Crossbones: The Devil’s Dominion review

The premiere of Crossbones: The Legend of Blackbeard boasts a great cast, excellent production values, and John Malkovich.

Probably the first question about Blackbeard in NBC’s new show Crossbones is why he has a white goatee? My guess is that John Malkovich doesn’t look good in a black beard, and the network was committed to a pirate with name recognition. The Blackbeard of Crossbones is a far cry from the rough-and-ready historical figure. But he’s placed correctly in time (1729, putting Blackbeard’s age at 49, a venerable age for a pirate).

We can only assume that he’s had an interesting time since the Royal Navy cut his head off in 1718, and his headless body swam three times around the ship.

This is history by the way, testified to by several witnesses. The real deal. Lieutenant Robert Maynard, the man who hunted Blackbeard down and killed him, came back to Virginia with the notorious pirate’s head hanging from the bowsprit of his ship. I’d love to see NBC explain that away.

Malkovich plays an impressive and believable madman, surrounded by acupuncture needles, far Eastern statuary, and beautiful women. He’s the show’s main draw, and he earns his keep. My favorite line in the whole show? “Not all those unflattering legends about me are untrue.” The menace is real, and it could turn into anything. I’m impressed.

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Characters? Not one, not two, but three strong women, a Muslim mathematician, who may or may not be trying to take over Blackbeard’s throne, an African pirate, bloody handed and wild, and a disgraced lady with a merciful streak and good business skills. More females appear later. Plus a bloody-eyed female ghost. Lovely group.

And in case you disbelieve that a group like this might gather around a pirate, understand that sailors traveled great distances, even in the 1700s. It was not surprising for a pirate ship to have men on it who had come all the way from China. Escaped slaves often became pirates, and pirates often freed the slaves they captured. This kind of diversity is entirely appropriate to a pirate story. The historic Blackbeard had crews that were as much as 30% African.

The other characters look like an interesting lot as well. iMDB currently says Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle)  only appears in this first episode, but I don’t believe that for a moment. His soldier/physician/spy is way too good a character, full of secrets, subtle, and with an adventuresome streak.

The character of Lowe is the sort of person who existed in the 1700s, when a well-read man could literally be said to know something about everything. A scientist, a spy, a naturalist, an assassin, a linguist. 300 years ago, this was possible. Now I wonder if this character is too complex for most viewers to relate to. I hope they do, because I want to know more about him. But he’s more like a character from a movie, where you’re committed to staying until the end.

Fletch (Chris Perfetti) is obviously here to provide leverage against Lowe, and summaries and explanations for the audience, so he’ll have to stay around. Most of the pirates are (so far at least) cyphers without notable personality, but that could change.

The other main character is William Jagger (Julian Sands) the face of the Royal Navy in all this. He appears to be a sadist, and might turn out to be the villain of the piece if Blackbeard becomes the hero (a possibility in these complex proceedings).

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And what about the plot? It starts with the longitudinal chronometer, conveniently- if simplistically – described as a thing that will tell you exactly where you are at sea, and thereby wipe all pirates from the face of the earth (I remind you that – historically – we’ve had such devices for 250 years, now we have GPS, and we’ve still got pirates). It’s at sea, Blackbeard wants it, the pirates capture it, and Lowe starts lying and murdering to keep its secrets safe.

Blackbeard has Lowe and is willing to do anything to get the information he wants. He’s a pretty imaginative guy, with a well-deserved reputation, and considering how quickly his compatriots turn to torture, is not to be trifled with.

Spoiler: Next comes the hidden mission to kill Blackbeard, quickly thwarted by the discovery that someone on Blackbeard’s island is having secret dealing with the nefarious, powerful Spanish. Lowe thinks this is important enough to then save the pirate’s life. Hmm. Was it just done for the drama? Or is there a story here?

The characters are interesting, and the relationships already more complex than in many other shows with half a season under their belts. The premises in the plot are no more far-fetched than in many other shows.

Production values on Crossbones are excellent (this from someone who knows a lot about pirates). I look at all the little details, from the rum bottles to the clothes to the boats. I love seeing people dressed the way they really should have. I deeply love Blackbeard’s big, sweeping linen coat, complete with tiny embroidered rosebuds. It’s what gentlemen wore back in the day, and Blackbeard wanted what gentlemen had. In this story he has it. Wonder what he’ll do to keep it?

My only problem here is that there is no sense of the tropics, or of pirates in general. Blackbeard, while insanely violent, is also elegant and refined. There is no obvious drinking, no rowdiness, no pirate ship, no rollicking whores. There’s plenty of blood, a little torture, but it just doesn’t spell pirates to me.

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I want pirates! This is a show that promises us pirates, and that’s what I want. Do I think it will come? I hope so. I believe so. And I’m going to be back next week, looking for them. I invite you to join me.

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3 out of 5