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Jenny: The fandom newsletter The Rec Center used the words queer and pirates and postcolonial text to describe Black Sails back in June, and I left cartoon dust trails in my wake dashing off to my TV to watch it. Though the first season is notoriously worse and less substantive than the rest of the show, it took approx 30 seconds of run time before I was (DON’T DO IT) (I’m definitely doing it) (JENNY NO) (JENNY YES) …. hooked.

(Get it?)

Months have passed since then, and I have not yet grown tired of talking about Black Sails. Accordingly I badgered the wonderful Jodie into watching it and doing recaps with me -- mainly because I want an excuse to rewatch the show, but also to give myself an outlet for the thinking and reading and talking about this show I wanted to be doing anyway. We’ll be discussing it on an episode-by-episode basis, and we’d love for you to watch along with us!


Jodie: I do like Black Sails, yes :) First of all it's about pirates - I don't think I know how not to like a show about pirates. Second, I am a pretty big sucker for TV shows that bring in well-known figures before they were famous. So, when the show revealed that the guy barricading himself below to hide from the pirates was the legendary John Silver I was charmed. And third, I really loved the fact that Flint's pirate boat runs on the kind of 'everyone is equal' pirate democracy I read about in Richard Sanders' If A Pirate I Must Be. It was really cool to see a historical drama make use of actual history. I know that sounds strange but so many historical dramas just fudge history hard, and while I don't always have a problem with that (The White Queen stands as a solid example that I am easily won around). I do think that history has some really interesting, complex stories which are drastically underused. I guess sometimes creative teams think viewers won't want something that drastically differs from the stories they've been given before?

Anyway, those are some of the things that struck me first about Black Sails (along with the fact that no one told me Percival from Merlin was in this show - this was important information). As a woman with much experience of Black Sails, do you want to tell me a little bit about what you love about the show and what I can expect from this show?

Jenny: Oh I think you're going to love Black Sails, friend. It features many events that didn't happen, but I am hard-pressed to think of anything that couldn't have happened. Even things that seem far-fetched, like certain deals struck between the rebels and the agents of empire later on, tend to be based in fact. We can play as many rounds of Real or Not Real as you want going forward, and I think you'll be delighted with how much of it is Real or at least Real-adjacent.

Rewatching the pilot, I'm surprised at how early some of the show's themes get introduced -- I've been going around telling everyone that Season 1 is a treasure hunt and Season 4 is a war with the forces of empire. But really, the seeds for that war are present in this very first episode. Our main character, James Flint, is pursuing a Spanish treasure galleon, the Urca de Lima, in order to inoculate a free Nassau against British imperial ambitions. That hostility towards (what passes for) civilization will remain a keynote of his character and a fundamental driving force for the show throughout its run.

You can look forward to seeing quite a bit more of various characters imagining futures for themselves and trying to bring them about, in ever-shifting configurations of alliance and enmity. But I do want to emphasize that while the opening episode sets the scene for what is to come, the stakes and tone of the show are going to shift dramatically as it goes along. I was told after finishing S1 that it was a joyous romp compared to S4, and that is a hella accurate statement. Be ready to have your soul ripped out of your body by this show going forward.

The big thing I love about the show -- though there are too many things I love to list them all -- is Toby Stephens in the role of Flint. Season One hides most of his motivation from you, which makes all his character beats that much more fascinating on a rewatch. (Stand by to witness my transformation into a blubbering mess over his Odysseus speech in Ep 2.) However, even on a first time through the show, he's absolutely magnetic. He's capable of delivering these slightly grandiloquent speeches in a way that makes you, the viewer, want to buy into everything he's saying, even when you specifically know that he's lying. It's rarely possible to know the extent to which Captain Flint is being sincere; even when he appears to be baring his soul, there's an element of calculation present. I am an INTJ and I approve this portrayal of my people. Here’s the speech he gives in the pilot:

There's a war coming, Billy.

--One ship isn't a war.

One ship isn't what's coming. That man Hume, the captain of the Scarborough told you as much. When a king brands us pirates, he doesn't mean to make us adversaries. He doesn't mean to make us criminals. He means to make us monsters. For that's the only way his God-fearing, taxpaying subjects can make sense of men who keep what is theirs and fear no one. When I say there's a war coming, I don't mean with the Scarborough. I don't mean with King George or England. Civilization is coming, and it means to exterminate us. If we are to survive, we must unite behind our own king.


We're going to have to come back to "men who keep what is theirs and fear no one," which takes on a slightly different complexion when you know a bit more about Flint's life before piracy. I love this speech, Jodie. What lifts Black Sails above your run-of-the-mill tits-and-swords Game-of-Thrones-knockoff fake-prestige television shows -- even in these early days when the show felt a little shakier about its identity -- is its grandeur of vision. Flint doesn't just want to get rich; he wants to build a better version of the world for himself to inhabit, and he's realistic about the fact that he'll need money to pull it off. The writers gave us the gift of this character with a vision for how he plans to change the world; and Toby Stephens gave us the gift of making us believe that Flint can do it.

Do you have any expectations for what comes next? Were there any characters that particularly intrigued you, that you want to see more of? Anyone you hated on sight?

Jodie: I hate Charles Vane but I think that's pretty much a given. I mean, it's not as if he does anything to endear himself to the viewer. He hits Eleanor, kills two people, and turns out to be involved in a plot to steal Flint's ship from under him. He's not a guy anyone is going to be rooting for at the end of this episode.

Otherwise, I'm just interested in seeing more of everyone but especially Billy (#followingMerlinactorstootherprojects #lifechoices) who I think has the potential to be a deliciously morally conflicted character at the heart of the crew. Flint is of course magnetic, and I say that as someone who has never cared about Toby Stephens ever. Not even when he played Mr Rochester. I really think Flint could be the defining character of his career. That speech really does set this series apart from the start, because how often do you see character talking about economic equality and the propaganda of capitalism? That speech made me think I could get into Black Sails for the long haul, and I'm really excited to see how that whole strand plays out.

It goes without saying that I want to see more of all the women. What will Eleanor do when she realises her father is missing? Will Max and Eleanor be together forever? My heart says yes but my brain says I will be disappointed. And I definitely want to see more of the mysterious female pirate who is involved with Vane's schemes. Is she Anne Bonny, Jenny? I couldn't quite work it out.

Oh, and I'm interested in Silver. I'm not super into him but it's hard not to be curious about how his story is going to develop, and how he's going to become THE John Silver. Also, probably a stupid question but I feel like I need to ask for some of your pirate knowledge right now - John Silver is a character in Treasure Island but was there a real pirate named John Silver as well or is Black Sails smushing some Robert Louis Stevenson into its story right now?

As for expectations, I fully expect that some of the people I mentioned above are going to die. Black Sails seems like the kind of show that kills your favs. Otherwise I'm pretty much going with the flow.

Jenny: I have no comment to make re: killing your faves, and I'm trying not to say too much about the other characters lest I spoil emotional twists and turns for you. I do feel safe in saying that Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, and a lot of space will be given to showing us exactly how Scruffy Rascal John Silver becomes the John Silver. And I love, love, love it that half the protagonists in this show are women. Naturally, I would die for any one of them -- Miranda is probably my favorite in the long term, but I identified hard with sweary blonde angry Eleanor in these first few episodes.


One excellent thing about Black Sails is how heavily the writers draw from the thinking and research of renowned maritime historian Marcus Rediker, who has done a lot to cement the reputation of pirate ships as egalitarian spaces. In the pilot of Black Sails, we see this both in the danger that Flint will lose his captaincy in a vote and in Singleton's attempts to recruit sailors from the prize they take. Though he's seeking to get more votes for his captaincy, this was a real method of pirate recruitment. Merchant and navy captains were horrible, and piracy did offer freedom and better food and more days off.

(Unsurprisingly, most pirates were unwed.)

Contra myths of indiscriminate violence, pirates often checked with crews before beating up their captains. If the crew said the captain was a bad dude -- well, as I say, a lot of pirates had unresolved anger against tyrannical merchant and navy captains. So. I mean. It's not totally unlikely they'd get tied to the mast and beaten to death. However, things could go pretty well for good captains; viz. this excellent anecdote from Marcus Rediker's book Villains of All Nations.

Snelgrave [the merchant captain] was taken to Cocklyn [the pirate captain], who told him, "I am sorry you have met with bad Usage after Quarter given, but 'tis the Fortune of War sometimes...If you tell the truth, and your Men make no Complaints against you, you shall be kindly used." Howell Davis [the pirate, like, admiral?]....later reprimanded Cocklyn's men for their roughness and, by Snelgrave's account, expressed himself "ashamed to hear how I had been used by them. That they should remember their reasons for going a pirating were to revenge themselves on base Merchants and cruel commanders of Ships."

Snelgrave's character proved so respectable that the pirates proposed to give him a captured ship with full cargo and to sell the goods for him. Then they would capture a Portuguese slaver, sell the slaves, and give the proceeds to Snelgrave so that he could "return with a large sum of Money to London, and bid the Merchants defiance." Pirates hoped to show these merchants that good fortunes befell good captains. ...Fearing a charge of complicity, Snelgrave hesitated to accept. Davis quickly interceded, saying that he favored "allowing every Body to go to the Devil in their own way" and that he knew that Snelgrave feared for his reputation.

We'll talk more about pirates and slaves later on, but I love the weird idealism on display in this anecdote. It also shows us pirates endeavoring to control their public image and convey a particular kind of story about what sort of men they are. Narrative will be a big damn deal in Black Sails going forward, and it's fun to find that reflected in the history.


"To be turned before the mast" = to lose one's captaincy by vote and become a common sailor. E.g., Due to Singleton's treacherous machinations, flawless sea angel Capt. James Flint was almost turned before the mast before he could begin to pursue the gold of the Urca de Lima.

Jodie: So, our viewing of Episode One went swimmingly (#sorry #notsorry). Join us again, when Jenny and I plot a course (please, please stop me) through Episode Two.

Date: 2017-11-13 11:38 am (UTC)
fragilespark: (Default)
From: [personal profile] fragilespark
I love this project! I have s1 and only watched a couple of episodes, so this is perfect motivation for me to give it another try. Loving your commentary so far *thumbs up*

Date: 2017-11-14 03:15 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
YAYYYY okay standard disclaimers that the show gets WAY WAY BETTER than the first season. There's a really ick plotline in the early first season, and I would totally understand if that bounces you out of the show. But if you can hang on, it gets miles and miles better.


Jenny @ Reading the End

Date: 2017-11-14 04:21 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Black Sails: Max gazing out of the frame, wearing a blue dress. (black sails -- max blue)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
I'm currently babbling a lot in my DW about Black Sails, having just mainlined it, and I'm glad I didn't watch it when it first aired, because I suspect I'd have bounced off the first few eps and never gone back.

For motivation (in addition to the recaps here), I just listened to this podcast episode, in which Gavia Baker-Whitelaw does a very job of selling the show in a minimally-spoilery way and describing how the show evolves and changes after S1, and what it's got going for it.

Date: 2017-11-14 07:53 am (UTC)
rydra_wong: S2: John Silver watches Flint heading off into the sea. (black sails -- off to steal a fucking wa)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
I've just fallen headfirst into Black Sails and mainlined all four seasons in a few weeks, so this couldn't be more perfectly timed for me!

One excellent thing about Black Sails is how heavily the writers draw from the thinking and research of renowned maritime historian Marcus Rediker

I'd be curious to know if the showrunners/writers have specifically mentioned Rediker anywhere?

I got hooked by the show and went digging through my to-read pile for Rediker and Linebaugh's The Many-Headed Hydra (which had been languishing there, just waiting for the moment when I would urgently need to read something featuring pirate crews as a form of proto-democratic resistance to the maritime state), because yeah, the connections seem obvious and the showrunners clearly did their research.

But I don't know if they've ever publicly namechecked specific authors/books (and I don't know who the other major historians in this area would be), and I'd be really fascinated to know.

Date: 2017-11-14 03:17 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
As far as I know, they haven't mentioned Marcus Rediker (or any specific scholars), so I'm speculating here. But I mean -- like you're saying, the connections seem obvious. As far as other scholars in this area, I can't recommend highly enough the Oxford Bibliographies article on Piracy, by Kris Lane, if you have access to it through a university. Failing that, Peter Earle, David Cordingly, Kenneth Andrews, & Jon Latimer are a few people to check out. :)


Jenny @ Reading the End

Date: 2017-11-14 03:45 pm (UTC)
rydra_wong: Black Sails: Jack Rackham scrunching his face up in thought. (black sails -- jack scrunchy face)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
Thanks very much for the names! Alas, I have no university access, but I've already snagged Rediker's pirate-specific book for when I've finished The Many-Headed Hydra (so good!), and have Cordingly's book on order.

We can play as many rounds of Real or Not Real as you want going forward, and I think you'll be delighted with how much of it is Real or at least Real-adjacent.

Yeah, I went diving for the Rediker&Linebaugh partly because I knew just enough smidges of the history to have a sense that a lot of the things that may strike some people as improbable or jarringly modern are actually well-documented fact, and wanted to check my recollections.

Date: 2017-11-16 09:25 am (UTC)
rydra_wong: Black Sails: James Flint with most of his face covered in blood. (black sails -- flint blood)
From: [personal profile] rydra_wong
So. I mean. It's not totally unlikely they'd get tied to the mast and beaten to death.

Because I'm now onto Rediker's Villains of All Nations, and this point came up -- yep, this generally didn't happen even to bad captains; you had floggings and sometimes executions for captains deemed to have abused their crew, but not torture-killings (unless you had an atypically-sadistic pirate captain, like the historical Ned Low).

However, torture did get used if a captain had refused to surrender his ship to the pirates and had then been overcome. So it's the carrot and stick: strong motivation to surrender immediately because you might actually be treated okay, knowledge that if you resisted and lost it might be horrific.

Torture also got used sometimes if a captain was deemed to be concealing information about hidden treasure/goods of value (which Flint believes to be the case here).

So yeah, both of these apply in ep 1.

Date: 2017-12-08 12:01 am (UTC)
sabotabby: (anarcat)
From: [personal profile] sabotabby
*waves hi* [personal profile] umadoshi told me about this.

Black Sails is probably in my top 5 shows of all time, which is saying a lot given how much telly I watch, and I am probably due for a rewatch. Just reading this reminded me of my initial impressions: "Oh, hey, everyone should watch this silly show about pirates. It is a fun show with swashbuckling and attractive people," and how wrong I was. Fast forward to my heart being destroyed by pirates, even now. So I'm excited to read these recaps is what I'm saying.
Edited Date: 2017-12-08 12:01 am (UTC)


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