Readers Write In #211: Blacksails, an underrated show but one of the finest TV shows ever made

Posted on June 23, 2020

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(by Sudarshan Garg)

Hyperbole? Well read on, and then watch it before you decide.

To get the ball rolling, the show in a nutshell is about Pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy. It is a prequel to the Book by R L Stevenson, “Treasure Island”. In the book, we start out with a mysterious pirate, Billy Bones walking into a bar, warning about a 1 legged pirate, he then promptly dies, and a map pointing to a treasure the infamous Captain Flint had hidden decades ago. The rest of this book is about the hunt for this treasure, also involved is another notorious pirate, the 1 legged man, Long John SIlver who had served with Captain Flint and is also on the hunt for said treasure.

The show is set some 20-30 years before these events, and sets up these later events. It goes into detail on what the treasure was, who was Captain Flint, Long John Silver, Billy Bones etc etc, how did the treasure get into that lonely isolated island. It basically is a….prequel. With the context set, let us dive into what makes this show so spectacular. The spoiler free plot is a Captain (Flint) and his legendary pirates seize the cargo of a merchant ship from its terrified crew. In the process, they gain a resourceful new crew member — a dashing but self-serving scoundrel named John Silver… who happens to possess the very item that Flint is secretly hunting for: the schedule of the Urca de Lima, a Spanish galleon that carries untold riches, simple enough? The next 3 seasons sees these pirates fight for the treasure, they fight the Spaniards, the Americans, the British but most of all, themselves. They hold onto their own twisted version of morality and the pirate code when it suits them, abandoning it when it doesnt.

The world – The world is lived in, every pirate, including the super successful or rich ones wear dirty, torn clothes, and they always are grimey. Many have bad teeth, the ships live and breath with creaking ropes, ambient noises are ever present, the port city these no good pirates call home is just a shanty town (most pirates simply sleep under the stars on the beach) with 1 brothel and 1 bar, that is about it. The costumes, weapons are all period specific and you will not find anything out of order.

The script, characters and the story – Now this is truly where the show transcends the ordinary swashbuckling swords and sandals epics, and here I include GoT (which from S5 on saw a marked dip in the quality of writing). This is one of the few rare shows that does not dumb down anything for the audience, it does not rush from check point to check point as though we are in a FPS video game. The script lets the characters breathe, and slowly, very slowly unpeels the layers and layers of motivations, counter motivations, fate, happenstance, luck that drive to the core of the 15-20 main characters. All these 15-20 have deep backstories, and the unpeeling goes on till the penultimate episode of Season 4 (total 4 seasons only).

Broadly, Blacksails is about human nature, pure and simple, what drives humans to commit treachery, backstab their own best friends or suddenly grow a pair and stand for something – be it an ideology, a belief, a relationship. Blacksails is about power, how it is wielded, and how it is perceived. You have 4-5 main pirate captains and each of them has a different style. If one is a hard and ruthless taskmaster who brooks no indiscipline, the other is a powerful warrior who enforces discipline and loyalty at sword point and yet another is a….comedian, he brings his crew about largely by his wholesome and funny nature. Midway in, I was amazed at how the show had perverted my own morality. I was supporting outright pirates, murderers while the main ‘villain’ is actually someone who is very reasonable, extremely courteous and truly only wants good for Nassau (the port city of the Pirates). There never is a moment a viewer can say “yeah I saw that twist coming”, because there is nothing inorganic in the plotting, actions taken in the first episode of S1 have an impact in the last episode of the last season. All conflict in this show is driven by interpersonal conflicts which are in turn driven by the characters themselves, their insecurities, their ego, greed, ambition, pride.

I would like to with very minor spoilers talk about just one such character. The main protagonist / antagonist, Captain Flint. Usually antagonists have some key driving point that is either laid out at the start or comes as a plot twist, but here? Flint is a very deep onion, and his background, his motivations, the reasons for his actions keep getting unpeeled every season, and it is only in the last episode of the last season do you get a composite picture of who the man is and what drove him to do what he did. The brilliance in the writing is because the plot is entirely driven by the actions of the characters, much like a vast domino board set in the lovely Caribbean. Each action has a consequence which triggers actions, and the plot is driven forward entirely organically.

Captain Flint has 3 key drivers and this is at the engine that sets up and drives Blacksails

1) The Macguffin – The Gold of the Urca De Lima (a Spanish treasure ship), this is established within 30 minutes of the first episode, and is a macguffin (and openly acknowledged as so later on), and why does he want this?

2) To create Nassau as an independent pirate utopia and to do that he needs to,

3) Defeat England in a war!

Now, these are the 3 key drivers of Captain Flint but is only a surface level manifestation, each of these goals was caused by something deeper, an internal fire. You see, some events in his life (not getting into these though, pure spoiler territory), a fire caused by England telling him who he is and who he can’t be, and this then sets what is essentially a reverse Count of Monte Cristo plot in motion (instead of a bourgeois man acting as a noble to gain revenge, here Capt Flint goes from being a noble to the meanest, most cold blooded pirate in Nassau). It is the internal fire, driving his external conflicts that has him always taking decisions that have him walking a tightrope over a chasm.

His actions are unpredictable to the viewer (and his crew), but serve only 1 purpose, quench the internal fires raging in him, consequences be damned. Let me just give you one (relatively spoiler free example), In Season 3, Capt Flint and his crew are thrown the holy grail of pirates, a full and unconditional pardon….refuse it and die. Yet as neither his external conflicts nor his inner fires would be quenched by this sane course of action, he convinces his crew to drive into the heart of a raging storm and near certain death (As opposed to certain death for refusing)….this action then opens up an entire world of choices, actions and counter reactions.

Watch it, if you like intelligent plotting, brilliant narration, a very tight interlayered story, and thought provoking dialogues, this is the show for you. The epic cinematography, the bitter set piece battles are just the cherry on top. After a few episodes, I started seeing these set pieces as a distraction and simply wanted to watch Captain Flint and his #squad talk, plot, backstab, romance, murder, rape, pillage and talk some more.

This show deserves a lot of love, and I went in blind, and then binged it over a weekend! It is just that good.

Next up, will review another exceptional (but not as good) show, the Last Kingdom.