UK TV review: Black Sails Season 4, Episode 1
Ivan Radford | On 05, Feb 2017
This review contains minor spoilers. Read on at the bottom for additional spoilery notes.
The resistance in Nassau is now underway. Black Sails set a dramatic stage at the end of Season 3, preparing the way for a brutal showdown to end all showdowns, as the pirates prepared to fight to reclaim Nassau, rescue the pirate way – and, of course, avenge the death of Charles Vane. Season 4 lives up to that promise and then some, cramming a boat-load of barnstorming action into its first hour.
If you were ever in doubt about the show’s eye for style – where have you been? – this marvellous opener will set you straight, beginning with an epic battle of fire and shipwrecks, viewed from underneath the water in muted thuds and poetic blues. All the while, a man tries to free himself from some netting; a handy metaphor for the show’s ability to draw grand stages out of personal conflict.
Above water, Flint, Silver, Blackbeard and Rackham are all sailing for Nassau, dreaming big, brashly displaying their black flag and swiftly stealing ground on the unsuspecting town… until the ground starts stealing back. Unbeknownst to the gang, Woodes Rogers has already scuttled and wrecked several ships on the seabed around the island, creating unnatural banks to break the hull of the pirate vessels.
It’s a devious bit of tactics – not least because it actually manages to outsmart our boys in black. Flint, while a monstrous tyrant who is happen to send men to their death for the greater cause, is a shrewd strategist with a nous for nautical victory. To start with him being forced to retreat from battle, after trying to fire his guns on the fortress walls in vain, as his ship careens, is a striking blow to his invincibility. Rackham, too, makes for a clever captain with Blackbeard by his side, as aware of how to sail as he is how to motivate men; his speech reminding them of Vane’s death is rousing, despite being so unrehearsed.
At the start of a season, it’s no surprise that victory hasn’t immediately been grabbed by either side, but this is a brilliant way to re-establish Rogers as the show’s villain. With Captain Berringer on his team too, he’s not just formidable but formidably desperate – he needs that treasure more than he needs law and order, so that he can help to pay off his demanding ex-wife. Eleanor Guthrie, though, swiftly makes it clear that she’s not going to be a pushover either, reminding him that she’s not his domesticated wife but his partner in enterprise; she’s just as influential, in her family name and in her sheer gumption, as any lady he could name.
And what of Silver? In the chaos and the fleeing, the newly christened Long John, the emblem of the pirate’s rebellion, is nowhere to be seen. He’s vital to their success, after Billy Bones set him up as their leader in a letter to Nassau last season – he’s the Katniss of their narrative. And you’ve got to have a narrative. And so as Flint and Bones run away to hide out on nearby beaches – the Brits drawn off in a display of camaraderie by Rackham and Blackbeard – the stage is set less for a glorious comeback and more a bitter grudge-slinging match. Bones’ intelligence, which was the basis for their mission, was unreliable, but he’s still been crucial in stirring up the Nassau men for a revolt. He refers to the pirates and their supports as his men, something that Flint takes against; even now, Toby Stephens’ glowering presence still intimidates in Flint’s sheer determination to cling on to his power.
And yet his hold over this narrative has never seemed so fragile. What if someone else knows the location of the treasure he uses to back up his leadership claim? What if Blackbeard or Rackham end up turning on him too? What if, come the end chapter, Flint gets beaten again? Black Sails is back for its final run. And if this is anything to go by, it’s going to be a belter.
Black Sails Season 4 airs on Amazon Prime Video every Monday, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. Season 1 to 3 are also available.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of spoilers
– Silver, as we should all know by now, isn’t a man to take things lying down. So of course, the man underwater at the show’s cold open, whom we soon forget about, turns out to be him all along. Luke Arnold has always excelled at Silver’s fast-talking wit, but he delivers a superb physical performance here, fighting back to get above the surface and breathe in some oxygen.
– With Silver alive, that means that Bones will, eventually, have his pirate king character back in play. Tom Hopper’s rise from handy crew member to essentially the pirates’ PR guy has been wonderful to witness and Hopper going toe to toe with Stephens makes for a promising season of conflict. They’ve had a shaky alliance for a whole season, but now, Bones actually has a way of overthrowing Flint.
– How great to have Madi to still on board, after her touching bond with Silver (and her own rise to prominence on Maroon) in Season 3. Even here, she’s grieving for her lost love (hello to the shot of them in bed), but she’s still smartly guarded about where she stands, armed with her knowledge of the treasure chest’s location – which makes her a powerful ally for Bones and a threat to Flint. We like her.
– Luke Roberts’ Rogers remains wonderfully despicable, even more so, perhaps than our ‘good’ guy, Flint. Which is saying something. We hope he meets a sticky end in this next 10 episodes.
– Things may look like they’re lost, but with the British forces staking their claim on Nassau, remember that the islands around them are all teeming with pirates, slaves and others happy to rebel, if there’s a cause to rally behind. Who’s on the right side of history? And if the pirates are capable of returning fire with double the force, how much harder with the Navy hit back?