Years Active: 2014-current
Years Reviewed: 2015
- Toby Stephens
- Luke Arnold
- Hannah New
- Jessica Parker Kennedy
- Zach McGowan
- Toby Schmitz
- Clara Paget
- Hakeem Kae-Kazim
- Tom Hopper
- Louise Barnes
- Patrick Lyster
The definitive “How to Guide” for making your very own Pirate.
Caution: Some minor spoilers ahead.
Season One of the Starz series ‘Black Sails’ gave us everything we long-desired in a pirate story: uncut violence, unabashed nudity, chaotic sword-play, wicked sex, epic betrayals, and ruthless villainy. These are not the noble pirates from Errol Flynn-era swashbucklers. These are cruel, loathsome, poorly groomed, and down right nasty men/women.
Setup as a much-mutated prequel of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic ‘Treasure Island’. The cast of characters include John Silver (Luke Arnold), Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), and Billy Bones (Tom Hooper). Prime “leadership” comes by way of Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), his chief rival Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), head Nassau merchant Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), and local brothel madam/spy master Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy). And a host of other nefarious, scandalous, and loathsome characters seemingly plucked out of children’s boogeyman stories.
Last year threw us immediately into the thick of 1715 West Indies. Captain Flint is barely able to maintain control of his crew while recklessly/ruthlessly pursuing a Spanish treasure galleon. Eleanor schemes to take over her Governor father’s trading empire after he is forced into hiding by the British empire. Max struggles to get out from under her humble prostitute beginnings after ex-lover Eleanor throws her to the wolves. Rackham and Bonny work to stay alive after a few too many “miscalculations” left them indebted and at the mercy of Captain Vane and his crew of cutthroats.
Flint and crew end up shipwrecked after a failed, deadly assault against the Spanish Man ‘o War guarding the treasure. Max, Rackham, and Bonny end up running the local bordello in a blind-luck, but brilliant takeover. Vane captures the Nassau fort in retaliation for Eleanor taking away his command as a punishment for evil deeds done. A totally effing, beautiful mess.
During this première season we never really got a sense of where these people came from, they simply are what they are. Season Two boldly rectifies this by offering up “origin stories”. We now get to see where they came from, what drives them, and, after a wonderfully exciting, game-changing finale, we can now begin to hint at where things are going–all the way to ‘Treasure Island’. More focused, more immediate, more ruthless, and more awesome. Better in every way.
Things start off where we left them: Flint, having just lost his ship and many of his men, is now at the mercy of this very pissed-off crew. The ever wily John Silver gets tossed in with Flint and they must work together to stay useful enough to avoid “walking the plank.” Captain Vane keeps control of the fort, tormenting and plotting “against” Eleanor. Max, Rackham, and Bonny work to repair reputations and procure a ship for Rackham to captain. While Bonny and Max form a “special” bond within this man-eat-man world. And a new threat looms over Nassau, the psychotic pirate Captain Ned Low (a deliciously evil Tadhg Murphy).
As the chaos unfolds and this season’s plans play out we are treated to flashbacks showing Flint’s honest beginnings as a Lieutenant in His Majesty’s Navy. We see how he first met the enigmatic Mrs. Barlow (Louise Barnes), a woman currently living near Nassau acting as “adviser with benefits” to Flint. This scandalous partnership reveals Flint’s pure, noble (and naïve?) motives for peacefully reconciling the pirate world with the so-called civilized one. Yet, “No good deeds go unpunished!”
What we discover through these flashbacks looms over all of Eleanor and Flint’s “master plans” while almost justifying the death and destruction that follow. How do you make a pirate? Take away all of a man’s hopes, dreams, and those he cares about most then give him a ship, a sword, and a crew full of killers. Watching Toby Stephens’ near-instant transformation into the man now feared as “Captain Flint” is amazing–all hopes dashed, nothing but a desire for vengeance remains.
Lots of other juicy bits like: Ned Low’s sinister, high body count grand introduction; Eleanor and Vane’s cross purpose manipulations, betrayals, and “negotiations”; Max, Bonny, and Rackham’s awkward R-Rated “Three’s Company” drama; Silver and Flint’s numerous co-conspiracies; the frequent sight of pirates stealthily preparing to unleash holy throat-slitting hell; Billy Bones’s resurrection(!); Anne Bonny’s homicidal breakdown; Max’s methodical rise to power; some seriously brutal slayings; some seriously nasty sex; Flint’s non-stop politicking for his ship, his mission, and his life; the creation of the “Jolly Roger” (the de facto skull and crossbones pirate flag) for Rackham’s new command–something the real-life Rackham is credited with, BTW; most everyone gets screwed–literally and figuratively; and, once again, a no-holds barred, all-hands on deck finale.
This season does a much better job of balancing out this cast. They become fully fleshed out people, a rabble of men and women shunned by society and driven into this survival of the fittest world. Many may have started out as good, honorable citizens (and perhaps a few still are?) but in early 18th century West Indies “good and honorable” can get you killed. That, and being honest kinda spoils the fun;)
Last season, Toby Stephens excelled at being the dread “Captain Flint”. This year, Stephens is spellbinding as the man behind the legend. We get to see him stripped of all OTT excesses. Once we know the why and how of his becoming Flint, we no longer judge his vicious/ruthless actions so harshly. Don’t get me wrong, civilization has no place for someone like Captain Flint. But, we can now see his drive, his betrayals, his anger in a new light. Great stuff.
Hannah New is much less pouty as “Eleanor Guthrie”. Her status as “pirate queen” is more precarious than ever. She needs these murderers and cutthroats to keep the money flowing. The partnership with Flint to “legitimize” Nassau is her only reprieve. Either she succeeds and makes her (their?) empire a reality, or she may get swallowed up as just another pirate casualty. New is convincingly desperate and determined during Eleanor’s complex “diplomatic missions”, most especially with her estranged father, her ex-lover and now rival Max, and her powder-keg BF(?) Captain Vane.
John Silver’s rise to legend begins here. Last year Luke Arnold relied on charm alone to keep “Silver” from instant death. Now, John Silver can show off his cunning in a more pirate favorable light. Arnold shines in these “grey area” decisions and plots. Starting out as a means to not-get-killed, Silver’s wooing of his crew eventually earn them their loyalty and respect. They start to see Silver’s goals as their goals. Resulting in a most excellent (and bloody) test of will during the finale.
Charles Vane is as singularly focused on revenge, gold, and Eleanor as ever. Zach McGowan keeps ” Capt. Vane” on the precipice of evil vs. not-quite-as-evil. Good advice to never make an enemy out of Charles Vane–you’re libel to lose your head. You can always trust Vane’s word and that his actions reflect what he wants. Perhaps the only truly “honest” pirate in all of the Bahamas and he’s got a pile of dead former adversaries to prove it.
Jessica Parker Kennedy shows “Max” to be one madam you don’t underestimate. Loved watching the patient reveal of her plans to “rule the world.” Another formidable, stripped-bare performance and a near 180 degree shift coming from Max’s tumultuous, often victimized status last season.
Everyone else is in fine form:
- Toby Schmitz squirms forward as the would be pirate king “Rackham”. More brains than brawn. Yet, he’s able to fight and barely survive as needed. And Schmitz’s well-practiced deer-in-the-headlights glances, usually regarding his unpredictable “partner” Anne Bonny, are worth their weight in two ships full of gold.
- Clara Paget struggles early with a lost in the world “Anne Bonny”. Bonny needs people to kill. So wailing around in self-pity doesn’t do her any justice. Thankfully, by season’s end, Bonny gets her head on “straight” and is, once again, doing what she does best;)
- Louise Barnes didn’t get much more than presumptuous bitchiness during Season One as the mysterious Flint confidante/occasional lover “Mrs. Barlow”. Now we learn of her very hands-on interest in all things Flint. Striving to both help his goal towards a reconciled Nassau and in getting her own pirate-styled vengeance against those that have wronged her. The impassioned performances between Barnes and Stephens gives gale-force potency to the season’s violent conclusion.
- Tom Hopper returns as the ever upright “Billy Bones”. As earnest a pirate as one can be. Great material between Hopper/Silver and Hopper/Vane as Billy’s allegiance to his fellow crewmen never waivers, all other motives be damned.
- And a special nod to guest Nick Boraine as potential ally/arch-nemesis “Lord Peter Ashe”. A man whose political drive and ruthless scheming is equal to any pirate.
The production values are exceptional, especially for a TV show. Putting exquisite attention to detail into the costuming, props/weapons, and set design, once again courtesy of Production Designer Wolf Kroeger. A convincingly genuine period pirate series…Other than the fact that all the characters have a full set of teeth and are all a rather pretty bunch of murderous pirate whores.
Filming in Cape Town, South Africa offers an extra layer of authenticity. The talent behind the lens is equal to that in front. Picture postcard worthy photography perfectly compliments the design work. Every well-staged scene is full of exotic and lush beauty.
I’m still lovin’ the peppered with genuine 18th century instruments musical score from Bear McCreary. The most satisfying opening credits crawl/theme music outside of ‘Game of Thrones’, or perhaps McCreary’s other score for ‘Outlander’.
A handful of stumbles. Most surrounding early episode wheeling/dealing before the stories/characters gain footing and all plans unite. And some of the characters are noticeably wishy-washy, especially bookkeeper Dufresne (recast with Roland Reed) who takes over as interim Captain after Flint’s fateful decision-making last season. Dufresne was a much stronger character last year as the simple bookkeeper who becomes a pirate killer rather than this season’s wormy, turncoat variation.
Let’s talk about that finale. I wont spoil any of the fun, only to say, WOW! If last season’s ship to ship pirate battle finish was too pussy for you, just wait. Taking on epic “PotC” levels of mayhem and destruction. All characters fighting for their lives amidst cannon balls exploding, swords cutting off limbs, and buildings falling down. By the end we are on the path for a much darker, much more “piratey” vision for Season Three:) Super cool!
There’s added complexity this year, but not too much. Just enough to makes us love to hate these characters even more.
Season Two of Starz’ pirate series ‘Black Sails’ is everything we love about pirates: wild, exciting sword fights, brutal killings, epic betrayals, damsels in distress, cataclysmic pirate ship duels, nasty villains, nasty “good guys”, exotic locales, twisted humor, potent, shocking drama, and lots of f*cking:) Give this show a shot, you won’t be disappointed. Highly Recommended.
Sean Cameron Michael
Steve Boyum, director