Black Sails review by Kim Muller

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Black Sails Season 1

“Friends…brothers…the prize that you and I have been pursuing is L’Urca de Lima. The Hulk. A prize of almost unimaginable value.”  – Flint to his crew

It was Shakespeare who penned Much Ado About Nothing around 1598 and, as the title suggests, a whole hullabaloo was made about almost nothing. Black Sails had a similar storyline and media strategy, it would seem. Not only was so much hype made of the series before its release, but the show fared rather worse than it had hoped on a general scale of popularity. One of the reasons for this is that story was simply not as gripping as it was initially made out to be.

But these facts aside, it is about pirates and it is about freedom and the high seas and crazy awesome visual effects. These parts they pulled off extremely well and I will not fault them on. Even the 2014 Emmys agreed – Black Sails Episode I received the Creative Arts Emmy for Special and Visual Effects in a Supporting Role. It’s just incredible seeing what the show has done in transporting viewers to an entirely new and unfamiliar world. Cape Town Film Studios is largely to thank for not only creating the water tanks and infrastructure to house the show’s entire set in the middle of what was once a swamp, but for believing that this kind of CGI mastery was possible once the groundwork had been laid. In this idyllic setting, palm fronds intermingle with the deep, turquoise surf of Nassau. The actual Bahaman city is located thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean, but one would never guess that it wasn’t filmed in the actual place where the story takes place. Herein lies Black Sails’ strength – its ability to fool viewers into an exciting tale of plunder on the open seas of the Caribbean.

Black Sails 2014

The story itself is loosely based on historical facts. Nassau was once a pirate haven between 1703 and 1718, while there was no governor in the colony. According to the Governor of Bermuda, there were over 1,000 pirates in the town at the time and they proclaimed Nassau a pirate republic. It is against this tumultuous, unsteady backdrop that Black Sails takes place. Some of the main characters in the series were actual pirates, like Charles Vane (played by Zach McGowan) in the beginnings of his reign of terror, Anne Bonny (Played by Clara Paget) who shacked up with John Rackham – commonly known as Calico Jack – and Benjamin Hornigold, who managed to control Nassau for a short while in the early 1700s.

Throughout the season, we watch as Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) as he struggles to get hold of the last page of a ship’s schedule. The page eludes him for a few episodes – slimy John Silver (rugged hottie Luke Arnold) has it in his possession – but eventually Flint manages to get hold of the schedule of the Urca De Lima as well as dispel any possibility of mutiny on board the Walrus by deceiving the crew, killing the main mutineer and giving his Boatswain Billy Bones (Tom Hopper) and Quartermaster Hal Gates (Mark Ryan) a figurative king to believe in. Meanwhile, back in Nassau, Mistress Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who handles all her father’s merchant affairs and calls the shots on the island, is in for a rude surprise. Not only has her father decided to liquidate the business because of a pending war with the Spanish and British colonies, but the pirates themselves have run amuck at the news. Their portrayal of women and their plight in the 1700s is perfect, I’m sad to say. Not only do we watch in horror as pirates gang rape shrewd local prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), but Miss Guthrie herself can do little without the willingness of men around her – something she begrudgingly allows in order to keep commerce flowing on Nassau. This is arguably her downfall, with Charles Vane taking over the island after conquering the mysterious black-bearded pirate farmer who may well be Blackbeard himself. No news on that front yet. By the end of the first season, true to the historical account, the Walrus and Ranger pursue the Urca De Lima only to find it shipwrecked along the east coast of what is now Florida.

Black Sails 2014

I was particularly disenchanted with the ending of what could have been a great, riveting show. Not only are we miles from seeing the pirates steal the Urca’s treasure trove, but we’ve seen no real action on the Nassau front either. It would seem that Black Sails is more content with playing House of Cards with true political fervour than giving a bold, action-packed performance. That said, the action scenes that do exist – like the immense attack on a Spanish naval ship in Episode VIII and Charles Vane’s badass escape from the mysterious, black-bearded pirate – are worth watching. Max’s story, which weaves in and out of Nassau, is captivating, too, as is Flint’s deception and treachery in certain episodes, especially towards the end. If I had one true criticism for this series, it would be that the story drags on far too slowly. It doesn’t have that urgency to watch the next episode and the next, and although the build-up to the climax is there, the climax is less than satisfactory. Perhaps Season 2 will be a more compelling watch for couch potatoes.

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