And tonight's Michael Bluth Memorial Award for Excellence In A Character Saying What The Audience Is Thinking goes to Black Sails' Mr. Gates, for his confused “What the hell just happened?” toward the end of its third episode. That confusion is well-deserved, as Black Sails managed to shoot itself in the foot in terms of storytelling and lose whatever goodwill it had earned with a thematic disaster of a rape scene.
Here's the sequence of events. Jack Rackham has manipulated Captain Vane into joining Flint, but they need to “take care” of Max first, who's chained up naked in their ship's hold. Vane apologized for her beaten state, saying that he had to look strong for his crew. Vane then orders Rackham to free Max after dark, over Rackham's objection that apparently they need to kill her because she can ruin their alliance with Flint. Vane retires to his quarters, when Eleanor appears, strips, and jumps him. Jack is leading Max away when Vane's crew members appear and demand to have their way with her before she can get away. They begin to rape her, publicly, and her screams bring Eleanor outside. She beats up the pirates, blames Vane for what's happened, and demands that his crew take the ship and join Flint, leaving Vane behind. Most oblige. Flint and Gates are watching this, and Gates says it: “What the hell just happened?”
Most of what happens across this sequence is baffling in a plot sense, which is important because this leads directly to what makes it so thematically distressing. First, we didn't see the scene where Vane captures and apparently beats Max. Her appearance, huddled in the corner, is the first we've seen of her all episode, and we certainly don't know what happened from her perspective. Second, we don't know why Vane and Jack believe that she's a loose end. It seems fairly clear that he and Flint have been able to work out their differences about the murder of a crew member, so the fact that Vane was Max's potential buyer doesn't seem like a loose end at all.
Third, we don't know why Eleanor went to fuck Vane. We can hazard a guess that his usefulness in forming the alliance with Flint combined with her vulnerability from Max and her father would work, and maybe it would! Except that the impending events make it clear that the only point was to have her in earshot of Max once she was attacked. Fourth, Rackham's need to make a decision when the other crew members demand Max is totally elided. It's clear that he acquiesced to the pirates, but for a character who's increasingly one of the drivers of the plot and perhaps the most charismatic on the show so far to have a choice and not have that choice be shown is an issue. Indeed, Rackham largely disappears—he's not shown deciding whether to join Flint or stay with Vane either.
Fifth, we don't know why Vane doesn't speak up to say that he didn't actually cause the rape, even as Eleanor steals his crew. The only plausible explanation is that he doesn't think he should show that he demonstrated kindness to his crew, but that crew is leaving anyway. Finally, there's no reason why Flint and Gates should have been at that moment to watch. Were they wandering the streets of Nassau, and this was their entertainment? Or were they just there in order to act as audience surrogates after a convoluted scene?
Now, it's not uncommon for a show with a convoluted plot to skip past questions like this. As long as it gives the appearance of making sense, and what it's doing leads to a compelling climax, this can work. A show like The Vampire Diaries does this all the time: character and plot history are conveniently forgotten for just long enough for the current faction alignment to make sense, and then there's a shocking or action-packed climax that makes the plot holes worth it. So when shit like this happens, the point of its confusion is that it makes it possible for the events of the climax to occur. That is to say, Black Sails thought that the violent rape of one of its characters, and her inexplicable response to it, was the peak of its episode.
I don't even know how to deal with how big of a fuckup this is. Let's start with what it does to Max, initially one of the show's more interesting characters. As a queer black woman who worked as a prostitute, she was immediately set up as a person who should have been at the bottom rung of society, but her character was smart and ambitious enough, and society was chaotic enough, that she had a chance and took it. And how does Black Sails react? By punishing her ambitions in the most cliché damn way possible.
Compounding this error is the fact that Max's characterization after the rape is nonsensical. If she distrusts Eleanor, fine, whatever, but throwing herself into Vane's arms was...I don't know what it was. That's the problem. Max is a character whose subjective point of view was deployed, fairly interestingly, at the start of the series. And then it was removed in this episode, for no good reason other than that the plot required it. Having a female character's agency and personality removed for her rape to become a plot point is just lazy, stereotypical fucking writing. It's terrible.
Look, I'm not inherently opposed to the use of rape in storytelling, and the brief visual depiction on Black Sails was shocking in a way that it should be shocking for such a thing to be. But if it's done, it has to be treated with respect. By turning the attack on Max into a plot point over character development, and making it about other people instead of her, Black Sails demonstrated a total lack of both empathy and confidence. Perhaps it can recover, but even if so, it's too big of a risk to take in the third damn episode.
I was already fairly unhappy with this episode before the climactic scenes. Last week's pace and drive was almost entirely missing, replaced by relatively dull negotiations with characters we've never met or barely know. When those negotiations got someplace—the meeting between Vane and Flint particularly—it was entertaining enough, but apart from that, “III.” felt unmoored. Still, “mildly boring setup for later story explosions” is something I can deal with early in a serialized season. “Offensive destruction of a previously intriguing character” can just fuck right off. What the hell just happened, Black Sails?
- I did like the slow introduction of Flint's mysterious benefactor on the island, Miranda Barlow, largely because the actress managed to convey a playful, powerful, charming intelligence that may mask a major menace. The actress is Louise Barnes, a South African without much crossover to stuff we'd have seen here.
- “Well, you all seem rather angry with me...” I know some of you dislike Luke Arnold as John Silver, but his sly deadpan still works for me.
- Marcus Aurelius is not a common reference for shows like this, which rarely reach beyond Shakespeare, the Bible, or maybe Milton. Stoicism in power seemed like it might be an intriguing theme, or at least it did before the show took my belief that it could potentially have an intelligent theme and shat on it.
- “When I said we would need to keep our tempers in check, I failed to clarify that we would need to do so for the duration of the meeting. Entirely my fault.” It does get the farce of meetings, though.