Black Sails is the most underrated show of the last decade and a half. That’s not just my opinion, that’s a known fact.
Just ask the reactors and entertainment reviewers, the Normies, on YouTube. The crew started watching the show in late 2019 and weren’t done until March 2020 when the pandemic hit and they, like millions of other Americans, went into lockdown. At one point, Chris, one of The Normies, asks, “How is this pirate show so emotional, bro?”
Black Sails is set during the end of the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730), as the empires of England, France and Spain battle for dominance of the seas. An honorable English Navy man becomes a pirate to take revenge against the civilization that broke his heart, and the show follows his journey while grappling with greater questions around power, dominion and the bonds between men.
The series’ adult treatment of piracy partly means that it boasts its share of Game of Thrones-style nudity and love scenes. But it’s the characters’ complex inner lives that set the show apart from its precursors and is where its truest drama occurs. Take Billy Bones, the quartermaster of the pirate ship the Walrus, who is portrayed as a loyal idealist who becomes gnarled by the ambitions of other men. His counsel on what safety looks like, which he gives in a speech to his mutinous crew, is also the overarching theme and meta-question of the show. “None of us are safe, until we are all safe,” he declares.
But is mutual safety an all-or-none proposition? And who does that include? The women of the pirate-controlled island? The slaves? And what if our need for safety turns us into someone else’s villain? This theme is braided into the character’s intentions, actions and reactions throughout all four seasons of the series.
Black Sails also presents us with a fleet of very real and historic pirates who channel these questions along with their own individual motives, including such desperate men and women as Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, “Calico Jack” Rackham and Anne Bonny. Naturally, they cross swords with Billy Bones and other fictional pirates like Captain Flint and Long John Silver. But as The Guardian notes, the complexity of the characters extends far beyond the traditional villain or hero archetypes. “[Captain] Flint is every inch the modern anti-hero that those accustomed to the moral greys of Tony Soprano or Walter White will appreciate. Is he a righteous man in impossible circumstances, or an evil one prone to the odd good deed?”
The series admittedly did get off to a rocky start in its first season, and the folks over at SyFy note the show’s stumbling blocks with certain female characters, in particular one storyline involving a sexual assault. Though the show later “noticeably course-corrects, leading to important growth and powerful, meaningful storylines” — especially for the female characters.
Along those lines, actress Jessica Parker Kennedy, who plays sex-worker-turned madame-turned-power-player Max, points out that it’s also not a male-dominated cast. “The female roles are extremely prevalent in the show, and we’re around all the time. It feels equal in a way,” she says. One example is Anne Bonny, the rare female pirate who enters the show as a sneering cutthroat and who, through proximity to a brothel, learns to accept and grow in her queer identity.
Watching the series, rooting for and against the characters and their struggles, you never think of it as “The Gay Pirate Show,” which it also very much is. Part of the dialogue’s beauty is to show its audience layered stories, the sort of stories that are typically “othered” and ignored, telling them as fully human tales of love, desire, greed and vengeance. As such, Black Sails never hides nor plays up how queer it is. For example, the bond between Long John Silver and Captain Flint is never a romantic one, yet it’s deeply felt and firmly rooted in both of their hearts.
Case in point: In the final season, Flint pleads with Silver to help him win his war against civilization, arguing for all things beautiful and ideal — those delicate things doomed by society’s shortcomings: “This is how they survive. You must know this. You’re too smart not to know this. They paint the world full of shadows, and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light, their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true. We can prove that it isn’t true. In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility. There is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it. And who has been so close to doing it as we are right now?”
For many men, fear limits horizons; it shortens the bonds of tenderness and shrinks the expansive potential of curiosity and openness. But the pirates of Nassau stand out as the brave ones, those who transcend their fears and exist in the darkness, where “there be dragons” — but also freedom.