Now that was more like it. It turns that, unsurprisingly, what Black Sails needed was an episodic focus. Two of its three major plotlines, Eleanor's and Flint's, are given a direct, specific tension largely lacking from previous episodes: Flint is attacking a merchant ship, and Eleanor is attempting to regain control of Nassau's economy. With straightforward, clear goals for its major characters, Black Sails is able to make the presentation of its story more important than the details of its story. For a show with such strong stylistic potential, this is an unambiguously positive step.
Flint's story is the more impressive of the two, so let's start there. Last week's cliffhanger saw the Andromache, the merchantman which was supposed to be aligned with Nassau's interests, leave the island without giving Flint and Eleanor its promised guns, and Flint promises to chase it down. “V.” starts immediately on the Walrus, with Flint and Billy preparing for the upcoming battle. Flint's section of the story, while it relates to what else has happened—Billy asks about Ms. Barlowe, for example—takes place entirely on those two ships.
This focus is refreshing because Black Sails' structure so far has been based on the shifting alliances on the island, but without those alliances coming to fruition. It's been all rising action, no climax. This has hurt the show because, well, stories are more interesting when things happen, generally. But more than that, it's that, as I discussed last week, we know what the climax of this story is going to be. The plot details of how Flint is going to attack the treasure galleon aren't interesting in and of themselves because we know he's still going to attack it. But the mechanics of how that attack will occur can still be interesting if done well, like the sit-down between Vane and Flint was.
The attempt to get the guns, therefore, turns into a series of obstacles to be overcome, as opposed to alliances which are made then taken ago. There's a sense of progress to the former, while the latter feels like the show is witholding progress in order to take up time.
Black Sails provides to progress with both the details of the piracy, and with visual flair. The first major problem to be solved? The Walrus isn't fast enough. So, Flint decides to pull off a risky move putting on more sails and potentially breaking the mast. And while we know that the outcome of this is almost certainly going to be the Walrus surviving and picking up speed, it remains interesting due to the visual flair. The ship becomes unstable, waves crash against the sides, splashing the characters, and the crisis has a tactile drive, even though it lacks a plot drive. The formal mechanisms by which the story is tols is more important than the story itself.
Which is not to say that the story details are bad in this case. The next phase of the battle, in which the Walrus crew plans their attack on a superior vessel. I'm a big fan of seeing tactical planning, then the tactics carried out. In the past couple decades, there's been a general focus on treating action sequences entirely as adrenaline-focused chaos, all quick cuts and extreme close-ups. I tend to prefer action sequences that maintain a narrative throughout a physical space I can comprehend—which direction the ships are facing, why it's important that they do that, how the battle will proceed. Black Sails managed that.
Cleverly, Black Sails also managed to provide the chaotic action sequence as well, but added a story to it. The ship's bookkeeper, Dufresne, has been around the edges of the show for a while, but he becomes the point of view character for the fight tonight. This works for the show because he's a newbie and, being an 18th century nerd, an underdog to root for. The chaos of ship-to-ship combat can be as chaotic as it is because Dufresne is new to it, and because we have a general idea of the big picture.
The twist at the end also serves Black Sails well. The Andromache's captain is hiding in his hold, with a bunch of slaves (including Mr. Scott), and he's called the British war vessel Scarborough in for help. First, it means that we've probably got another focused episode next week, except with Flint on his heels instead of leading the charge. And second, because it helps reposition Flint and the pirates as, if not necessarily “good guys,” not-as-evil-as the slave traders they're attacking.
Eleanor's story is pushed to the side thanks to the drama of the pirate battle, but that helps it as well. She has a straightforward problem, and she attempts to confront it head-on. For the first time since glimpses in the pilot, we see Eleanor as a person who deserves to run Nassau. Instead of surrendering, as her father wants, she comes up with a workable plan, and starts to work directly toward it. She gets a cliffhanger as well—the demand to lift the ban on Vane—but that, too, is less of a withholding of previously-achieved progress and more of another obstacle.
“V.” also at least slows down being so horrible with Max's rape storyline. Max may not have her agency returned to her, but in scene where she interacts with Anne Bonny, she at least is given a voice and the sort of subjective perspective missing from previous episodes. I'm still unhappy with Black Sails overall about this plotline, but the problems with Max's story didn't damage this individual episode.
Finally, arguably the most important aspect of “V.”'s quality is that the characters and writers of Black Sails feel more comfortable with the show's characters. There's a level of cleverness making interactions much more watchable than they have been. The initial conversation between Billy and Flint, for example, make me chuckle at least twice. “How can you pretend you have no doubts about this?” “Years of practice,” and Flint's wink when asked if that was the truth. There are still plenty of different ways that Black Sails can mess up in the future, but “V.” demonstrates that the show does have strengths, and the people making it do recognize those strengths.
- I quite like Mr. de Groot, the man whose job it is to be right about the ship, but wrong for the story. Usually that role goes to a nagging wife character.t
- Every time he talks to Flint, Billy believes him “Billy, you're the easily suggestible type.” “Yes, Captain, I AM the easily suggestible type.”
- “We talked like men, and he saw reason.” “Fuck you.”
“Not you. You're not strong enough?” “I don't know. But I think it's probably time I found out.” I have no idea what Vane is doing, but he sure sounded like it was important.
So, when the captain of the Andromache told his quartermaster to reinforce the china in the hold, was that him being totally unconcerned about Flint's attack, or was that code for them doing the hiding-in-the-hold thing?