March 27, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Black Sails”


From the viewpoint of its newly-concluded third season, the first 2 years of Starz’s BLACK SAILS feel like a very long and somewhat misguided prologue to where the series is now.  With Michael Bay as its leading Executive Producer, Black Sails was presented as a yarn of 18th century sea piracy, built around the darkly violent antihero Captain Flint (Toby Stephens).  Exhaustive amounts of time were spent on Flint’s pursuit of a Spanish treasure ship and flashbacks to explain why he had transformed from an idealistic British gentleman to a ruthless pirate and obsessed anti-British revolutionary.  Despite all the effort put into Flint, his character was never strong enough to singlehandedly hold the show together, and the heart of the tale was a broader one than his piracy, about the insurgency led by its pirates to take Nassau island back from English (or Spanish) rule.  (There was also limited budget for large-scale sea battles.)  Perhaps as a result, while successful enough by Starz’s terms for repeated renewals, Black Sails has never been the breakout hit that Power and Outlander have been for the network.

In terms of story construction, Season 3 righted the ship, so to speak, and with tonight’s finale, written by series creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, and directed by Alik Sakharov, Black Sails seemed to find the port to tell the saga it’s been trying to tell.  While previous seasons had veered to follow the various betrayals, traps and stratagems of Flint and his fellow pirates, along with Nassau’s chief merchants, the Season 3 narrative was more focused.  By tonight’s finale, Flint and his fellow pirate chiefs Rackham (Toby Schmitz), Teach aka Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson), Bonny (Claire Paget) and the newly ascended John Silver (Luke Arnold), along with Madi (Zethu Dlomo), representing the free blacks who’d escaped Nassau, had united to face the forces of government and commerce under Governor Rogers (Luke Roberts), Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and the madam and tavern owner Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy).  (Zach McGowan’s Captain Vane did not survive to the Season 3 finale, his hanging serving as a flashpoint for the resistance.)  Although there will no doubt be plenty of in-fighting and doublecrossing among each group, the general order of battle is unmuddled for once.

Some of this had clearly been planned from the start:  Silver and Max were placed at the very beginning as, respectively, a lowly member of Flint’s crew and a common prostitute (and Eleanor’s lover) so that they could gradually rise to their present positions.  But in the earlier stages of the series, they like all the other characters were basically satellites to Flint (Rackham was virtually comedy relief), and it’s only in Season 3 that they’ve been given their head.  This has been effective not just in terms of storytelling, but because it’s given actors like Schmitz, Arnold and Paget more to do.  Similarly, Eleanor, the show’s most earnest character, who had flip-flopped her sympathies several times in the course of the story, seems to have finally chosen a side.

Black Sails has never lacked for production values, and the Season 3 finale had the extra budget finales can command, allowing it several large-scale battle sequences on land and at sea effectively directed by Sakharov, as the pirate forces held off the British in a maneuver designed to bring the wrath of the Spaniards down on Nassau (by preventing the governor from returning to Spain its stolen gold and Rackham, who’d stolen it), the idea being that the chaos of a Spanish/British war would provide cover for the pirates to take over the island.  Whether this idea makes any sense was left for future seasons, but at least it’s finally a compelling question.  Some series take longer than others to figure themselves out, and Black Sails has emerged onto smoother tides.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."