Black Sails (English TV Show 2014–2017) — An amoral game of power with pirates.

Today in the series of Why You Should Watch (#WYSW) we are going to sail with some of the notorious sailors ever to sailed the seas. The show I am going to talk about today is Black Sails which aired in Starz for 4 seasons between 2014–17.

This is proclaimed to be a large scale prequel or a chain of events before the timeline of the all-time classic novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson -with all the wacky pirates, open sea and land battles, and plundering (all of which are abundant in this show). But that is a compass towards the end destination of this series. This is one of the many stories spun regarding the origins albeit being narrated in a grander stage. This incorporates the history of the British & Spanish occupied lands of the Caribbean islands and promotes it as an adventure show. It is natural to assume fragments of scenes after seeing the term adventure, especially after being presented as a prequel of a book which is the archetype of the adventure genre. But it is not an adventure in that sense.

This is a political adventure. It traverses the treacherous forest of power. The battles waged here are primarily of wits. The excitement you feel is the result of deeply psychological manipulations. And the hero of the story is its glorious amorality.

There is no season-long (or series long) meticulous scheming and plotting. No great build-up with a great surprising pay off in the end. It follows a basic principle (which is a form of realism in an adventure story) of doing what you do solely for yourself (or in the name of those whom you love). The undeniable selfishness of humans is the driving force of the show From this point everything good (and bad) about this series flows

So how do they build relationships if everyone is in it for themselves? The beauty lies in the question. They don’t expend running-time in building a relationship. Sometimes you wonder, “wait, when did these characters get closer?” Most of it is insinuated to have happened with the passage of time, being in proximity to one another. Thus, the relationship is precariously perched atop a feebly built foundation waiting to be toppled from underneath by a hidden demon; self-interest. Once you grasp this underlying pattern or drive of the show, every conversation, interaction and actor’s rationale becomes infinitely more interesting. One scene they are in love, the other they are looking to profit out of the other person’s misery (though with some semblance of remorse, if that is any consolation). So every calm guarantees a storm. Every moment of bonding is a portent to something nastier to follow, which is not so farther. This automatically instills unpredictability in the viewer. Since the characters are free of ethical shackles, there is little they would not do to secure their want.

So actions of the past have little bearing on the future. They remain as unpredictable as the story they steer. This is not to say there is no story in this show. There is one, and that story forms the political aspect. It is fitting that a bunch of self-serving (yet rueful) characters play in this.

I stated that at its core this show follows the survival instincts of humans. But how they hide that lest it is perceived as weakness is through power play.

Everything is about power in this show. From controlling tribes and crews to rattling the spirit of your opponents; from maintaining your identity to leaving behind one for ages; from starting a revolution to quelling one; the power you manage to impress upon others is how the characters interact with the screenplay. As such, there are numerous scenes staged brilliantly to juxtapose intimidation by one and the trepidation of the other. The use of a steady-cam (or the appearance of it) involves you much deeper into the waves of power-play flowing from one place to the other. Taking into account the ubiquitous selfishness of the characters, the result of these power struggles is kept concealed until the moment it is revealed.

Since sustaining or acquiring power requires considerable scheming and subterfuge, you should expect a great deal of expository and expounding dialogues of what is proceeding on the screen. A balance is critical here. You should not use sheets of dialogue and undermine the visual elements while at the same time, there should not be any inkling of logical integrity being absent, that is, expanding the chasm in logic thus making the leap of faith longer and thus less believable after every play. That critical mid-point is maintained here.

The exposition does spell out what is happening. But it ends with questions for which answers are gleaned from visually. Sometimes a scene sets up something vague, then cuts away to another setting. The scene before the cut is connected to the present by the showcase of absolute power. The expositions do the work in conveying character dynamics at display (which is highly volatile and susceptible to change) and what the scene has achieved to accelerate the narrative. They do not diminish the importance of the scene, nor dispel the power it portrays by patronizing the viewer.

So how is this achieved? We need to remember that this show lasciviously indulges in violence and debauchery as an indication of relishing its lack of scruples. So this is unequivocally a dark tale without any sight of happiness. To achieve such eloquence in exposition without giving away the dark tonality of the film, you need the help of music, cinematography, and acting.

The first two in this show are excellent. How much they contribute to the darkness is the question. The visuals are clear and bright (as opposed to dim lighting to match the mood of the story). The pain and horror of sea warfare are sickeningly shown. There is no compromise in this regard. As much as the strategic aspects of battle are exalted, it is complemented with brilliant visuals. No reservations regarding the degree of bloodshed and nudity on screen. Everything is laid naked. As mentioned earlier, the elevating tension between parties in engagement and dilemmas mulled over is made palpable by close shots and impeccably timed edits.

The music here is largely a reminder alarm. The series sometimes reaches peak mind games in specific, and political power pinnacles as a whole. During these moments, the music reiterates that the show is an adventure about pirates with its classic tones attributable to pirates’ lore and movies (also that you should not expect any conventional good/bad). The smaller part of the music is dedicated to channeling the emotions-which are sprawled across the storyline for a major portion of the series since the story moves forward continuously without rest-hidden beneath everyone destitute of morals.

I don’t deny these two add to the quality of the show and aid in presenting the power envisioned by the makers. But that power is felt by the audience because of two factors. The acting and dialogues.

The one who leads this journey to cast a powerful spell upon the viewer is the lead character, Captain Flint ( Toby Stephens). I am obligated to mention trivia here. The historical references in the show are not restricted to the British and Spanish empires. The lead characters either existed in the book or as pirates in the real world. And the series exceptionally merges fiction and factual figures. It is advisable to read more about them after finishing the series in its entirety. As there are no reins of ethics, these characters make smart choices. So none of them are reduced to any foolhardy ideals.

So let us come back to Flint, leader of this array of astute characters. His allure is the ability to turn any situation to his advantage. If you take away the brilliant sketching of his character which is a veil covering what exactly he is, all that remains is a man vowed to avenge and would not let petty norms and values stand in his way (barring the vows part, the rest applies to most of the characters). And he is the one who moves this pack of ruffians charismatically, filled with enigma. He is the least affected by sentimentality among them and thus leads the show. I am not saying this because he is the lead according to the show officially. He has justified it with his acting. Below the deck of a boat, filled with dark individuals, he shines the brightest. He broadcasts the image of a man battling with the ideals he once held and stopping it from interfering in his endeavor, guided only by a desire to avenge. There are so many reasons to hate this character. But Toby Stephens does not let any of these see any land. He drowns them with his heroic anti-hero performance. I am not sure if he scammed me to understand the reason in his arguments and strategies or left me to linger in shock at the antagonism brandished by its aftermath. But the actor treaded that thin line, never allowing himself to be perceived through a single lens.

Let us come back to the original question: How is the balance between exposition and visual storytelling achieved while maintaining the darkness?

For this, we have to add Flint’s partner in crime; John Silver ( Luke Arnold). His character is someone who chose not to tread on the line too long. He is cunning but not wicked to the point of no return and an ultimate opportunist. It would take another post to write about the intricacies and power dynamics between him and Flint. So I will say that this duo is the exemplification of what this series would offer primarily for its viewer; the art of persuasion and deceit (of course, along with steamy sex, naked people, and gory brutality).

Obviously, in these two, editing and thus staging matters and it does play a crucial role in this show too. But the eventual sell of the scene relies on the dialogue and its delivery (which entails the whole act itself). These two, the partners mentioned above, make the best sales pitches. They make their cases (which here means their plans, intentions, and actions) make absolute sense-to the viewer as well as to the other characters. The conversations and presentation of the same paints a picture of a demagogue. Their characters do not undermine the intelligence of their pawns. But rather stroke it to dance to their tunes. By dialogues, the eloquence prevails and by performance, the dark nature prevails. There are not many witty exchanges. But the words that have been chosen highlight the deeply rooted politics of the show, and forays to give an idea of how a revolution and fight for true freedom works (the internal disagreements, sacrifices of decency, and external scare tactics) as well as the specific tensions of that scene or arc of the characters involved (characters diverge, develop and then combine). Dialogues alone does not accomplish this balance. They boast their superiority in war tactics, combats, and wriggling out of unforeseen traps. There is a mind behind the violence on screen and that typifies the critical balance.

But the one thing which connects all of this — the deceptive dialogues, reprehensible acts, turning deep disadvantages into an opportunity, battle ideas-is the unadulterated assertion of absolute power. You get a confirmation of their triumph in whatever they do (they here refer to all the main characters) from how power has manifested. That is how it remains a pirate show despite exploring related but not less identical avenues. All of these characters have a massive moment of power in this show. They do not leave before engraving their marks in the stones of power. So, with all the above and keeping the concept of power (both physical and mental) as the cornerstone, the show manages to be as gripping as it is.

I could go on about this, but I would like to end this sales pitch of mine and retain some eloquence. All the factors which make the show great has been mentioned above. So if you want to see a show about power, this is your kind of show. If you want a show with awesome action sequences, this is your show. If you want a show that arouses you, this is definitely yours. Ultimately, if you want a show to keep you engaged in every way, go and watch this.

Originally published at on September 5, 2020.




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Raja Raman

Raja Raman

My mobility is through my words.

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