Monday, March 30, 2015

Too Much TV: BLACK SAILS (2014-present)

The title sequence is an allegory of the pirate's race with death. We see an elaborate faux-ivory figurehead detailed with scenes of seamanship, love, violence and skeletons. The sequence closes with a skeleton army charging a pirate army while a skeleton races a pirate up a mast to seize a flag. This skeleton business is Black Sails' sole concession to the Pirates of the Caribbean audience, while the show itself proves decisively that a pirate tale doesn't need those films' fantastic trappings to hold an audience.

Created by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine and bankrolled by Michael Bay in a way that redeems a lot in his past, Black Sails combines two dominant pop-culture tropes: the revisionist fairy tale and the prequel. Robert Louis Stevenson might object to his novel Treasure Island being called a fairy tale, but as a canonical "children's story" it's just about that. Stevenson's Long John Silver was the archetypal pirate for generations; as interpreted on film by Wallace Beery and Robert Newton, he's arrrrrh image and voice of piracy to this day. Black Sails' initial hook is its promise of an "origin" story for Silver. Its Silver (Luke Arnold) is a handsome, healthy, clever and charismatic young schemer, at least a generation younger than the one-legged 50 year old Long John of the novel. If the payoff of other prequel shows presumably is a hero putting on his costume or simply beginning his career, the presumed payoff of Black Sails was Silver losing his leg, and it came last weekend during the finale for the second season, with a third already in production. I read through Treasure Island last week to prepare for this review, however, and the story of Silver's amputation on TV differs from what the character tells Jim Hawkins in the novel. In the book Long John says he lost the leg to a broadside during a sea battle. On TV the leg is amputated after it was broken during torture as Silver resists condemning most of his shipmates to death. This is not poor memory or scholarship on the writers' part but their further establishing that Black Sails is really an alternate reality from that of Stevenson's story.

The genius of the show is its mashup of Stevenson's characters, historical pirates, and original characters. Along with Silver, the first group includes Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), later the drunken, dying seaman of Treasure Island's opening chapters and, most importantly, the infamous Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), the show's real main character, who is long dead by the time the novel begins. The historical characters include the pirate captains Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) and Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Rackham's more famous protege Anne Bonny (Clara Paget). The original characters include Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who controls trade (i.e. fencing) in the pirate stronghold of Nassau; her former lover Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a favored prostitute turned rival; and Miranda Barlow (Louise Barnes), an upper-class woman whose influence over Flint is a first-season mystery resolved through flashbacks during the second season. Of this last group, Max may cross into another category; because she's a "woman of color," many Treasure Island readers expect that she'll end up as the novel's unseen, business-savvy wife of John Silver the Bristol tavern keeper. Another theory is that she may end up in the historical category; currently involved in a menage-a-trois with Rackham and Bonny, she might take up the role of their real-life cross-dressing cohort Mary Read. This volatility is part of the fun of the show. The mix of real, canonical and original characters means that Black Sails needn't be bound by history or literature.

That being said, the main storyline for the first two seasons has been the pursuit of what we presume to be the treasure of the novel's island. On the show it's the gold of the Spanish treasure galleon Urca de Lima, the shipwreck of which is based loosely on real events. While the race for the loot occasionally returns to the forefront, it's often little more than a MacGuffin in the background of the main action: the threeway rivalry, to put it at a minimum, of Flint, Vane and Guthrie for dominance in Nassau, and the shared struggle to keep Nassau effectively independent of British control. Each of the three main players, meanwhile, must struggle to keep his or her own house in order. As Stevenson knew, the pirate world was a kind of democracy, and often a messy kind that required leaders to be both forceful and flexible to maintain the loyalty of their crews. Much of the first season was taken up with the negotiation of a personal alliance of Flint and Silver (Flint's quartermaster in the novel's backstory) on which Flint's continued captaincy depended. By now Vane has fallen and risen again a few times over, while Eleanor Guthrie has been toppled from her perch, with only a third-season promo clip as proof that she'll even remain on the show, creating a vacuum for Max to take over. Guthrie has taken Flint's or Vane's side as it's suited her interests, and the two captains have gone from fighting to the death to Vane rescuing Flint from execution in last weekend's episode, after Vane's men had seized Flint's ship by force and clapped Flint's crew in irons. Alliances shift like the winds on this show, and while not every shift is equally convincing, the adaptability required of the pirates and their facilitators is plausible enough.

Black Sails works on several levels at once. It's one of the best action shows on TV, with the last episode's escape of Flint and Vane from a Charleston deathtrap and the pirates' destruction of the Carolina city the latest proof. It'll also satisfy anyone's appetite for intrigue, as almost all the characters, even the most barbaric like Vane, maneuver with pragmatic intelligence. It passes another crucial test for modern TV by being one of the shows that Goes There, and being a premium-cable show, it can go further out than broadcast of basic-cable shows. If there's a CW stereotype, there's also a Starz stereotype (established by the channel's Spartacus series) of nudity, extreme violence and f-bombs in ancient settings (see also Da Vinci's Demons). Black Sails transcends the stereotype with a tragic sensibility. Flint, the monster of legend in Treasure Island, here has a utopian dream of Nassau as a truly free country whose outcast citizenry can pursue their dreams without answering to King or Parliament. By the end of the second season that dream has been dashed several times over, apparently setting the stage for Flint's devolution to legendary evil (if not also the legendary dissipation described in the novel). There's a broader romantic utopianism to modern perceptions of the pirate age that idealizes not only the democracy of crews but also a more liberal sexuality and a most-likely overrated blurring of gender roles. Black Sails caters to this in its several storylines of female empowerment, from Eleanor's struggles to shrug off her father's influence to Max's rise from the lowest levels of prostitution to Anne Bonny's fight to define herself as something more than a vicious appendage to Jack Rackham. It's probably no accident that all three characters are bisexual, but it's more daring of the show to make Flint bi as well, even if Da Vinci's Demons had been there already. Even in Stevenson's time, for all that he portrays all pirates but Silver as hopeless drunks, the fantasy of piracy was a dream of freedom, but even as Black Sails indulges that dream it's ever mindful of the inexorable shadow of empire lengthening toward Nassau, while foreknowledge of Treasure Island only enhances the sense that everything we see is doomed.

A rich ensemble of actors puts it all over. The nearest thing to a weak link is Hannah New as Guthrie, if only because the writers often try to hard to make a badass out of her with cuss words when she can't be a warrior badass like Anne. When you're not tempted to start a drinking game around her f-bombs New is actually pretty good. As Silver, Luke Arnold lives up to the Treasure Island pirates' memory of the young Long John as an articulate, charismatic mastermind. As Flint, Toby Stephens retains an air of mystery (along with the tragedy) over the course of a slow burn, though most of the why of the captain's reputed career of atrocity has been established by now. For me, the most impressive cast member is Zach McGowan, who manages with his eyes and gestures and sheer animal physicality a near-miraculous feat of investing Charles Vane with compelling personality despite an almost totally inexpressive face and voice. I was stunned to learn that Vane had never been a character in a pirate movie before, while Blackbeard and Kidd and Morgan had been done time and time again. This histories I've been reading while watching the show give Vane, Rackham et al an epic quality that Black Sails more than lives up to. The visuals live up to the acting, with the latest episode hitting a new peak with a panoramic climax: a dying villain watches helplessly, as if witnessing the wrath of God, as his dream falls to pieces all around him, while his violated victim, a corpse abused by a mob, appears to look on damningly. That's the best thing I've seen on TV so far this season, and for now Black Sails is the best show I watch.

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