Black Sails' structure never did make much sense. The climactic event of the season was supposed to be a confrontation with the Spanish treasure ship Urca, but no Spaniard, let alone a representative of the Spanish crown, had ever appeared. There was no real antagonist to the proceedings. This meant that for Black Sails to succeed in crafting a fulfilling climax, it had to do some combination of three things: it could attempt to radically deceive the audience, it could reframe the point of climax, or it could launch a major plot twist. Happily, Black Sails chooses the second, the best of all those options.
The point of climax in the episode comes not when Flint finally encounters the treasure galleon, but when he attempts to confront an escort man o' war for her. It is at that point that Mr. Dufrense chooses to trigger the planned mutiny. Rather than face the risky proposition of fighting the man o' war, Dufrense finally makes his decision to move now, with de Groot, and challenge Flint's leadership, instead of waiting, as Mr. Gates had suggested, for their triumphant return to Nassau. The merits of such a decision, it must be said, were probably less appealing than they might have been due to Gates' death, apparently at Flint's hands.
Thus the moment of climax is the point at which the crew decides whether to follow Flint or the mutineers. But even this doesn't end up being a conscious, deliberate decision they make, but one forced upon by John Silver, who'd just escaped de Groot's clutches after being freed by Randall, the half-witted former cook. So the key decision ends up being Randall's choice to stick with Silver!
At a certain level, this is ridiculously appropriate for Black Sails. This is a show that has hinged, a little too often, on the inscrutable maneuvers of its characters. Captain Flint in particular has been unreadable, at least prior to this episode and, finally, a visual demonstration of his ruthlessness against Mr. Gates. His hand can be read. But not everyone’s. Why does Max do what she does? Why does Vane do what he does? Eleanor? Gates? Mrs. Barlowe? The answer is…well, there is no answer. That's the answer. By not giving any answer, Black Sails puts on a mask of depth.
I'm starting to believe that the defining moment in contemporary dramatic television is Walter White's action—or lack of action—at the climax of Breaking Bad's second season, in the episode “Phoenix.” There, Walt largely watches as an event of both usefulness and repugnance occurs in front of him. The entirety of the moment is conveyed by Bryan Cranston's expressions and movements, and not through a monologue or description. We have to guess what's happening, and why, based entirely on the strength of the acting and characterization.
That works for Cranston and Breaking Bad. I'm not even a huge fan of that show, but Cranston's performance and the characterization of Walter White was a stunning achievement on TV, and the moment in “Phoenix” one of its peaks. But not every show can be Breaking Bad, and rely on its ambiguity to stay interesting, because that ambiguity needs to stay compelling. Toby Stephens as Captain Flint has been compelling for Black Sails, as I discussed last week. (“Well now that I've fulfilled my end of the bargain, I'm just wondering where you and I stand.” “Keep wondering.”) But everyone else? Has Randall the cook been so fascinating that his inscrutable decision to take John Silver's side makes for a worthy climax? I think even the biggest fan of the show would be hard-pressed to suggest that that's the case.
Despite that, I think it still ended up working for Black Sails at a macro level. The idea that the treasure ship could be so easily captured, without some kind of physical representation before the fight, was always one that felt too simple. One that presents the fight as a puzzle to be solved, as with the best episodes on board the Andromache earlier this season, that's potentially fascinating. But I think it's also an indication of Black Sails' overconfidence, which has generally been one of its bigger problems. There's a huge, Flint-like gamble in assuming that we'll care about the characters and story enough to come back for that puzzle to be solved, instead of crafting a compelling end to the season on its own. Having the bad guys, or at least, the antagonists win, as the episode showed in the moments of Vane taking over Nassau and the Spanish ship training its guns on the Walrus, is a bold move at any point in a show's history, let alone one which has largely struggled in giving us characters to cheer for.
I suppose it's appropriate, then, that the last episode of season one of Black Sails can be summed up in the same way as the show started. It rather annoyingly thinks that its existence is enough to deserve attention, but it does just enough to make it clear that it might deserve it at some point.
- “Fuck you Jack! Yes, I know, fuck me.” Part of Anne Bonny's lack of rhetorical ability is her predictability, at least verbally. Used here to good effect.
- “We're gonna see Flint pay for his crimes. But we'll do it at home. And we'll do it like civilized men.” Oh, Mr. Gates. You were, til the end, a way for other people to reveal themselves rather than your own man.
- And becoming your own man was the last thing you did. “This is not what I wanted. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”
- “There's no way out of this.” “Take it from me. There's always a way.”
- The increased roles for Dufrense and de Groot in the finale was somewhat surprising given their lack of any kind of role early on. It's a daring structure to keep critical antagonists in the background, as opposed to off-screen or always on-screen and major. I'm not sure it really worked. But I am glad Dufrense is still around, as he did inhabit the role.
- “Quite a moment. Jack Rackham with nothing to say.”
- “But today, I'm a little less worried about perception than I used to be.” This should be a key character moment for Vane, but he lost me on his journey to the island.
- “Fire, Mr. Dufrense. Everything you've got. Don't waste this moment.”
- “Sand has its virtues. On sand nothing is fixed. Nothing is permanent.” Max and Eleanor's dialogue is…anti-climactic. Is this in any way what Max wants? Wanted? How can we know?
- It really looked it was Billy in the sun in Flint's view at the end of the episode. That was a clever trick, if it was intentional.