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The criminally underrated Starz period drama Black Sails is an intriguingly compelling mix of fact and legend, blending the fictional (characters from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Treasure Island) with the real (Charles Vane, Edward Teach, and the pirate island of Nassau) to create something rich, propulsive and utterly singular. An action-packed pirate series that’s secretly a meditation on the power inherent in the simple act of storytelling may sound surprising, but it probably shouldn’t. After all, pirates are the very people for whom truth is the flimsiest of illusions, and who understand that the way the world remembers you is often more important than who you actually are.
The drama, which premiered in 2014 and ran for four seasons, was like little else on television at the time, mixing executive producer Michael Bay’s singular love of explosions and slow-motion fight sequences with period-appropriate tall ships and a delicate, thoughtful rumination on the power of the stories we leave behind. The series deftly explored ideas of myth and legacy, ground its narrative in a pair of morally gray heroes, and elevated its women and queer characters in a way that few period dramas have attempted to match since.
Ostensibly set about 20 years before the events that take place in Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Black Sails carefully balances the future that we know is coming for several of these characters with the immediacy of the story that’s happening onscreen. And, in doing so, we not only witness the birth of multiple legends in real-time, we learn how valuable the opportunity to craft those tales can be.
When this series begins, the infamous Long John Silver doesn’t exist yet. Instead, there is just John Silver (Luke Arnold), an enterprising con artist and average pirate who talks his way out of certain death and onto the crew of a man named Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens). Minus the peg-leg, parrot, and overtly villainous demeanor, this version of Silver is a reluctant hero in spite of himself, and his journey to becoming the man who will one day serve as Jim Hawkins’ primary antagonist is the subplot that constantly hums in the background of this show.
Here, Flint and his crew are busy hunting a Spanish treasure galleon known as the Urca de Lima, and the fallout from the quest to claim this ship’s enormous cache of gold drives much of the series’ long-term plot. It introduces us to many key characters, including the same Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) who will one day be a drunk curmudgeon in Stevenson’s tale, and real-life figures such as ruthless pirate Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) as well as Black Sails’ Bonnie-and-Clyde-style OTP, Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). Even Blackbeard himself shows up eventually, though the show’s depiction of Edward Teach (Ray Stevenson) also takes some liberties with the real man’s admittedly shoddy historical record.
Over the course of its run, the series explores complex narratives of ambition, greed, and betrayal. It features an array of complicated, ruthless women, all given the sorts of roles that are too often denied to female characters in historical pieces such as this. From Eleanor Guthrie, a woman determined to forge a place for herself in a man’s world, to the perpetually scheming brothel madam Max, who simply desires to maintain her own power at any cost, and the legendary Bonny, who plays down her femininity so that she might be taken more seriously by the men she crews with, these are all female characters who lead refreshingly rich lives.
But again, despite all its bluster and bloodshed, Black Sails is really a story about storytelling. Given that the series has its roots in classic fiction, it’s not surprising that it is primarily concerned with the people who tell those stories: Are they reliable narrators? How close are their stories to the truth of what actually happened? And how much does it even matter if they’re not?
This is a show full of people telling tales, and it repeatedly underlines the idea that narrative is a powerful thing when used properly.
Flint’s feared pirate captain persona is a carefully constructed fiction built to terrorize those who would dare to stand against the pirates of Nassau. But that same identity was originally meant as a sort of Shakespearean rebuke to the world that the real Flint himself left behind, back when he was an English naval officer named James McGraw who loved a man he shouldn’t and became beholden to a dream that failed him.
Though we spend a great deal of time with John Silver, we never really see his true face. We learn almost nothing of his background, and though he wears a variety of different hats—cook, human treasure map, quartermaster, friend—none of them are who he really is. The reason he’s so easily able to wear the legend of Long John Silver is that no one, either on the Walrus, in Nassau, or elsewhere, truly knows him. He’s a cipher who can become anything,, and it’s the skill Silver uses most frequently to his benefit throughout the series, absorbing the stories and parables of other lives to deploy as needed in his own.
At the end of the day, Treasure Island is just a tale that has yet to be written in Black Sails’ world, and it is one of many reinventions, adaptations, and retellings that happen here. Some are meant to manipulate and some are meant to disguise, and by the end of the series, it’s more than fair to question whether what we’ve been watching is even real. The series finale ties up many plotlines with conveniently neat bows, leaving viewers to wonder: Is the entirety of Black Sails just another story that Silver has claimed for his own? Or does Flint’s end merely mark the conclusion of one tale and the beginning of another, albeit under a different name?
The beauty of Black Sails is that it works either way—whichever path you, as a viewer, decide to embrace, whichever narrative you find most persuasive, it’s as easily as true as almost any other. It is a choose-your-own-adventure story in the truest sense, and one of the most satisfying possible as a result.
Watch on Starz
Black Sails is also available to watch on Amazon Prime and Hulu with the Starz add-on
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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