Toby Stephens as Captain Flint has been the most consistently good part of Black Sails since its beginning. I've certainly had my complaints about many aspects of the series, as well as praise when it's especially good, but it's all too easy to ignore an aspect of the series that doesn't deviate wildly, even if it’s good. Since the beginning, Flint has been a rock of moral ambiguity, which would be a very strange rock, were it not made consistent by Stephens' performance. Since “VII.” largely focuses on Flint's decisions and his future, it's the perfect time to discuss how he's managed to keep Black Sails moving from the start.
The key to Flint's success as a character is that he doesn't show his hand in the constant games he’s playing (with one exception). Part of this is Stephens' portrayal of the captain, where he manages to demonstrate a poorly contained tension at all times without actually indicating what would set him off for real. Even when he was fighting for his life against Singleton in the premiere, nothing seemed to faze him, at least until Miranda referenced an uncertain “him” when confronted.
Meanwhile, the show itself has deliberately not shown Flint in his moments of decision. When he was trying to save Randall, and Morley ended up dead? We never saw what caused Morley to still be under the boat, whether Flint forced him, killed him, or it was an accident. The process repeated with Billy Bones last episode. It's entirely possible that Flint's confrontation with Bones led to a direct act of violence, or possibly it was the accident that Flint portrayed it as. Finally, there's the historical act of killing the husband and wife in apparent cold blood, as Morley and now Gates remember it.
In other words, it's not just plausible, but encouraged, for us to have no idea who Flint “really” is. This is a fairly big departure from how anti-heroes are normally portrayed on TV these days, where we see their actions and hear their justifications for those actions—House Of Cards' theatrical asides may be the pinnacle of the form. With Flint? Even when confronted, he answers questions with questions, rendering him one of the most effective maritime lawyers I've seen.
The one exception to this is Flint's grandiosity. When given the opportunity to discuss his ambition, he'll go wild. With Billy in the pilot, and Gates in this episode, he acknowledges his desire to be the pirate king of Nassau. This may be his downfall, as the case he makes to Gates is utterly lacking in any kind of comprehension of how other people may feel about him—after Gates accuses him of putting ends before means too much, Flint says he wants to steal a huge chunk of money from the crew for their own good, with it explicitly compared to taxation. It's enough that Gates, finally, is willing to repudiate Flint, telling him directly that he's finished, and later indirectly giving his support to a faction that wishes to assassinate the captain.
For we viewers, this leads to a secondary story question moving into the finale, beyond “what will happen?” That question is “who is Flint?” Whether the main character will do good or bad is one of the prime questions of modern “quality” drama, but in this case, it will be more of a case of revelation about who Flint is, than potential redemption, as is more common.
The slow build-up around Flint's character and choices in the finale are one of the best indicators that yes, Black Sails knows what it's doing in its overall story construction. This is reinforced by its implicit comparison of Captain Flint with his rival Captain Vane. Early in the series, it appeared as though Vane's inscrutability was more due to his position as the antagonist of the series. But as time progresses, and as Vane has been portrayed increasingly as a subject, his behavior compares to Flint's more and more.
The key scene for the Vane/Flint comparison was the distressing rape scene in the third episode. This was at the height of Vane's treatment as a potentially sympathetic character who, when given the chance to act both sympathetically and to try to save his own skin, retreats instead into pride. Vane refuses to confront Eleanor's accusations directly, simply looking prideful as she destroys the infrastructure of his power. Although the circumstances are different, Flint looks and acts in a remarkably similar fashion as Gates confronts him about Billy's death. For both men to appear both potentially cruel and innocent at the same time, outweighs the short-term benefit of defending themselves. Power, on Black Sails, is the ability to appear above reproach. That they can't fully manage it doesn't mean the attempt cannot be made.
“VII.” overall is the kind of episode that serves a dual function. First, it allows a reorganization of the current status of the players in the story after a mid-season event, like the hunting of the Andromache and attempted coup by Eleanor's father. Second, it allows for the reinforcement of themes and characterization in advance of a more action-packed finale. These episodes can be crucial, though rarely beloved. They're bridges, in other words, and this one works. We'll find out how well it's worked next week.
- Meanwhile, in Bonny and Rackham's storyline…. “Well. Do you want something up your arse?” “No, no thank you.”
- Max gets the opportunity to act and have her motivations understood again, finally, as she decides to reveal the corruption in the brothel. It's a major step forward, but not yet sufficient.
- How awesome is Dufrense's tooth tattoo?
- Meanwhile, in Captain Vane's storyline: “No man is rich who can have a lot more by doing less.” I suppose this means that the man Vane was taking on wasn't Blackbeard, and Blackbeard wasn't known to have participated in the Raid on Cartagena, and also didn't die on an unknown island. Regardless, the demonstration of Vane's superhuman motivation is impressive, if mysterious. Another storyline I'm withholding judgment on.
- Both Rakham and Vane show some dong in this episode. I don't believe in the necessity of an equivalent breast-to-penis ratio or the like, but it was pretty fascinating to see not one but two phalluses in a single episode of a show that's avoided male nudity.
- “You're a thief.” “Are you fucking kidding me!” And then there's Silver and Randall. Seriously, not-yet-Long John, if you want to manipulate Randall, talk to him about his cat.