Amazon Prime UK TV review: Black Sails Season 3, Episode 2
Occasionally wooden dialogue6
Ivan Radford | On 31, Jan 2016
Thar she blows. Never before have those three words seemed so woefully inadequate. Episode 2 of Black Sails Season 3 sees the crew of The Walrus head into a violent storm – and nature throws everything it has at them. And more to boot.
It’s easy to forget just how big Black Sails can be. In an age where Game of Thrones has redefined the scale of small-screen entertainment, Black Sails is one of the few shows that can rival HBO’s fantasy series. At its best, when presenting a panorama of Nassau or pitching boats head to head, the programme feels epic. Here, it looks even larger than some blockbuster movies. Director Lukas Ettlin relishes the opportunity to pummel his cast with every water cannon he can find, the set of the Walrus tipping and topping every which way the wind chooses. The actors are more sardines than humans, rattled about in a wooden container with an almost sadistic relentlessness. Even the CGI gives us realistic waves and careening hulls, as our camera sweeps through the tempest with jaw-dropping energy.
What makes the show so impressive, though, is that the spectacle is a way to tease out character and emotion: Black Sails can do big, but not at the expense of the small. Amid the carnage, the writers find the time for a soul-searching moment with Silver, as Luke Arnold’s peg-leg struggles to pitch in and stop the vessel from flooding. “After all we’ve been through, the most terrifying part of it?” he confesses to Muldoon, as they debate whether he should sit this one out. “Let us take care of you.” It’s a nice moment of vulnerability, but also a reminder of how much Silver has bonded with the rest of the pirates since his initial introduction; as much as he pretends to be the wily outsider, he’s now one of the family. It’s perhaps an obvious revelation, but to the show’s credit, the conversation doesn’t end there: it continues to let Richard Wright-Firth steal the whole scene. “I know what it’s like to be afraid of being the one that ain’t strong enough to stick,” Muldoon offers, before delivering a poetic speech about drowning.
If Silver’s role of outsider has ended, though, Billy Bones remains a crucial onlooker to events: Leicester’s own Tom Hopper is marvellous as the loyal shipmate, clinging to the mast to help steady the ship and watching, helplessly, as Flint gives drastic orders to save the crew: one pained glance from Billy simultaneously gives Flint’s actions a shocking brutality and an accepted necessity; Billy’s become the witness who rationalises the horror of the captain’s decisions.
And who can blame him? The alternative is to surrender to Hornigold – a fate that would be worse than a watery grave. Flint, after all, came up with those pardons back when he was a naval officer. And look where it got him: exiled, double-crossed repeatedly, and no Miranda. The only thing the man has left is his reputation – and he’s damn sure not going to give it up.
Toby Stephens carries that grisly determination with an increasingly large scowl – every time you think he can’t look more haunted, something else happens to push him further over the edge of humanity. Amid the chaos, we even get flashes of his nightmares: creepy sequences that see Barlow stalking through an all-white ship and screaming at him. Are they premonitions or a spectre of leftover pain from the past? Either way, it’s hard to imagine Flint becoming more traumatised than he is. Next week, he’ll probably have a pet goldfish that dies while he’s cleaning the tank.
Back on dry land, Jack can’t avoid wearing the scars of his history on his face – and they continue to drive him further down the path towards barbarism, as he struggles to retain his hold over Nassau and the gold in the fortress. He’s even toyed with the idea of using slaves to do the rescuing and repairing work for them – something that appalls Charles Vane. (For all his apparently villainy, Zach McGowan’s pirate remains resolutely a figure of honour, a fact that adds to Black Sails’ sea of moral ambiguity.)
We get more insight into Vane’s connection with Blackbeard this week, courtesy of Eleanor and her new pirate-hunting partner, Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) – a tale of back-stabbing and bribery that helped to remove Blackbeard from the island when he was younger. “Why in God’s name would I trust you?” asks Rogers, which immediately undermines his character’s supposed intelligence – it’s a little late for him to be asking that now – but Luke Roberts’ face also bears more scars that we initially noticed, a sign that he, too, has seen his fair share of battles and bad decisions. Hannah New is also given a chunk of horribly clunky dialogue – “You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know…” – but her speeches do help to develop her as a character: the black-story doesn’t just give insight into Blackbeard’s past, but also shows how much Guthrie has grown up; back then, she was reckless, bold and willing to take risks. Now, she’s weary, more sensible; she spends her time making bargains and begging for pardons. (Surely, though, she has a grander plan in mind?)
Yet everyone, now is risking something – including, you suspect, Blackbeard. Ray Stevenson continues to be a brooding screen presence, growling but never have to raise his voice to command authority. If Episode 1 resisted the urge to show his face, it’s telling that now we hear of him by his given name, Edward Teach, rather than Blackbeard – a moniker that takes none of his menacing quality away. “Man puts a dead thing in the ground, expects it to stay there,” he snarls at Vane. “Sometimes, it comes back.”
It’s still unknown how these old acquaintances will treat each other – we’ve seen in Episode 1 how ruthless Blackbeard is and in Season 2 how violent Vane can be – but they make for a fun couple to behold. Vane is physically impressive, all muscles and leather trousers (how practical are they really for a pirate to wear?), the spitting image of a great specimen and a feared pirate. But Blackbeard is having none of it. “Strife makes a man strong,” he observes, offering a visible contrast to the relaxed contentment around him: he’s an old dog from the days when pirates had their backs against the wall and nothing to lose. Flint is now the only one who seems to be in that position, risking everyone else to survive – but as people from the new, lazy generation of pirates line up to put their lives on their line just to be in Blackbeard’s crew, there’s a sense that high-stakes gambling hasn’t capsized yet.
The friction between the calm, supposed safe haven of Nassau and the unseen threat of England and Spain, whose troops are closing in, suggests Season 3 has an exciting voyage ahead, even with its occasional scripting slips. That balancing of scale is captured in one breathtaking piece of editing (by Homeland’s Terry Kelley and Shon Hedges). The wind of change is blowing – but for those who don’t realise it yet, it’s just a storm in a teacup.
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.