“This crew has sacrificed a lot of blood to make your name what it is. It doesn’t belong to you.”
Black Sails is back and, after a barn-storming second season (they have barns at sea, right?), the pirate series is showing no sign of slowing down.
We begin our third season with an introduction to the show’s biggest new star: none other than Blackbeard himself. Ray Stevenson’s villain immediately cruises into place alongside our more seasoned veterans, thanks not only to the way he’s performed but also the way he’s presented. Ray Stevenson is chilling as the menacing sea-dog, the kind of guy who would abandon his wife and then make mincemeat of the brothers trying to bring him to the altar. He’s softly spoken, delivering lines like “There is no forever, everything moves towards its end” with a silky dread that matches his pseudo-philosophical smarts; this is a guy who doesn’t have to shout. His calm manner speaks volumes.
Heck, he doesn’t even have to turn around: director Alik Sakharov (who has previous with both Game of Thrones and Black Sails) only shoots him from behind, the kind of trick that in a movie is old-hat, but in a TV series, where production speeds can easily skip such simple, effective techniques, adds a shiver of tension to proceedings. That’s reinforced by the script, which generally avoids referring to him by his moniker; the only clue to his identity that we get is a close-up of a great big bushy beard and a connection to old friends.
All that makes one thing clear: we don’t need to hear his name or see his face. We already know this is Blackbeard. His legend precedes him.
That brief prologue automatically picks up the themes from the complex Season 2, which saw Flint navigating his way back into a position of respect among his shipmates. What emerged was a study of the boundary between man and myth, how far one could go, would have to go, to cross it. Flint, still played with a steely resolve by Toby Stephens, has long gone past that line by the start of Season 3. What makes it gripping is the fact that he’s still going; Flint is now a changed man after the death of Barlow at the end of Season 2, going from crazed sociopath to vengeful demon. Now, his hair’s shorter, more like a skinhead thug, and he storms towns with a team of masked raiders, striking back at governors who have executed pirates. He’s a defender of the pirate way – and like Blackbeard, his legend precedes him. Rational men who talk to him politely know that they don’t stand a chance. Even women aren’t safe from his pistol.
Flint’s not the only one changed by the events of last season, though. Silver, still the fast-talking quartermaster whom Flint needs to control the crew, has also taken one step (as it were) toward legend – he now sports the peg leg that helped solidify his own reputation. Luke Arnold wears it with a grimace befitting a guy shouldering the burden of history – the first real igns of cracks in his usually cheerful persona.
Back on Nassau, Rackham is attempting to find his way into the history books too – and is, inevitably, failing. If Toby Schmitz (and Clara Paget’s Anne) moved from comic relief to central players in the show’s last run, they now become more complicated symbols of the difficulty of maintaining that pirate dream; getting the gold is one thing, but keeping it is another matter entirely, especially with Zach McGowan’s Vane breathing down your neck.
It’s another nice follow-on from last season, which concluded with our characters banding together to unite against the threat of the British navy. Speaking of which, what of Eleanor Guthrie? Now on trial back on the civilised mainland, she finds herself balanced between solidarity with her cohorts and revenge upon Vane. She’s joined by Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts), another guy with a name in seafaring textbooks, thanks to his push back against piracy in the 17th and 17th century. In between interrogating her, he gets a neat monologue about celebrity and how public knowledge of a person makes everyone think they own a piece of them.
As we wonder whether she’ll give anyone up, there’s a renewed sense that the mythical way of pirate life is in danger – a Wild Bunch-like set-up that’s heightened by the discovery that familiar faces have turned hunters of the good (bad) guys, complete with guns, tactical nous and a boatload of supposed pardons for anyone who surrenders. It’s telling that this episode’s biggest set piece isn’t an attack, but a defence against an ambush. When we do come across the remains of a similar scenario, the creepy emptiness of the boat in question only highlights how easily a pirate crew can be vanished into thin air – the spooky stuff of legend, indeed.
Rogers’ words ring especially true for Flint, whose reputation is as much a result of Silver’s and Billy Bone’s efforts as it is everyone else’s. But if the captain has become a figurehead of a movement, will his own recklessness endanger that or strengthen it? And can anyone else ever take his place? A gripping opener for a promising third run, Black Sails shows no signs of slowing down – and no signs of dumbing down either.
Black Sails Season 3 is available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arriving every Sunday, under 24 hours after their US TV debut, with Season 1 and Season 2 also available.