With Spartacus behind them, Starz needed a new show, preferably a fantasy type, for the winter season. Enter Black Sails, eschewing sword and sandals for swords and sails. The show carves its outline from the book Treasure Island, serving as a prequel. After debuting to colossal fan and critical acclaim at San Diego Comic Con, a second season was quickly put into production. Did the show live up to the hype or was it prematurely praised?
In short order, we’re introduced to the cast, mostly crew members of the Walrus, and others about the pirate town of New Providence. A mix of characters from the book, such as Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), John Silver (Luke Arnold), and Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), a few fictionalized with real life counterparts like Charles Vane (Zach McGowan) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), and a smattering of some created for the show. The first episode opens with a sea battle, something the show does well. Seeing this play out, it’s easy to understand the hype and acclaim. Unfortunately, the show is unable to maintain any of that momentum.
Lasting only eight episodes, the season felt three too long, at least. After the bombastic opening, full of battle, betrayal, and beguilement (sorry, I’ve really been on a roll with alliterations lately, so I’m just rolling with it), the next few episodes devolve into pointless talking and boredom. Aside from Flint, Billy, Silver, I never felt a connection to any other character save for Gates (Mark Ryan), a new creation. It could be argued that a familiarity to the Treasure Island cast bolstered the connection, but that is a poor excuse. This is simply poor writing.
Not once did I care for the plight of prostitute Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy), Vane and his crew, or pirate town governess Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New). It was a struggle to pay attention when the scenes switched to their arcs. This was due to a mix of poor writing and poor acting. Half of the characters, particularly Vane, mumbled. Between their accent and low talking, it was difficult to understand what was happening. With Vane, his direction only became clear through his actions and things others said around him.
Things picked up in episode five when the Walrus took to sea again. While I was invested in the mutiny betrayal plot line amongst the crew, it was delivered in drips and drops by characters we hardly see. The action in the last half of the season helped balance this out.
Every story line had a satisfying conclusion by the finale — even the ones I hadn’t been enjoying up until then. The last two episode in particular rectified this. The finale increased the tension, especially with the fate of a certain character.
Black Sails in a way suffers from the same problem as Spartacus: the ending is well-known. Serving as a prequel to Treasure Island, we know these characters will eventually come to this conclusion. Will the show last long enough to reach this end, and what will it do when it gets there? Who knows, but it takes some of the mystery out of declaring pivotal characters from the book dead. They will obviously return, it’s just a matter of when.
While the writing was mediocre, the design and aesthetics were well done. The Walrus looked like a true pirate ship with an incredible level of detail. New Providence had the feeling of a 18th century cape town. Adding to this, there was a surprising lack of sex and violence. Though Spartacus had that in droves, Black Sails uses both sparingly. I’m not one who needs much or any of either, but considering the weak story, maybe they could have done with some more. On a final note, the opening theme song by Bear McCreary is amazing.
Knowing the final outcome of a story isn’t necessarily a detriment. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Only, the journey here has been weak so far. The strength of the finale will have me return for next season. Season two will consist of 10 episodes. Considering the weakness of the material stretched over eight, this gives me pause. A lull next season will have me abandoning ship (sorry, I had to).
Did Black Sails lose you in the middle? Does knowing the outcome ruin the journey for you? Comment below!
These are surprisingly orderly pirates.