The following review contains full spoilers for Black Sails XXIX and some preceding episodes
Wow! Just, Wow! Black Sails is a series that has grown from strength to strength and the premiere episode of season 4, XXIX, demonstrated just how accomplished the show is at every level; writing, acting, production, and so on. With the battle of Nassau coming to a head in season 4, the stakes have never been higher. This is reflected throughout the episode, be it through character interplay or superb action sequences, while underscored by a constant sense of tension. The result is a nail-biting spectacle where every interaction and decision feels consequential and where not a minute feels wasted – a riveting adventure that by the end had me left speechless.
XXIX opens to a seemingly united pirate resistance embarking on an incredible, jaw-dropping battle sequence. Leading the Nassau assault on a suspiciously deserted bay is a small consort of ships led by Flint and Teach, whilst Billy waits inland to attack Nassau at its heart. Almost instantly clear is the sense that something is not right, and sure enough, what begins as a carefully measured plan quickly disintegrates into a chaotic battle not to reclaim Nassau, but merely escape her clutches alive.
At a time when Nassau is under ‘occupation’ by the British Empire and when the pirates’ very survival has never been at greater risk, one might expect our heroes to set aside their differences and work towards a common goal – yet despite appearances, this is not the case. Teach seeks only revenge for the death of Charles Vane and would happily leave Nassau and all who fight for it, in the hands of the empire. Billy refuses to be a pawn that Flint can move as he sees fit, using the months spent away from Flint’s crew to amass his own band of loyalists. Flint, meanwhile, would rather see the resistance fail than see himself be displaced, threatening to withhold the pirates’ war chest. The writers never compromise the characters’ motives to provide false euphoria to the audience and they don’t care if you begin to hate certain characters because of it – they serve only the greater narrative and the men behind the legends. It’s a bold and risky approach, but the result is a riveting collision of friendships, passions, and tensions that have accumulated from seasons past.
Part of what makes Black Sails’ narrative and its characters so interesting is that the psychological warfare is just as important as the physical warfare, if not more so. Furthermore, these physiological battles aren’t just waged against the pirates’ enemies, but with each other – with the question of who gets to be king never answered for long. In XXIX, the majority of the psychological warfare was waged between Billy and Flint, with Billy’s previous objections to Flint’s rule manifesting in open resistance for the first time. With Silver both missing and having been awarded an elevated status by Billy, Flint’s leadership is once again under threat, and once again we are reminded of how unrelenting and dastardly Flint will be to hold onto power. It was a masterfully executed scene by Toby Stephens and Tom Hopper, although that is a sentiment I could echo for most of the cast. To adapt a well-known phrase, in Black Sails the tongue is often mightier than the sword.
But of course, there is also plenty of physical warfare, which manages to perfectly capture the best of both worlds by being both realistic and exhilarating. Ships that can take literally minutes to alter course or turn into attack positions certainly doesn’t sound like they would lend themselves to exciting viewing, yet the choreographers are able to fill each moment with adrenaline, whilst seeing the helpless vulnerability of these massive war machines will have you screaming at the screen in agony. This is one of the areas where the production quality really steps in. Seeing a ship get torn apart with chunks of wood splintering in every direction, masts and riggings tearing, shattering, and collapsing, ships tilting to sickening angels, and never once does the thought of CGI cross your mind. The adherence to practical effects wherever possible – from spending months creating historically accurate ships via period blueprints, using jet engines to create 50 MPH winds, creating gimbals that can tilt to 30° angles, and nearly drowning the actors in prolonged underwater sequences – come together to deliver a gorgeous viewing experience that doesn’t only define a new expectation for how a TV show can look, but also begins to challenge the work of blockbuster movies.
I’ve put it off for long enough, let’s talk about that opening sequence, that jaw-dropping spectacular opening sequence. As with, the slow moving ships I described earlier, a battle of four ships against a few sloops and a not overly impressive fort doesn’t exactly seem very exciting, especially when we have come accustomed to seeing thousands wage war across sweeping plains or towering fortresses. Maybe it is the sense of realism that the former can offer over the latter that made this, and other sequences, so impressive. More importantly is the clever and intelligent choreography of these battles. This fight was a battle of intellect, a duel of tactics and strategy, where the winner is decided by who can best predict the next move of their opponent. The perfect example of this was the section where Flint’s men desperately attempting to loosen only the ship’s topmost sails such as to tilt the ship to enough of an angle in order to suppress the fort’s batteries long enough for them to escape, while at the same time Rodgers, releasing Flint’s intentions, retaliates with chain shots designed to tear sails to shreds. It’s at moments like these that the methodical nature of such battles works in the show’s favour – mercilessly forcing the audience to endure prolonged periods at the edge of our seats in suspense. Furthermore, despite the chaos and destruction surrounding them, it was clear that this was a contest between Flint and Rogers, chess players manipulating their pieces across a bloody board.
Additionally, there was Silver’s treacherous and agonising battle from the bottom of the ocean (that poor goat). Visually it is was once again spectacular, especially the debris littering the ocean surface above, which provided a strong clash against the glimpses of picturesque sunshine glimmering through the beautiful azure sea. As with previous underwater sequences that the show has done, the sense of excruciating effort was conveyed to an almost uncomfortable level without being detrimental. It was also great to see Silver pull off such a strenuous feat, embodying more of the feared pirate of Long John Silver than the woeful cripple he sometimes appeared as in Season 3.
Another triumph of Black Sails’ is how the writers manage to get you rooting for the ‘villain’, Woodes Rodgers, in any affairs not concerning the pirates. Of course, when it comes down to Flint vs Rodgers, everyone is Team Flint all the way, yet when it comes to Rodgers’ problems in both securing his own position in Nassau and warding off the looming shadow of England, he has my, and I suspect most viewers’, support. Rodgers is an intriguing character – though primarily defined by his charisma – he’s flawed in ways similar to the the very pirates he came to Nassau to expel. Eleanor remains an interesting character, and it was great to see her torn between supporting her ex-lover Max and her now husband. Another strong and blossoming relationship is Silver’s and Madi’s, and curiously she is somewhat unintentionally more successful in breaking Silver and Flint’s partnership than Billy’s clear intentions. Finally, there were the scenes involving Jack and company, brief though they were. It was great to see how his sense of responsibility for Charles’ death has not diminished him, but spurred him into greater action, be it reckless action. I also enjoyed the strange and awkward quasi-friendship between Jack and Teach, born not out of love for one another, but for Charles, which adds just a hint of humour. Furthermore, I appreciate how little Teach gives about the politics of the pirates, seeking only to further his personal goal which for this season is revenge for Vane, adding yet another thread to the every more enthralling and turbulent tapestry that is Black Sails.
The premiere episode for Black Sail’s fourth season is bold, uncompromising, gripping, and exhilarating. A strict adherence to the personalities and beliefs of its characters, the writers’ commitment to never hold back, phenomenal performances from the entire cast, and movie-quality production result in a completely flawless start to the season. XXIX signals a fantastic, if bittersweet, final season for Black Sails.