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If you didn’t watch Black Sails this year, you missed out on a masterpiece. The good news is, all four seasons are now available on Amazon—or the Starz app, if you already signed up to watch Outlander or American Gods.
Pitched as an adult-rated prequel to Treasure Island, it’s easy to see why Black Sails flew under the radar. It’s one of several historical dramas launched in the wake of Game of Thrones, initially marketed on its combination of sexy intrigue and swashbuckling pirate violence. I recall seeing the season 1 trailer and thinking emphatically, “No thanks.” How wrong I was. After rediscovering Black Sails this summer, this show completely changed the way I view history and storytelling—and upgraded my standards for TV in general.
Compulsively watchable yet marred by a touch of sexism, the first season measured up to the better years of Game of Thrones. Then in season 2, a switch flips. The show discards its handful of flaws, setting up a three-season run of heartbreaking perfection. If I started listing its strengths, we’d be here all day while I yelled about naval battle choreography, character-driven romance, and Shakespearean speechwriting. Largely ignored in favor of more mainstream prestige dramas like Mad Men, it’s the kind of hidden gem that turns casual viewers into passionate evangelists.
What is Black Sails, exactly?
Set in the Bahamas during the golden age of piracy, Black Sails combines a handful of figures from Treasure Island (a young Long John Silver is the most recognizable) with real historical pirates (Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham, Blackbeard) and original characters. It’s an ensemble show with a pirate named Captain Flint in the central role, a political radical who specializes in manipulative speeches and a superhuman capacity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In a cast of brilliant but little-known actors, Toby Stephens is one of the few faces you may recognize. He gives the performance of a lifetime. Flint could easily be viewed as a villain, yet he’s so compelling and complicated that you root for him at his worst. (A subtle distinction from a protagonist like Walter White, who is compelling and complicated but really not intended to be relatable.) His ultimate goal is to launch a revolution against British rule in the Bahamas, funded by a hoard of Spanish gold.
That gold puts most fictional MacGuffins to shame, providing a lynchpin or a stumbling block for numerous conflicts throughout the series. Rather than just being a desirable prize, it represents something different for every character: freedom from oppression, the funding for a new way of life, or a way to fix your legacy in the history books.
If you’ve noticed me speaking in vague terms here, that’s because Black Sails is very susceptible to spoilers. Not in the sense that it leans on shocking twists, but that there are plenty of unexpected revelations. Built on an ever-changing landscape of shifting alliances and feuds, the plot runs like a well-oiled machine. The defining moment arrives in season 2, where, without going into detail, the show unveils its underlying vision. As we discover the true motivation for one of the main characters, we realize the political themes that lurked almost invisibly beneath the surface in season 1.
Pirates and politics
Historical accuracy is a complicated thing. Some historical dramas pay meticulous attention to recorded detail (The Crown) while others gleefully play in a sandbox of fictionalized history (Vikings; The Tudors). We tend to take “realistic” examples more seriously, forgetting that true authenticity is an unreachable goal. Black Sails has a more thoughtful attitude than most because it actively encourages you to think about historical truth. In the words of Hamilton: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
History is written by the victors, which in this case translates to the white, British men who dominate the historical record. The heroes of Black Sails are people whose viewpoints were erased from that narrative. Criminals, political dissidents, people of color, queer women, military conscripts… their lives and values are explored in vivid, authentic detail, regardless of whether the show’s costuming choices or timeline are technically correct.
This choice is political in itself, feeding into the show’s depiction of street-level politics in pirate life. From the first episode, we see Flint rallying support among his recalcitrant crew, drawing from the fact that many pirate ships were surprisingly democratic. Flint has to keep his crew happy while persuading them to hunt for that quasi-mythical Spanish treasure, helped and hindered by the charming and untrustworthy John Silver (Luke Arnold), who holds the treasure map as leverage. Flint’s main ally is a merchant banker named Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), whose girlfriend Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) becomes a kind of information-broker for the pirate community. They exist in a tangled web of constant intrigue and negotiation—and that’s before you dig into the big-picture politics of class, race, and sexuality in the early 18th century.
We meet a number of terrifying villains over the four seasons of Black Sails, but the main antagonist is a philosophical concept: Civilization. After watching this show, you won’t hear that word the same way again.
Britain wants to civilize Nassau and the American colonies, spreading British law, Christian values, and a stable platform for English commercial interests. To the pirates of Nassau, this obviously isn’t a desirable outcome. The idea of “civilization” relies on slavery, military conquest, restrictive class divides, and the subjugation of women. If you’re female, or queer, or a person of color, then you’re unlikely to enjoy the result.
Black Sails does an impressive job of handling these intersecting viewpoints in an appropriate manner, without using anachronistic portrayals of race and sexuality. For instance, while the main cast includes several queer characters, their stories don’t rely on modern assumptions about sexual identity or homophobia. The show also has an unusually nuanced and forthright attitude to slavery. Historical fiction has a bad habit of either ignoring the issue entirely or dividing white characters into ogre-like slave owners or morally upstanding heroes with “modern” values. Not so in Black Sails. Among the white characters in positions of power, slavery is treated as the norm. Meanwhile, the pirate crews include former slaves alongside white men who were forcibly enlisted by the British Navy, and season 3 introduces an entire community of escaped slaves. Some are tempted by Flint’s revolutionary vision, but that requires a precarious solidarity between Nassau’s unruly gaggle of pirates and Africans who run an even greater risk at the hands of the British Empire. By setting this story in 1715, Black Sails covers far more controversial territory than your average political drama.
For a traditional pirate hero like Anne Bonny, this whole story plays out like a crime caper with lots of dramatic duels and swooping romance. For everyone else, it’s a nail-biting conflict between a near-undefeatable enemy and a ragtag squad of queer anarchist revolutionaries.
Life is grim, but you don’t have to be
After all this talk of meaty political themes, I feel the need to point out that Black Sails is also fun as hell. It’s much less dark than it seems at the outset, intentionally set apart from the TV trend for overwhelming grittiness.
Black Sails includes plenty of brilliantly-shot fight scenes, but the moments of true grotesquery are few and far between. That means they have far more emotional impact than the ever-increasing tolerance for brutality in shows like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. While 18th century Nassau is a dangerous place to live, characters aren’t rewarded for reacting with ruthlessness and cruelty. Flint suffers a psychological toll from the monstrous things he does, and in their own way, the main characters are all striving for peace. They fall in love. They read books, and make jokes. They go through dark times but for the most part, they don’t become worse people as a result. That felt like an important lesson this year, not just for TV drama, but for life in general.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor