UK TV review: Black Sails Season 3
Ivan Radford | On 29, Jan 2017
With Season 4 of Black Sails about to sail onto UK TV, we get ready with a look back at Season 3. Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Season 3? Read our spoiler-free review of the first episode here.
“We are yet to tell you our story. We haven’t even introduced a villain.” That’s Billy Bones (the always-brilliant Tom Hopper) in Season 3 of Black Sails, which sees Starz’ pirate series move from pure entertainment to something almost profound.
The programme has always been steeped in the notion of respect, particularly the use of fear and intimidation to get it – as embodied by the famous Captain Flint (Toby Stephens). But this accomplished penultimate outing takes a step back to consider respect on a bigger scale, as our band of pirates become less concerned with gold and more with the priceless treasure of legend.
Sure enough, the stage is set for what we know will eventually be a mythic battle between the good forces of the British Navy and the bad forces sailing under the black flag. Within an hour, we’ve been introduced to a guy with his own name etched on record: Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts), who is known for his push back against piracy in the 17th and 18th century. Naturally, he seizes the most effective resource to hand: Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New), who begins Season 3 on trial in civilised England, who’s all too aware of how being a celebrity makes everyone think they own a piece of you. Inevitably, she switches sides, driven by hatred for Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), and so does old friend Hornigold, who starts helping Rogers to hunt down the remnants of the pirate way. On the other side, though, another name looms: Blackbeard, an imposing outlaw made all the more so because the show doesn’t initially name him, instead allowing his reputation to do the talking.
Back on Nassau, Rackham is attempting to find his way into the history books too – and is, naturally, failing. If Toby Schmitz (and Clara Paget’s Anne) moved from comic relief to central players in the show’s Season 2, they now become more complicated examples of the difficulty of maintaining that pirate dream; getting the gold is one thing, but keeping it is another matter entirely, especially with Vane breathing down his neck. The idea of using slaves to help gather the gold only emphasises the muddy waters these characters are now treading.
“Strife makes a man strong,” observes Blackbeard, who swaggers through the island, hoping to recruit Vane to be on his side and amass a crew. Toby Stephens, meanwhile, certainly carries his 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.
Episode 2 really does try to do that, as the Walrus is beset by an epic tempest in the show’s most jaw-dropping set piece to date (one bravura bit of editing turns it into a storm in a teacup). As things get more intense, we even get flashes of Flint’s nightmares: creepy sequences that see old flame Miranda Barlow stalking through an all-white ship and screaming at him.
There’s an increasing sense that Flint is about to crack, bracing us for some kind of departure. Sure enough, he and the crew barely survive the ship’s storm, and soon find themselves washed up on Maroon Island where they are captured by former slaves.
The ensuing episodes mark a disappointing drop in pace for the season, as Flint and co. must overcome both their familiar in-fighting and the unknown threat to position themselves as a respected force on the island – and, of course, there’s still the question of Blackbeard to deal with, as Flint and he eventually duel over who should lead the crew, and, specifically, earn the loyalty of Charles Vane.
But if there’s a dip in the middle, the final episodes of Black Sails’ third season see the show deliver some of its best action, and character work, to date.
Rackham, who gets a speech explaining how he effectively turned to piracy due to his middle-class family falling into poverty, goes from nuanced strength to nuanced strength, secretly working with Max to trade the Urca’s gold on Nassau into pearls for easier transport. Enter Hornigold with the offer of pardons in exchange for betrayal, and his attempted defence of Nassau quickly fails – but that naive streak of desired nobility we’ve now grown to understand pushes him to stay behind and take the offer of a pardon, thus saving his family name. It backfires miserably, leaving Rackham and his pearls being transported by Rogers, via carriage, to the Spanish.
What follows is a repetitive string of betrayals and double-betrayals (Anne loyal to Rackham, Max loyal only to herself) and we end up stuck in a cycle of if-we-can-get-this-person, we-can-get-that-macguffin, but before you grow tired of such shenanigans, the show delivers a stonking set piece – the siege of Rackham’s carriage by Flint and Vane and their men. That rescue leads to another rescue attempt (see what we men?), as Vane is hauled back to Nassau to hang – something that Eleanor, temporarily taking power from the fever-stricken Rogers, is all too happy to execute. Episode 9 sees her succeed – a heartbreaking moment made all the more so by the way the show wrong-foots us. After expecting Flint to take a fall all season, it’s his sidekick who ends up giving his life for the pirate cause.
The idea of sacrifice crops up over and over during Season 3 – “This crew has sacrificed a lot of blood to make your name what it is,” Flint is warned near the start, while Vane attempts his own resistance by setting fire to a ship midway through, and Jack does what he thinks his necessary by blowing up the fort, leaving the island (and its gold) vulnerable. Zach McGowan’s physically imposing presence, though, is one that’s notably absent in all departments – and his performance, as Vane is torn between Blackbeard and Flint, is one that gets more subtle the closer we get to his death.
Once it happens, Vane’s death is also the catalyst that marks the shift in the pirate narrative. As Bones, who is sent to stoke an uprising among the people against Rogers and Guthrie, notes, Vane’s death introduces the villain their story needs. What their story also needs, though, is a hero. And that’s where Black Sails Season 3 reveals its real star.
Flint’s not the only one who’s been changed over the course of these past three seasons. Silver, still the fast-talking quartermaster whom Flint needs to control the crew, has also taken one step (as it were) toward destiny – he now sports the peg leg that helped solidify his reputation come Treasure Island. Luke Arnold wears it with a grimace befitting a guy shouldering the burden of history, but gives an emotional turn to match his physical effort; some of the best moments of Season 3 involve Silver and Flint talking politics and power, be it the claustrophobic tension of their post-storm rowing boat in Episode 3 or the finale’s explicit debate about leadership styles (all based around whether they can persuade Dobbs to kill Hornigold). In between, we see John bond with Madi, the daughter of the Maroon Island’s queen, who helps him with his leg – a reminder that he’s a human as well as a skilled politician.
The close of the season sees Flint finally kill Hornigold, after the Brits have a bloody showdown on Maroon Island – and the help of the Maroon tribe, Anne, Rackham and Blackbeard, all combine to push the Navy into retreat. The stage is set for the final face-off between the good guys and bad guys. But it’s also directly set for Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, as we actually see Flint and Silver bury the treasure that will one day be the focus of that adventure. The tide is changing ahead of Black Sails’ fourth and final season, with a strong female character in the enemy’s chair, a strong pirate captain at the helm of our heroes’ ship, and a symbol of their myth (Vane’s body) being removed from the Nassau gallows and replaced by that of officer Throckmorton. Bones sends Guthrie a Black Spot and a letter claiming responsibility for the murder. The name on the letter? A humble chef who’s risen to the top with ruthless power. That’s what cements Black Sails’ Season 3 finale as a superb piece of thrilling television. Our pirates are only now starting to tell their story, but this isn’t the story of Captain Flint at all: this is the story of Long John Silver. And with the resistance in Nassau now officially underway, we can’t wait for it to begin.
Black Sails Season 4 premieres on Amazon Prime Video on Monday 30th January, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Season 1 to 3 are also available.