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Black Sails: "VI."

What's wrong with a little crowd-pleasing? We critics can often stand against it, and I include myself in that. If a scene feels a little bit too contrived to make the audience happy, we'll call it “fanservice” or “manipulative” or worse. But then there are times when we—or, I suppose I should be honest here—when I get excited, willing to cheer on a development precisely because it fits my preconceived notions of what's moral or good, and that's worth examining. So there's a part of me that wants to say “YES FUCK THE FUCK YES BLACK SAILS SOLVE YOUR IMPOSSIBLE PROBLEM WITH A SLAVE REBELLION! KILL THE MASTERS! THIS IS GREAT TELEVISION!”

And then there's a part of my critical faculty that suggests “Wait. Is this just pandering to my internal, modern concept that racism and slavery are bad? Was this episode actually worth getting excited about beyond that?” And so, dear readers, I present to you a different form of review—or perhaps, a more intentionally honest kind of review—where I attempt to justify to myself my excitement over aspects of “VI.” to myself.

The key component of the episode that makes my trust my reaction is that I only had that reaction to the main story, of Flint and the Walrus attempting to take the guns from the Andromache. This side of the episode, resolved by a slave rebellion, fully captured my attention. The Nassau-based half of the episode, with Anne Bonny and Eleanor Guthrie resolving Max's captivity, has some great lines and good moments, but despite largely resolving a storyline I've been much more personally invested in, it didn't grab me in the same way. The difference between the two helps explain what makes a theoretically crowd-pleasing storyline work.

The first crucial distinction between the two is that there's a character focus in one that's not present in the other. In the slave storyline, Mr. Scott's decision to rebel, or not, is a decision that we can see, and may or may not expect. Scott hasn't been a character whose perspective we've seen enough before this that we'll necessarily know how he's going to react, but he's been sympathetic enough that we'd prefer he do the right thing. And that construction of “the right thing” may be complicated long-term, given that he's taking action to help steal guns so pirates can do what pirates want to do. But in the short-term? He's a slave, and he's going to be a slave unless he does something about that short-term.

On the other hand, there's no character who's given a major choice over the course of the Bonny-Max storyline. Anne Bonny and Eleanor want to rescue Max, so they construct a plot to do it. Calico Jack does have a choice, but it's only discussed later. In this case, it's merely a plan carried out, as Bonny assumes that Jack will go along, and Jack puts up no resistance whatsoever until a discussion after-the-fact. This is still effective enough at telling the story, but it's less exciting overall.

Second, the tension in how the two stories are resolved is quite different. On Flint's side, exactly how the cannons are acquired, and whether they're even necessary, is all up in the air. So it's possible for this situation to resolve itself in several different ways, as long as Flint and the bulk of his crew survive. On the other hand, the Max situation has been an anchor on the characters and the narrative long enough that it demands a major resolution, and soon, and Max being set free is the most likely of those.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what makes the slave rebellion especially exciting is that the weak are taking action against the strong. While the Africans in the hold do receive aid from the pirates, they themselves ask for that aid, and they bear the brunt of the risk regardless. But it's also an action that, in both the history and world of the show, is plausibly their best option. It's not merely black characters overthrowing the racist power structure, though that's worth of cheer on its own, it's characters taking huge risks and being rewarded. That concept, I think, drives a lot of the most “crowd-pleasing” television, particularly shows like Breaking Bad or Game Of Thrones at their most dramatic and immediately affecting. Of course Black Sails isn't at the level of those shows overall yet, but the sequence in the Andromache's hold suggests that it understands how those big moments work, which is extremely important for a highly serialized show.

The core problem with Max's storyline, on the other hand, is that Max remains largely uninvolved with it. She remains merely an object for other characters to fight over. Bonny and Eleanor, of course, are far superior to her current possessors in Vane's crew, and the successful outcome of their raid is theoretically crowd-pleasing. But the lack of agency for Max in her own rescue remains an issue. Certainly the way that the plan was carried out didn't require Max to act on its own, but combined with the lack of a major character choice and the lack of surprises, it leaves that side of the story feeling more like “this is a bunch of stuff that happened” as opposed to “this is a cathartic climax.”

It's a good thing for Black Sails that, as it moves toward the climax of its first season, the questions I'm most concerned about asking are about why one half of its episode is more exciting than another half. Even in the era of hyper-serialization, it's far too common for a show to fizzle out in its most important episodes of the season. Black Sails appears to be handling that momentum well, while slowly fixing some of its bigger problems of its first half-season.

Stray observations:

  • The fine line between “pirate” and “privateer” hasn't come up much on the show yet, but Miranda Barlowe's letter indicates that it might. Really, the European powers becoming major players in the show's world would be a fascinating next step.
  • Mr. Gates is a superb troll. “Fine. Billy's come up with our next move.”
  • I like Anne Bonny's lack of rhetorical skill, while still making crucial points. 
  • Should have toasted 'er. If she had a cock, we probly would've.” and “God dammit, Anne. Do I not deserve a say about this?” “You had your say. And I'll have mine.”
  • “I think you felt compelled to let them know that in this place, no one fucks with you and gets away with it.” There's only one rule in Nassau. Don't. Fuck. With Eleanor.
  • “I told 'er given the choice between them and me, you'd choose me.” “That's very fucking touching!”
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