There Are Treasures to be Found in Starz’s ‘Black Sails’

Pirates are cool. This is a simple fact known to all those with even a hint of a rebellious spirit, however the myths surrounding pirates have become watered down by Hollywood over the years. Enter Starz’s Black Sails, a brutal, gorgeous and at times humorous look at swashbucklers and their politics.

Within the opening moments, when a navel ship is raided by Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and his crew, it becomes apparent this isn’t a Disneyfied look at pirates. The raid is quick and unrelenting, but when it ends there is humanity to be found in these pillagers seeking to live by their own rules. Gates (Mark Ryan) chooses among what’s left of the naval ship’s crew to join their ranks– one infamous troublemaker lies about being a cook to come aboard. Their switch between fierce men of the seas and regular people with jobs, lives and worries is done with such ease, I never stopped to wonder if I might be rooting for the wrong side.

The primary characters introduced in the pilot are all given depth immediately. I connected deeply with Mr. Gates, a weary old soul whose quick to joke with the other men. His strong friendship with Captain Flint gives Black Sails a center to lean on in its chaotic world full of vibrant, violent characters, breathtaking scenery and the bustling community of thieves on New Providence Island. Flint carries a startling intensity and an inability to communicate with his crew directly that puts his leadership role into question early on, but as a character he’s infinitely watchable. A fact confirmed by the stunning final moments of the pilot.

Additionally, Eleanor (Hannah New), a businesswoman of sorts placed on the island to carry out her father’s orders, and her lover Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) add two interesting, layered and different viewpoints to the male-dominated series. They live among pirates, but they aren’t pirates. Within the town, Eleanor holds a tenuous amount of power, while Max exercises her sway over men in a different way. Note the two women ultimately stand together, as lovers and friends, with Max telling Eleanor to always remember “I am your port,” in a genuinely romantic moment.

Equally enchanting was the plot, which delves into the democracy of pirates. The power struggles are not unlike those found on Game of Thrones, they’re simply played out in closer proximity. The backstabbing and manipulations are up close and personal, and they are bloody, make no mistake. Black Sails could get by on nothing more than its impressive swordplay and pirate politics, but there is a sense even at this early stage, that the series is building towards something deeper. The world of the show is intricately mapped out and thanks to its stunning Cape Town (standing in for Nassau) backdrop, it possesses an immediate sense of vibrancy. Whether the series is out on the high seas or stopping in New Providence to soak up the debauched atmosphere, I found myself wanting more of everything: the characters, the locales, the history. Black Sails overwhelms the senses in the best way possible.

If I have one quibble, it would be in the use of half-naked women as props. This is a problem seen throughout premium shows, particularly ones aimed at the male demographic, and it’s not unexpected given the subject matter. Luckily, there are female characters allowed a voice within the show, not only Max and Eleanor, but also the female pirate Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) who appears as bloodthirsty and sexually voracious as her fellow crewmen. It doesn’t make the endless parade of voiceless, half-naked women less groan-worthy, but it does give me hope that the series has higher aims moving forward.

As a political tale, a pirate tale and simply a story of people carving out lives for themselves in the days when their standing in the world was slipping, Black Sails succeeds. Most importantly, it succeeded in making me want to come back for more.

Black Sails premieres tonight, Saturday, January 25th at 9PM on Starz.

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