As Black Sails charts a course into its fourth season, the series is clearly treading unknown waters. Following the rousing Black Sails season 3 finale, the pirate community that Capt. Flint (Toby Stephens) and his new quartermaster John Silver (Luke Arnold) forged has won an unexpected battle against the British. The encroachment of civilization is thwarted. For now.
Nevertheless, it is known that the golden age of piracy did not usher in an independent pirate nation, free from the yoke of colonial tyranny—and Flint’s Nassau was a dying dream that gave way to both his and Silver’s grim fates in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Hence, season 4 is not so much about sailing into the unknown… but finally coming home to what this story has always been about. As that reality slowly takes shape in the approaching horizon, it is something as bittersweet as understanding that we have, at last, come for the end of all things for Starz’s cult pirate series. Stars Stephens and Arnold certainly think so when they talk to me about saying goodbye in a pair of separate phone interviews earlier this month.
“It’s a tragedy, basically,” Stephens remarks. “The whole thing is a tragedy, because it’s about the dream of this man to lead this kind of emancipation of the pirate world and the slaves, and all of this stuff.” Yet, it is not to be for a literary character whom Stevenson gave an ignominious end to over a century ago.
“So we know it doesn’t end well,” Stephens continues. “His dreams don’t come to fruition, but most importantly, what happens to Flint at the end of that, and how does the Silver of that become the eponymous Long John Silver of Treasure Island? How does this person become that, and what happens to their partnership and their friendship?”
That is the rub that the entire series is built on for Stephens—who called Flint’s dream the kernel from which Black Sails was built—and it is what makes the final season so exciting. Even when I point out that we know Silver ends up being a legendary and feared pirate who lives for decades more, Stephens suggests that the fourth season might say otherwise about such vainglorious developments.
“But also you see with Silver, it’s a tragedy because what has he become?” Stephens counters. “He becomes this sad sort of guy who ends up in Treasure Island, kind of conniving his way back to this place. Everybody else has died, the golden age of piracy is over, and he fails to get the treasure. He fails to get what he wants. And also what this series sort of tries to create is why does he want the treasure? Is it purely for avarice, is it purely self-serving, or are there other motives for that?”
Arnold views his character’s destiny with similar ambiguity and intrigue for the new year.
“The joy of this was at the beginning,” Arnold says while considering Stephens’ comments. “He was the non-pirate; he’s the one who didn’t want to be one, who was ill-suited, who didn’t understand this world at all. Like his way of working, his kind of fast talking mode, brought some element to it. But he did not understand how this world worked or how to play people here.” For Arnold, going from a guy who thought piracy was the dumbest career move imaginable to becoming a reluctant pirate king is about the most satisfying character arc you can imagine.
“He’s someone who never wanted to have someone to rely on or anybody to rely on him, and by the fourth season, everyone relies on him. He’s at the center of this war, and not only in a responsibility way, but in an emotional way… He’s the one who has to start picking sides.”
Still for both actors, there have been no sides to pick about starring in Jonathan E. Steinberg’s pirate drama. Indeed, each evoked a tangible wistfulness about the series being over, and that they are only now getting together so many months later. Albeit, rather than wearing costumes, they’re at a junket in Los Angeles trying to commemorate their voyage.
“The melancholy really started to hit in November, because for the first time in five years, we’re not going down to Cape Town,” Arnold laments. “We’re not meeting up where we usually meet up and starting this adventure again. We do keep in touch a lot, but it’s really nice to be together again, and I think there’ll be a few tears when we watch the final episode and have to say goodbye to Black Sails for good.”
Both performers share a similar sentiment: It’ll be hard to come by an experience like this again as an actor. Arnold particularly noted that it’s a rare thing, especially in television, for an actor to walk away feeling like he did everything he wanted to do with a character or personal journey—that it is all on the table and the screen.
In terms of season 4, it means that Silver is going to start being trapped by his incoming legacy. Says Arnold, “Silver is starting to hear rumors about this Long John Silver who’s being called the Pirate King and hasn’t really digested yet what that means for him, and whether he’ll be able to fulfill that role.” Rather than being Stevenson’s lovable (or detestable) rogue, this is a man being forced to decide between the needs of his crew and his personal ones.
“It’s [not], ‘Okay, so I’m suddenly going to be a guy on a poster or the guy on the front of a book.’ Silver gets to watch it happen outside of himself, and his internal journey is almost different from the external one everyone else has seen.” Particularly, when he picks whom to truly aid in this war.
For Stephens, conversely, it’s about letting his character’s aspirations—both of a virtuous and sinful nature—reach their natural conclusion when things come to a head.
Remarking on Flint’s need for independence, the actor says, “The complexity of it is that it’s not really for altruistic reasons, or exclusively for altruistic reasons. It’s really his own psychodrama he’s playing out and his own kind of revenge, and you know that it’s not going to end well, but I hope that the fans will be happy with the way of seeing it come to its climax.”
However, fans of course are quick to ponder even before season 4 airs if we’ll truly be seeing the ending of this story given that it is cued up to dovetail into the Treasure Island saga some many years later. When I talked to Luke Arnold and executive producer Dan Shotz about this possibility last year, they definitely left the door open. Additionally, Stephens is quick to point out that he thinks the death of Flint whispered about in the Treasure Island novel is apocryphal. And yet, Stephens at least seems a bit resistant to the idea of doing the Black Sails version of that tale at this exact moment.
Says Stephens, “I don’t know if that would ever happen. There would have to be some separation of that, because Black Sails has been such an epic drama. Compared to what happens in Black Sails, not much happens in Treasure Island!” The last point he makes with a laugh, but he is correct that the story of Treasure Island is to seek this forgotten gold, which apparently informed another lifestyle altogether in Black Sails, one where pirates braved hurricanes and sea battles to protect its use.
“I think leaving it like that is much more interesting than going whole hog and doing another version of Treasure Island but through Black Sails. I actually think leaving it here is better in a way.”
Treasure Island was itself a Victorian romanticization and rebuke of the pirate culture of the previous century, a successful piece of literature that defanged and codified the political frustration that bore the golden age of piracy out in the first place. When I ask Stephens how his Capt. Flint would react to the way pirates have been depicted in popular culture for the last 150 years, Stephens immediately knew his answer.
“I think he’d go, ‘Well of course that’s what happened to them.’ They’ve become like fantasy monsters, they’re fantasized, but once you do that, you rob them of what they were. They become something that’s manageable. They’re in children’s books, they become something that’s cardboard.”
Black Sails makes its final crossing in pop culture waters, attempting to wrestle that image back into flesh and blood, on Sunday, Jan. 29 on Starz.