenomenal. Throughout the episode, Stephens adeptly portrays the many sides of his character. In the final moment, he manages to capture the multiple facets of the complex character in a single shot, seeming ashamed, amazed, and proud of his villainy all at the same time.

This episode is hard to break down and write about. Each scene is filled with layers of meaning. Often, those layers inform and comment on other scenes and other storylines. The delicious complexity of character, story, and theme is engrossing to watch but is not easy to explain. It took nine episodes to build to this point, and the second season still has eight episodes to go.

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