Black Sails: Episode 1 review

The premiere of Starz pirate series, Black Sails, is a blend of literary and historical pirate lore. Here's our review of the first episode!

This Black Sails review contains spoilers. Go here for the spoiler-free version if you haven’t watched the premiere of Black Sails yet! As a pirate historian, I was favorably impressed by Black Sails from the very beginning… We open with a pirate attack, and the pirates are shooting for the rigging, making terrifying noises, fighting against the people foolish enough to raise arms against them. Some of the merchant sailors want to join the pirates, especially John Silver (Luke Arnold), a young man with mysterious motivations and a map he took off a dead man. This isn’t quite the standard pirate fare. A little closer to the truth. And the truth about pirates is a lot more interesting than hook hands and eyepatches! Black Sails takes the fictional duo of Flint and Silver and puts them in the real world of New Providence port in the Bahamas. New Providence really was a place owned entirely by pirates, the place where they dropped off their ill-gotten gains, traded sugar and tobacco for gunpowder and rum. It must have really been like this, a few grand buildings, a tent city, pirates unloading cargo and heading up the hill to the whores. And central to this first episode is the pirate captain’s dilemma, the fact that, on a pirate ship, the captain rules by vote of the crew, and if the crew turns on him, he’s out. Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) is in danger of being driven out by a man named Singleton, as many real pirate captains were driven out. Singleton’s been maneuvering the crew for votes, banking on their anger over the fact that pickings have been slim. Why? Flint is looking for the Big Score, of course. The Spanish galleon that will bring in five million dollars… and yes, dollars were one of the many currencies used in the Caribbean in the 1700s. The purpose of a premier is to hook the audience, introduce all the main characters, and intrigue us with a mystery or two. So we meet Gates (Mark Ryan), Flint’s loyal quartermaster, Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), the foul-mouthed daughter of the man who buys most of the pirate swag, and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a French creole woman who’s Eleanor’s sometime lover, and also after the Big Score. Max teams up with John Silver in his quest to find out what the map is worth. As Gates tries to shore up support for his captain, Flint and a man named Billy (Tom Hopper) take a small boat to search for more information on the Spanish galleon’s route. This allows us to see more of New Providence’s population. We visit a society of escaped African slaves, see the rich merchants who buy stolen goods under the table from pirates, and the pirates themselves, with their own plans and purposes. It’s obvious from the beginning that pirate captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) is the bad guy, as he arrives out of the dark, breathing cigar smoke. And in his wake come Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, upsetting the balance of power with a dirty scheme and a couple of flashing swords. The best twist is saved for last, as Max strolls in on Rackham and Bonny, and has a seat on Rackham’s lap, offering a little betrayal in the form of information about John Silver’s secret map. Anne is suitably pissed at the move on her man, which leaves us at: Gates and Billy on Flint’s side.Rackham and  Anne Bonny on Vane’s side.Loyal retainer Mr. Scott and a huge pile of money on Elanor’s side.Silver looking out for his own interests.Max ready to betray everyone.And Flint fighting a war against the world. Some of it’s a little contrived, I’ll admit, but in TV drama, I’m willing to give a little. Sure, Max and John Silver fall into partnership a little too easily, and for a woman in the 1700’s to actually do the things that Eleanor Guthrie does is pretty unbelievable. But my biggest problem is that I’m not yet deeply involved with the main characters. Flint is a cold man (except when he’s angry, and the violence is epic) and John Silver just didn’t have enough screen time. I’m not really thrilled with Anne Bonny either. Flashing swords and the words, “I want to fuck” do not make a strong character. I want a lot more from a woman who’s based on one of my favorite historical women. But Gates, with his vote-buying and efforts to mediate between Flint and his restless crew, has my sympathy completely. And I love Max, with her romantic problems and relentless ambition. This is only the beginning, though. Flint’s last, epic battle does a lot to redeem the cold, calculating character we’ve been watching so far. This is the Flint of Treasure Island, the man whose very name strikes terror into the hearts of his own crew. Likewise, I can see the twinkle in Luke Arnold as he plays John Silver. I can believe that this character may yet turn into Long John Silver, friend to every man on earth (even as he’s knifing them in the back) and the only man on earth that Captain Flint fears. Time will tell. But I think we’re off to a good start. Well played, Black Sails. TS Rhodes is the author of The Pirate Empire series. She blogs about pirates at  Coming from TS early next week:Evil Merchant Captainsor: Why pirates were so pissed off in the first place. 

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4 out of 5