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Black Sails, S02E03: XI.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black-sails-season-2Originally aired 7 Feb 2015
Written by Brad Caleb Kane
Directed by Stefan Schwartz

Starring Toby Stephens, Hannah New, Zach McGowan, Toby Schmitz, Luke Arnold, Louise Barnes, Clara Paget, and Jessica Parker Kennedy

My rating:  ★★★1/2 stars

A season featuring brilliantly-layered characters and masterful storytelling continues. Plus, sex (threesome) and violence (beheading).

I thought that Ryan O’Reilly’s killing of Patrick Keenan on Oz would stand forever as the most romantic murder in television history. But Vane’s dispatching of Ned Low, followed by the presentation to Eleanor of his head in this episode certainly gives Keenan’s murder a run for its money. Maybe I’ll just say that, while the murder on Oz stands as the most romantic skull-crushing on TV, this murder ranks as the most romantic beheading on TV. If you’re looking for a way to show a woman that you love her, why send chocolates and flowers when you can give her the severed head of her enemy on a spike?

Low_head

I have mixed feelings about violence on television. On the one hand, I have watched shows like Oz, Game of Thrones, and Black Sails, so I can’t be totally against it. On the other hand, I feel like each act of violence has to serve the story and the characters.

Recently, I sampled the Netflix series Daredevil and turned it off in the second episode because I was sickened by the violence. The problem was not that Daredevil was necessarily more violent than shows like Black Sails. The problem was that the violence was handled poorly. Instead of using violence to further the story or reveal character, in Daredevil, the violence seemed like an end in itself—as if the point of the show was to have fight scenes. Secondly, the violence was made to look aesthetically pleasing. A friend even argued that the fighting was “beautiful.” Too me, that’s the absolute wrong presentation of violence. Violence is ugly and should appear that way. Finally, the fight scenes went on far longer than they needed to go. An endless series of punches and kicks is not interesting. It’s both boring and nauseating at the same time.

Black Sails, on the other hand, uses violence much more effectively. The fight between Vane and Low is a perfect example. It’s short, brutal, and awkward, constrained by the limited space of a cabin aboard ship. We’ve seen Vane fight hand-to-hand in the first season. We know that this is his preferred method of problem solving. But Low is a formidable opponent. They’re well matched. There’s always a sense that, with one wrong movie, Low could kill Vane, letting us viewers know how much Eleanor was asking of Vane when she requested his help and how much he is willing to risk to help her. The scene cuts just as one of the combatants is about to be defeated. Wisely, the people behind the scenes understand that showing a second beheading in two episodes is (literally) overkill. The one in the previous episode establishes the brutality of Low. Graphically depicting this one would serve no purpose. It’s enough to see Vane emerging from the cabin carrying Low’s head.

Eleanor finds herself in a difficult position in this episode. Flint returns to find out that Vane has taken over the fort while he was away. To Flint, this is an untenable situation. Vane’s controlling the fort could scuttle Flint’s plans to return with the Spanish gold from the Urca de Lima wreck. However, while Flint was gone, Eleanor requested Vane’s help, thus tying her interests with his. Previously, she and Flint had been united in their goals.

The scene where Eleanor and Flint find themselves with opposing interests isn’t as powerful as it should be. New isn’t a powerful enough screen partner for Stephens. Similarly, earlier in the episode when Eleanor visits Miranda, New is overpowered by the presence Louise Barnes has. Both Eleanor and Miranda are powerful female characters, but Barnes’s intensity figuratively blows New right off the screen. Eleanor is lost in a scene that should be a clash with more parity. I always enjoy scenes where characters who rarely share screen time meet. It gives us an opportunity to see characters we’re familiar with show new facets of their persona brought out by interactions with unfamiliar people. Here, we see the domestic Miranda fiercely oppose a stranger, standing up for herself and her relationship with Flint. This aspect of her character becomes central as the season reaches its climax. What we don’t see, however, is what meeting Miranda brings out in Eleanor.

Miranda’s relationship with Flint seems less of a mystery in this episode, as flashbacks show scenes of Miranda and James (before he was Captain Flint) interacting outside of the company of her husband. On the surface, they seem to be developing an extramarital affair, with Flint betraying Thomas, whom he’d come to look on as a friend. Miranda, however, insists that Thomas is not bothered by the rumors of her infidelity. As we learn in future episodes, the dynamic between the characters is far more complex than wife, lover, and cuckolded husband. Beyond what appears to be happening on the surface, these flashbacks involve a lot of discussion of dealing with and rejecting notions of propriety—a theme that will take on deep significance as we learn more about the history of the characters. The final flashback in this episode I find deeply frustrating. Flint seems to abandon notions of propriety and kisses Miranda while they are in a carriage. Then, the scene cuts. We’re given no sense as to whether their relationship becomes a sexual one at this point, an issue that makes a difference in how we view subsequent revelations. Ambiguity isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be frustrating for the viewer.

This episode shows the progression of the relationship between Anne, Rackham, and Max. What seems like an unsustainable situation—Anne holding on to her relationship with Rackham and exploring her desire for Max while the three forge a business partnership—becomes solid by the end of the episode. Anne has a simple solution: Threesome! I’ve always found the lesbian scenes on the show to represent less actual female desire than an exploitative presentation for male consumption. This development only confirms my impression that the series, in these instances, is primarily interested in male fantasy.

However, the three prove interesting compatriots. In the episode, Max uses her knowledge to repair Rackham and Anne’s reputation, which was damaged last season by their killing of their crewmates. Max has a strong scene with Vane when she negotiates his reconciliation with her fellows while he seeks information about Low’s operation. Once again, she displays her intelligence and cunning when she immediately works out why Vane needs to know what special cargo Low holds—to give a business-related excuse to his crew for what is essentially an operation to protect Eleanor. Max and Vane have an interesting dynamic. Two very different characters who should be bitter enemies have a surprising amount of respect for each other. They play well off each other.

The episode ends with Flint preparing an attack to rout Vane and his crew from the fort. All episode Flint had been working to drive his men into a murderous frenzy by spreading lies about Vane and his crew’s behavior as stewards of the fort. It’s hard not to see Flint as the bad guy here. His calculating manipulation of everyone shows his unpleasant sense of superiority to everyone. And his plans smack of needless destruction when there’s no sense, let alone certainty, that Vane will use his position in the fort to steal the Urca treasure.

Flint isolates himself here. His murder of Gates has soured his relationship with Hornigold. His move against Vane has weakened his partnership with Eleanor. He and Miranda are on shaky terms—he can’t even bring himself to visit her. He just leaves a present outside her door. Only Silver remains on his side. When Hornigold questions why Silver would support such a treacherous man, Silver replies simply, “Five million pieces of eight.” Silver is entirely motivated by self-interest. Flint has no one left who has a strong loyalty to him.

This episode is engrossing throughout. It never lags. It has an intriguing and solidly-constructed story and significant character developments. However, it falls short of four stars because it lacks the scenes of powerful impact and the flawless mastery and complexity of storytelling that some of the other episodes have.

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