If I told you there was a show out there, it̵7;s a front button for Robert Louis Stevensons Treasure Island, you might be looking for it on something like Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. If I told you it was on Starz, and if you’ve ever seen an original Starz production before, you would quickly adjust your expectations.
Really, Black sails is not your father’s kind of pirate story. It’s not your child’s kind of pirate story either – at least I hope it is not, because no one under the age of majority should watch it.
That’s one of the show’s few shortcomings, in fact: Like other Starz productions, Black sails seems almost insistent in the way it reveals in extreme violence and sexuality in every single episode. Normally it does not bother me, but in Black sails the total volume of X-rated content displayed becomes paradoxically dull. Around every corner you expect to see another extended bloody murder or full frontal shot – at one point the screenwriters reached out to do both at the same time.
So yes, it’s an abandoned cable show that seems to hit quotas for mutilations and mammals. But if you can get past that (or if it’s a bonus), Black sails is also a densely written period work that handles a large and exciting role of characters with surprising grace. And even if it’s not as cool as, say, Game of Thrones when it comes to production, it sells its story more than well enough to hold me back for more.
Black sails takes place in and around the pirate port of Nassau in the Bahamas, during the golden age of the sail in the early 18th century. The first section quickly establishes our primary characters, many of whom will recognize from the infinite fall Treasure Island. There is the ruthless, naughty-eyed pirate captain Flint (Toby Stevens), young and surprisingly confident Long John Silver (Luke Arnold) and equally young Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), who all raid merchant ships and avoid fleets in the Caribbean.
Flint and his sharp quarterback Gates (Mark Ryan) must keep the mutiny down as they chase a vulnerable Spanish treasure galleon that can only be the source of the title Tax of said ISLAND. But they must also address the special policies of the Caribbean character. The young but ruthless Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) rules the port of Nassau as the designated fence and sells the bad profits of a dozen pirate crews through her father’s trading empire.
Guthrie longs to step out of his father’s shadow and demand wealth and power for himself, and so tolerates and finances Flint’s obsessive pursuit. She also deters power games from rival captains such as Vane (Zach McGowan), carefully handles the organized chaos in Nassau and keeps one step ahead of the British and Spanish empires, which are an ever-present existential threat.
There are many moving parts in Black sails. At any time, a background figure like Guthrie’s right-hand man Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), her girlfriend with negotiable affection Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) or Flint’s mysterious inland contact “Mrs. Barlow” (Louise Barnes) can turn a small information meeting or a chance meeting to their own advantage, up the carefully laid plots for one or another crew.
And yet the show is very careful to show you who does what, why and how it affects everyone else. That makes the first half of season one a real hook in terms of history and character, as newcomer John Silver tries to parlay some important information into a fortune and an uncut neck.
After a special visceral ship on board the first episode, the show keeps its expensive piracy on the back burner for a while. But when Flint and the company return to plunder, Black sails shows an impressive amount of restraint. I’m not a nautical expert or historian, but the authors seem to lovingly use real sailing techniques and historically accurate terminology and movement to keep the battles between the great ships convincing. There are none of Jack Sparrow’s bootlegger turns in Black Pearl here.
A particularly tense episode is a prominent one, where Flint’s crew must penetrate a reinforced “panic room” on a ship they have taken while the Royal Navy snoops for them in the dark of night. Ditto for a series of bluffs made by signals and reflected late in the season. Although the internal ship modes rarely change and the wide images are skilled CG of necessity, there are some surprising heartbreaking things, especially for something that is clearly trying to be the right setting.
I’ve only succeeded through the first season of Black sails, with most of three left. But even without its main point of interest, and even knowing where things must end up in broad strokes (Long John Silver will not hold both legs for too long, etc.), I have to admit that I am connected. As a bonus, which goes into season two, it seems like the writers do not feel the need to constantly fill the screen with X-rated goodies, but instead let the plot and characters take the show where it needs to go. At least for the most part.
Black sails is more akin to Master and master than Pirates of the Caribbean. But it’s worth watching if you want a tight and smooth plot, and provided you can stomach its more overarching moments. Weigh the anchor on the Starz streaming service, or download the entire series at a surprisingly low price on Blu-ray, if you are ready to start the journey. It’s also on Hulu, and the first season is on Amazon Prime Video – viewers outside the US can also find it on other services.