If you’re not watching Black Sails out of some distaste for period dramas, pirate-related TV and movies, or Starz, you’re wrong. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been sick of the whole pirate schtick since before the third Pirates of the Caribbean film debuted in theaters, but I’m glad I gave Black Sails the benefit of the doubt. It’s become one of my favorite new shows on television and I look forward to a new episode every week. Written as a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Black Sails is a mixture of history and fiction. The series takes place in the Golden Age of Piracy as everyone fights to maintain their way of life on New Providence Island. Much of the plot of the show focuses on the ins and outs of the island. There’s trade, there are pirate camps, there are brothels, and plenty of business mixed with pleasure.
However, it’s the people who populate the island that keep me tuning in every week. Many of the characters are drawn either from Stevenson’s novel–Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), John Silver (Luke Arnold), and Billy Bones (Tom Hopper)–or were historically known pirates–Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), and Anne Bonney (Clara Paget). Plus there are many original characters in Black Sails who command the screen: Eleanor Guthrie (Hanna New), Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), Mr. Scott (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), and Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes). I enjoy Black Sails because it’s gritty, it takes some risks with the characters, and doesn’t shy away from any aspects of the pirate life. Plus it doesn’t hurt that the cast is made up of fantastic actors, or that they’re not hard on the eyes. But if you’re not already convinced, these are some more reasons to check out Black Sails.
Everyone is Attractive
Believe me when I say this: literally everyone on this show is attractive. I know, I know. Media purists will say that the attractiveness level of a cast is not how you should judge a television show, but c’mon, I never claimed to be a purist. Of course, you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but a book’s cover may catch your eye and pique your interest to what lies within. What I’m trying to say is that there is no harm in checking out a show simply because the actors are attractive. In the case of Black Sails, at least there are an equal amount of attractive men and women (okay, maybe there are a few more men than women). It’s very stereotypical Hollywood to glamourize everyone from the pirates to the prostitutes. At least it adds an escapist nature to Black Sails that makes it even more enjoyable.
Full disclosure: I did not major in history and I don’t study it on my own time. I know nothing about the Golden Age of Piracy except what I’ve gleaned from television and movies about pirates. That being said, in my inexpert opinion Black Sails seems to take care to make the show historically accurate (aside from the attractiveness of the characters, of course). Black Sails uses the historical context of the Golden Age of Piracy in order to add another layer of complexity to the story. These pirates aren’t just drinking and pillaging on the high seas–though there’s plenty of that–they’re also fighting to remain free amidst Britain’s oppressive rule in Europe and North America. While a treasure hunt is a main focal point of the first season, the overarching story of the pirates as voluntary exiles from the civilized nations is very compelling–and, as far as I can tell, historically accurate.
As my “Badass Ladies Of…” blog series shows, I appreciate badass female characters whether on television or in movies and books. One of the most exciting aspects of the first episode was all the badass ladies with agency, personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. Eleanor Guthrie is introduced as a foul-mouthed, take-no-prisoners, leader of the trading business on New Providence. Max might be a prostitute in one of the island’s brothels, but she knows what she wants and she’s willing to deal with some shady characters in order to get it. Anne Bonney is still a bit of a mystery, but we know she’s good with a sword and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
However, in recent episodes, Black Sails is developing their female characters at a glacial pace–aside from Eleanor–while the men have become the focal point of the show. Though they appear regularly, Max and Anne haven’t had the same amount of agency since the premiere episode. They have largely spent their time acting as antagonists or serving some purpose to the men on the show. I’d like to see more of Max and Anne, but more of who they were in the premiere. To say these character’s lack of development has been disappointing is an understatement. Still, I’m holding on to a tentative hope that the women will play bigger roles in the coming episodes.
What I think I disliked about the Pirates of the Caribbean films was the Disney sheen to everything. Pirates are notoriously violent and despicable, but it seemed almost every pirate in those films had a heart of gold or existed for comedic relief. However, Black Sails depicts all kinds of pirates and every aspect of their lives. There are honorable pirates, evil pirates, violent pirates, harmless pirates, conniving pirates, drunk pirates, etc. You get the point. Black Sails also gives more insight into the other people who are a part of their world: prostitutes, businessmen, traders, as well as others. The show treats these characters as if they are just as important as the actual pirates, and allows them to be just as cool.
Although sometimes Black Sails delves a little too much into lifestyle–there’s way too much rape, which might be historically accurate, but that doesn’t make it any less heinous. Then there’s the violence in battle; in the most recent episode, a man rips another man’s throat out with his teeth. Nevertheless, for all the harsh and sometimes hard-to-watch parts of Black Sails, it feels incredibly immersive. The characters seem to be fully developed people and accurate representations of what pirates truly were–or at least a better portrayal than Pirates of the Caribbean in my opinion.
Although Billy Bones has been portrayed in many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island–including Disney’s Treasure Planet and Muppet Treasure Island–he’s not considered a main character. Even in the book, he has only a very small part. However I’d argue that on Black Sails Billy Bones is the most important character. In a huge ensemble cast, there has to be the people’s man–a relatable, reasonable character with whom the audience can identify, and with which they can experience the story.
For Black Sails, that character is Billy Bones. Captain Flint is still a mystery–is he being controlled by Mrs. Barlow or is he acting on his own whims–and John Silver is a self-serving charlatan. Billy, on the other hand, is loyal to his crew, hard-working, and not an idiot. I’ve enjoyed Billy’s character arc over the past few episodes of becoming quartermaster of the Walrus and balancing his loyalty to the crew with his suspicions of Captain Flint. He’s quickly become my favorite character and he’s reason alone to watch Black Sails.