The following review contains full spoilers for Black Sails XXXI
XXXI was a gripping episode of Black Sails itent on reversing the fates of almost every character; Silver returned and began to embody his role as pirate king, Flint led a successful attack on Nassau, Max and Eleanor ending up hiding in the Fort, Billy returned in spectacle (and certainly tumultuous) fashion, Rodgers has captured Jack, and then there were the deaths of Blackbeard and Beringer. The result was certainly filled with tension that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout, but despite being a mostly qualitative episode, XXXI sadly went noticeably awry in places.
XXXI got mostly straight down to business, establishing both Captain Barringer’s position and intentions with Rodgers momentarily gone, and also seeing Silver reunited with both Flint and Maddie. Both of these reunions were touching in their own way and it was also touching to see Flint onlooking Maddie and Silver, remembering both the love that he once had in his life and the part of him that is now lost. For all the bravado, vulgarity, and violence, at the end of the day these pirates are not monsters; they are ordinary men with quite ordinary feelings and desires, and often Black Sails is most poignant when it reminds the audience of its’ characters’ humanity.
Barringer’s temporary promotion saw a more tempestuous rule imposed over Nassau, one characterized by fear. As I’ve commented before, often the psychological warfare is more compelling than the physical warfare and it was great to see just how both paranoid and frustrated Barringer was by the continued pirate presence and threat. The result saw him both threatening Max and disregarding Eleanor’s advice. These scenes acutely spoke to the disregard with which women’s opinions were held by men at the time, something we are not used to seeing – considering the greater respect, fear, or at the very least required compliance the pirates have shown these characters. These scenes provided great material for Hannah New and Jessica Parker Kennedy and demonstrated the acumen of their respective characters. Have no doubt that these two women will be just an instrumental in the fate of Nassau as Rodgers or any of the English. That said, the connected subplot with Idelle and Featherstone felt a little redundant, as are both of their characters at this point.
This half of the narrative concluded in a bloody battle in Nassau’s square with an epic entrance from John Silver, finally embodying his role as pirate king. As always the shoot-outs in Black Sails make for spectacular viewing, not to mention the proceeding sword fights, which made this was a particularly bloody affair. Earlier in the episode, Flint had expressed concerns about Israel Hands’ joining the pirate resistance and those concerns certainly seem valid given the way Hands unceremoniously and gruesomely killed Berringer. My one concern with Hands’ character, however, is that the writers will use him as a patsy to provide Flint and Billy a common enemy, as opposed to exploring the discontent between the characters. That said, I appreciate the pace with which Season 4 is moving. While the writers could have certainly adopted a slower approach, as was the case with previous seasons, the result is adrenaline packed episodes that have a tendency to leave me speechless – as with XXXIX and XXX.
Speaking of being speechless, Black Sails Season 4 seems hellbent on shocking its audience with each and every episode. This week’s big surprise came in the form of Billy’s return. Off the back of last week’s episode I’m sure most viewers, like myself, had assumed Billy would be out of the picture for a number of episodes – but alas he returned. While we will have to wait for next week’s episode, and possibly beyond, to see exactly what the fallout from his decision will be, his return in this episode felt right. With a few score men and the possibility of reprisals from Flint, it made little sense for Billy to remain in Nassau and while he could have fled, his then inevitable return risked feeling clunky, an event required to sync up with the start of Treasure Island rather than one that felt like it was serving Black Sails’ narrative. Furthermore, Billy is just as invested in seeing Nassau under pirate rule as Flint, so why risk that for some personal vendetta? Putting Billy back in the throes not only makes the most sense for his character but should also be a more compelling narrative in the weeks to come.
Sadly, when it comes to the other half of XXXI’s narrative this was an uncharacteristically weak episode; the battle between Blackbeard/Jack and Rodgers making little sense and leaving at the very least myself, if not more of the audience, asking a number of questions. For starters, after the Revenge had disabled Rodger’s schooner, why not pummel the ship with cannon fire until it sunk instead of boarding her? If you are going to board her, why not bring the Revenge about to her broadside so that additional reinforcements can be sent over instantly if needed? Finally, while I appreciated why Jack surrendered, it still seemed a ridiculously foolish move – not to mention one that Blackbeard would never approve of. Jack’s trajectory over the past season (and the beginning of this one) has been very much targeted towards the liberation of Nassau, and so to sacrifice that opportunity for sentiment – especially given the pirates general dismissal of emotions – is nonsensical. In XXX, Jack and Teach even came to the decision to pursue Rodgers because they believed that Vane would rather see Nassau liberated than seek the personal vendetta of revenge. Moreover, seeing Jack firing on the schooner would have made for a much stronger final note for Blackbeard; dying for the pirate’s victory rather than in vain, and almost certainly the death the character would have wanted.
The other problem with XXXI’s narrative is how they have now wasted the character of Blackbeard. He appeared fleetingly in Season 3 but Vane’s death and alliance with Jack and Flint suggested he would be a much larger presence in Season 4. Sadly, the character appeared even less frequently, having little to no impact on the overall events of the season. Considering that Blackbeard is the most famous non-fictitious pirate, a character of legend and fear, that he is little more than a footnote here is a bitter disappointment.
In terms of Blackbeard’s death itself, while he received a humiliating death as opposed to the heroic one might expect a character of his standing to receive, it was nonetheless poignant. Seeing him keelhauled (being racked against the ships rough underside) was horrifying, although at first, it was difficult to appreciate exactly what was happening to him. The scene had impact on a number of levels, not just from Teach’s bitter defiance, but also from Rodgers’ increasing anger becoming monstrous in his continuing to torture Teach. The beauty of this scene was how, despite dying, Blackbeard was able to have the last laugh by somewhat humiliating Rodgers, and also provide a metaphor for the defiance of the pirates – even execution won’t be enough to rid them from Nassau. I also appreciated that it wasn’t unnecessarily brutal. TV shows of recent memory have taken great pleasure in the shock factor of brutal dismemberments and gore galore, but Black Sails left more to the imagination and was more haunting as a result.
Unfortunately, XXXI fails to live up to the high-bar quality that the previous two episodes established, and provides issues for the season as a whole in terms of wasting Blackbeard’s character. Even so, there was plenty in XXXI to praise, from the scenes involving Blackbeard’s death to the fight in Nassau square. The show kept the stakes high with Flint gaining the advantage in one regard having recaptured Nassau, whilst Rodgers gained the advantage in the other killing Blackbeard, imprisoning Jack, and securing the Revenge. While the consequences of the above for XXXI was a weaker than expected episode, the consequence for future episodes should be interesting conflicts, while the current reversal of fortunes for almost every character has me excited to see what will happen next.