For four years, every Sunday night, my father and I would sit down religiously to watch Black Sails. I’ve always been obsessed with the 18th century, especially, the Golden Age of Piracy. He’s a history buff. I’m a history buff. Boom. So we watched the struggles of outlaws, outcasts, and madmen face the Hobbesian Leviathan of Imperial Britain and Spain. There was betrayal. There was sacrifice. There was hatred. There was love. Black Sails was notoriously underrated. What started as a standalone prequel to Treasure Island transformed into one of the best examinations of civilization vs. the individual in recent memory. Of tyranny vs. liberty. And it did so with unapologetic nuance and rhetoric. It casts no judgement. It raised questions, solutions, but it did not give a clear response.
I’ll give a bullet point breakdown below why this show was so good:
- Character Complexity: None of the characters are simplistic. Cowards become heroic. Brutes show compassion or unexpected depth. Betrayal is examined in a way that often leads to hard consequences, both physical and emotional.
- Political Nuance: The show focuses on the struggles of Nassau, the Pirate’s Republic , vs. Imperial Britain and Spain. It explores the trials, the sorrows, and the rages of the pirates. Some are motivated by a burning ideology of a free world. Some want respect. And some only want to get filthy rich, and the rest can rot. The Imperials are often as nasty as the pirates, but many are sympathetic, caught up in equal pressures from distant merchant guilds, callous Lords, and ignorant colonists.
- The Nature of Violence: Black Sails unflinchingly displays how violence both empowers and destroys people, families, and political causes. Despite many of the pirates coming from sympathetic backgrounds, they’re killers. They often stab each other in the back for personal gain, grudges, and even the notion of a captaincy can be taken through violence or mutiny. They mount daring rescues of comrades, fight back imperialist forces, and defend their fledgling republic. They also bomb innocent colonials, kidnap daughters of colony governors, and often drag bystanders into their chaotic causes. The show casts no judgement. Many of the show’s characters suffer equally brutal fates, and despite the show’s sympathies, it doesn’t favor anyone.
- Antagonist to Protagonist, Vice Versa: All the major characters often switch from protagonist to antagonist, season to season, as alliances shift, crumble, and are remade. With a quality ensemble cast, everyone drives the plot in a way that advances or hinders everyone’s plots.
- CHARACTER: Black Sails is a slow, methodical show. It spends a massive amount of time showcasing its characters internal struggles through quiet conversations, preparing for raids, intense confrontations over betrayals, etc . And it succeeds. Political drama flourishes when it builds up these small scenes into the big plot points (naval battles, ship chases, isle sieges!) And Black Sails is the culmination of its small crises into major ones.
- Legends and Truths: A major theme of Black Sails is the myths, the exaggerated stories surrounding the pirates, and the realities of these characters. All of them are badass in different ways, but the truths of their actions are embellished, built up, even hijacked for political and ideological gains (The Long John Silver “creation” is one of the best scenes in the whole series). The myths of these legendary figures are used to demonize and galvanize everyone in the New and Old World. Captain Flint’s demon eats away at him, as John Silver’s increasing proactiveness leads him to become an even darker monster than his mentor and closest confidant. Speaking of…
- JOHN SILVER: Forget all those wisecracking, amoral scumbags from yesteryear. Long John Silver is the principal protagonist of Black Sails and becomes the Pirate King when its all over. Over the course of four seasons, he goes from glibbing opportunist, to crew cook, to mouthpiece of the captain, to partner, to hobbled second, to ruthless murderer, to captain, to revolutionary, and, finally, walks away as the greatest scourge of the Golden Age of Piracy. Silver is a nobody. An orphan, perhaps, but he won’t reveal his boring past. His drive is to build a story, to be somebody in the eyes of the world. He is also the heart of the show’s themes. He believes in the causes of Flint, cares for his comrades, but he also wants to live another day. He makes impossible choices, trying to save everyone, despite his actions often creating more tension between the pirate leaders. He is also the best orator among a cast of manipulative and persuasive rivals and friends. His power isn’t in his drive. It’s in his ability to bring hope, to strike fear, into the hearts and minds of allies and enemies alike. Silver is a storyteller, and does he deliver.
- Political Tragedy: Black Sails‘ is about people with semi-justified causes clashing, killing, and dying for them. That’s it. Their causes, outlaw or imperial, create tragedy without exaggeration. When you inflict violence, violence comes for you. The ending is true to the series, true to the characters, and true to history. They don’t beat the Leviathan. But they change it, they soothe it.
I could gush more about it but Black Sails was one of the best political dramas ever. True to history, true to tragedy, this series should be watched by history fans and fantasy fans to help them better understand how to create nuance and conflict authentic to reality.
10/10 Outlaws Till the End.