“Everyone is a monster to someone. Since you are so convinced that I am yours. I will be it.”
When Black Sails first aired back in 2014, comparisons were immediately made to Game of Thrones. And on the face of it, that comparison is fair – especially in the fact that both shows are overflowing with sex, violence, and strong language. And both shows balance out this with well written characters and intriguing politics (well Game of Thrones did this back in 2014, the less said about how the show ended, the better). However, if you go into Black Sails expecting Game of Thrones with pirates then you may be surprised. Because while the early episodes of Black Sails may share the tried and tested Game of Thrones method of shocks, sex, and violence, the show develops further than that. Unlike Game of Thrones, Black Sails never trades in story or character or logic for what a Game of Thrones producer once called ‘water cooler moments’. Whether it was a shocking character death or ruining seasons worth of story simply to make a moment people would talk about, by the end of it’s run, these moments defined Game of Thrones. Black Sails has big moments, but none that undermine what has come before for the sake of a ‘water cooler moment’. It’s possibly because Black Sails never had the viewership to have a moment everyone would talk about the next day, but I feel it’s more a commitment by the show runners to stick to the story they want to tell without selling out to fan demands. By the time the second season has concluded Black Sails has become something entirely different, and entirely better, than Game of Thrones ever was.
Season 1 does get off to a slow start, but it’s never anything less than enjoyable. Some of the reviews criticised the show for it’s apparently weak characters but I felt some just took longer than others to warm to. Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and John Silver (Luke Arnold) were straight away engaging. Flint’s crew members like Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and Mr Gates (Mark Ryan) didn’t take long to become favourites either. Nassau trade boss (and de-facto queen) Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) is awesome and perhaps one of the most bad ass characters in the whole show. Real life pirate Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) is one of my personal favourite characters. He’s aware he’s not the best pirate on the island but schemes and bargains to get to the top. Schmitz is fantastic in the role. Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) took me a bit longer to come round to, somewhat intentionally I feel. The first season paints him as more of a villain but across the subsequent episodes and seasons he quickly became one of my favourite characters. The action doesn’t take long to get going however and by the end of the first episode we already have Captain Flint drenched in the blood of another crew member as barks at his men about the biggest treasure they’ve ever known, aboard a Spanish treasure galleon named the Urca de Lima. Toby Stephens as Flint is the best part about the show and the show is not lacking for best parts. He’s a complex guy, bouncing between anti-hero and full blown villain. I can only assume the critics didn’t view the first season until the end because the last couple of episodes are particularly spectacular. Captain Flint and his crew-mates fighting for control of his ship, The Walrus, as they attempt to take on a Spanish man-o-war is one of the best scenes of television I’ve seen in recent memory, but even that is topped by some of the events in season 2.
The show runners must have heard the criticisms leveled at season 1 because season 2 delves further into the backstories of our characters, none more so than Captain Flint – or Royal Navy Lieutenant James McGraw as he is known in these flashbacks. These scenes, spread out throughout the season, show Flint as he was known a decade earlier in England and how he came to be the fearsome Captain Flint. These scenes humanise and develop him into a character more fleshed out and believable than nearly anyone else I’ve seen on big-budget TV (and is leagues ahead of anything Game of Thrones ever did). It’s a beautiful and tragic backstory but it is always in service of the character – not for shocking the audience. The show does have big, blockbuster moments too and these are only bigger and better in the second season. The Charleston attack is one of the my absolute stand out moments from a season full of them and is an incredibly well-executed action scene. The show does move at a refreshingly quick pace and doesn’t suffer from the same lulls that Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, or any of the other big shows seem to suffer from. The slower moments are there though, and they are almost always perfectly acted and written. Whereas season 1 suffered from a fair bit of Game of Thrones style sexposition, these moments are developed into meaningful relationships by season 2. The relationship between Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and prostitute and later brothel madame Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) soon becomes a key part of the storyline. And the later relationship between Max and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) is a heartbreaking queer love triangle, rarely seen on such mainstream TV. While season 1 is one of the most enjoyable seasons of TV I have seen, season 2 elevates that into being one of the greatest ever seasons of TV, period.
I’m well into season 3 now and I’m repeatedly shocked by just how good this show is. The writing is consistently fantastic and action is always brilliant and the characters are some of my favourite ever from this era of big budget, blockbuster TV shows. It was an unfairly overlooked show during it’s time on television, do yourself a favour and stream it now. You won’t regret it.
Reviewed by Tom