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Black Sails, S02E04: XII.; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

black-sails-season-2Originally aired 14 Feb 2015
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Dan Shotz
Directed by Clark Johnson

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 necessary evil…

If Black Sails episodes had titles instead of Roman numerals (reflecting the chapter designations of traditional novels), this episode should be called “A Necessary Evil.” In the narrative, we see several characters consider actions that they would rather not do or that they would consider dangerous but that they deem vital to their ultimate goal. Furthermore, the episode itself could count as a necessary evil, the filler episode—the kind that builds up to events that will happen in future episodes. Much of the time is spent with characters pondering decisions and discussing various courses of action and their consequences.

That’s not to say that this episode is poorly done. In fact, it shows great attention to character and detail. It’s the kind of episode that gets richer the more you see it and the more subtleties you notice.

The major conflict in it is Flint vs. Vane. Flint wants to retrieve the Urca de Lima gold and bring it back to Nassau, but he doesn’t feel he can do it while Vane holds the fort. He believes Vane will use his position to extort the gold from Flint. Flint’s solution is to use the Spanish man o’ war he has commandeered to blast Vane out of the fort.

As simple as this conflict is to describe, there’s a lot more going on under the surface. Most importantly, Flint repeatedly mischaracterizes Vane. Flint’s descriptions of Vane as a savage brute completely driven by self-interest and lacking in intellect do not fit with what we’ve seen of Vane. Although Vane lacks Flint’s education, he demonstrates both intelligence and rationality. In fact, Flint often comes off as the more brutal of the two—his use of violence being rasher and far less calculated than Vane’s. Indeed, Flint seems to be projecting the aspects of his own character that he despises onto Vane.

Eleanor finds herself caught in the middle of this conflict. As much as she supports Flint’s goals for Nassau, she displays deep feelings for Vane. Plus, she had recently allied with Vane against Low. Throughout the episode, the men around her condescendingly criticize her for letting her feelings for Vane get in the way of sound judgement. However, as Mr. Scott eventually points out to Flint, just because Eleanor is emotionally involved with Vane doesn’t mean that she is wrong. Her argument that destroying the fort and rendering Nassau vulnerable to invasion by the British and Spanish navies is a bad idea is a compelling one.

This issue of the fort protecting Nassau from invasion is where the episode struggles in terms of logic. If the fort is what protects Nassau, then it should not be vulnerable to a crippling attack from a single Spanish warship. The writers have created a situation that doesn’t make sense for the sake of contriving a conflict.

Eleanor is not alone in having her judgment questioned. Vane’s subordinates are also questioning his ability to view Eleanor objectively. One nicely-directed encounter shows Vane daring his adviser to challenge him openly if he really doubts Vane’s focus and objectively. Director Clark Johnson places Vane on a lower plane than his underling, usually a position of lesser power. However, Vane’s ability to project authority (and, probably, the underling’s recollection that Vane just decapitated a man in single combat) soon has his adviser cowering away.

Two other threads run through this episode. One involves the first appearance of Lord Peter Ashe (Nick Boraine), the governor of the Carolina colonies, and the first real introduction that we get to his daughter, Abigail (Meganne Young), who had been a prisoner of Low and is now a prisoner of Vane. Abigail, who had been drugged by Low, is now conscious, and we get a glimpse of her character. Despite being a prisoner, she is not intimidated by Vane—even when he admits that he cut off Low’s head. Abigail seems to understand that her position with Vane is a business venture for him and seems willing to work with him in order to end her ordeal. Her choices here avoid clichés and make her intriguing to viewers. She shows that she is not the stereotypical damsel in distress.

Her father, Lord Peter Ashe, is seen only in flashback when he, alone among all of Thomas Hamilton’s friends, agrees to support Hamilton in his desire to offer amnesty to the pirates of Nassau in exchange for their help in making it a stable and viable colony. As a whole, the flashbacks this week seem particularly uninteresting. They all comprise merely discussion, usually about issues of political planning, none of which makes for compelling television. Even the argument between Thomas and his father about the future of Nassau lacks heat. Knowing what these discussions are leading to, however, I can see that they are a necessary evil, laying the groundwork for understanding how the narrative in present-day Nassau plays out over the course of the season.

One detail that viewers may not notice upon first or second viewing is the prominence of the Hamiltons’ ticking clock in the sound mix during the flashback scenes. This prominence is not a ham-handed metaphor for time running out. Rather, it serves to call attention to the presence of the clock, which, as an object, will become important at the end of the season.

The final major thread of the episode involves the evolving triangle between Anne, Rackham, and Max. Rackham’s wariness of Max increases throughout the episode as he witnesses her powers of manipulation even though those manipulative powers serve to garner him a crew and a ship with little effort on his part. Anne and Rackham have an intriguing encounter where she argues that, with as much as they’ve been through together and as many people as she’s killed for him, he should be able to put up with having threesomes with Max no matter how distasteful he finds it. It’s a surprisingly emotional scene that shows us the deep connection between Anne and Rackham.

This storyline of the trio has been running parallel to the central narrative of Flint’s quest to bring the Urca gold to Nassau and the other stories that converge with it. It’s easy for viewers to dismiss it as a side plot or a B-story, but they would be wrong to do so.

Thrown into this episode is Billy Bones’s unceremonious return to Nassau, which makes such little impact and has such little connection to any of the other storylines as to be forgettable. Billy will have a place in the narrative as the season progresses. His return didn’t need to be shoehorned into this episode.

Besides the issue of a logic-challenged, contrived conflict, there’s nothing essentially wrong with this episode—except that little happens. Not every episode can be a big one. Some episodes need to build up to those big moments.

 

STUFF THAT BOTHERS ONLY ME

In the episode, there are several instances of people using the pronoun “I” when “me” is grammatically correct, as in “with you and I” or “between you and I.” It grates because ignorant writers incorrectly use “I” when they want to make the characters seem smart when, in actuality, they’re having the characters speak with poor grammar.

 

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