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Black Sails: "IV."

You know, for a show ostensibly about pirates, Black Sails isn't doing a whole lot of pirating. Back when I read Todd's original TV Review of the show when I'd only seen the pilot, I wondered why he focused so much on the idea of “bureaucracy.” Certainly negotiations had been a part of the premise of Black Sails, but it wasn't the entirety of the show. But of course, I'd only seen one episode, and he'd seen four, meaning that this episode indicated the series' direction. And this, this was not an exciting episode.

The various machinations of the plan leading to the treasure galleon continue in “IV.” Vane, Jack, and Bonny deal with the loss of their ship and much of their crew. Meanwhile, Flint, Silver, and Bones maneuver around one another to ensure loyalty. The crux of the episode, however, is Eleanor's plan to deliver the guns she promised to Flint, and the help, then betrayal from her father and Mr. Scott.

This gun delivery plot is an important one for the overall story of hunting the treasure galleon, as well as deepening the characterization of Eleanor, Scott, and Richard. So my problem with “IV.” is not that this is one of its focuses, but that it's considered enough to hang an episode on. Black Sails wants you to think that its overarching plot is interesting enough that it's willing to focus entirely on that over everything else.

There are two big problems with that assumption. First, it's not true, and I think Black Sails implicitly indicates that it knows that it's not true. Otherwise, it wouldn't resort to the bad habit of withholding information in order to maintain a mystery, as it continues to do with Miranda Barlow, or the ominous man that Vane has visions of (could that be Blackbeard?).

But even beyond that, Black Sails consistently uses lack of audience information as a crutch to make uninteresting developments appear interesting by them being a “twist.” Richard Guthrie and Mr. Scott's plan to wrest control of the island back from Eleanor appears to be straightforward enough—Scott changes sides and breaks the deal. But by not telling us about how this will happen until it does, Black Sails makes the assumption that we'll care about the mechanics of the plot itself simply because we didn't know them, not because the plot itself had any interesting aspect to it. The compelling aspect of the story is not that the betrayal happened, nor that it happened so easily, but that Scott felt willing to betray Eleanor. And that was the opposite of a surprise, as the first half the episode spent more time telegraphing it than the series prior had spent making Scott seem loyal to Eleanor in the first place.

Perhaps more important than the series being mistaken about how compelling its individual plot is, is that it's wrong in theory. Almost no show could succeed at telling a single story in the way that Black Sails is trying to, where the premise to “to work toward achieving a goal” is almost the entirety of the story. Unless Black Sails is supremely daring and totally ditches the treasure galleon plot before it even occurs, then every setback and Flint and company have to deal with feels like wheelspinning. He's still going to attack that treasure galleon, almost certainly at the end of the season. Anything else is a distraction.

Other shows often have single-minded goals, but they have other things going on. In a mystery series, like Veronica Mars, the first two seasons had an inciting mystery that lasted for the entire run, yes, but the bulk of its episodes were cases of the week with their own satisfying resolutions. Justified may introduce its seasonal villains and plots early on, but how those two coalesce is up in the air for half the season, if not longer. The Wire's season-long procedural might fit, except The Wire quickly demonstrated that it was less about the case of the year and more about that case fit into the entire structure of Baltimore. Black Sails has not done this at all with Nassau, so I don't really think it's a decent comparison.

Thus I can't help but feel that the relative lack of one-off episodes is a problem for the show being able to maintain momentum. It obviously doesn't need to go full procedural, but an emotionally satisfying resolution to an episode, instead of a cliffhanger, would do wonders for Black Sails. Like, what if every episode had a pirate ship battle? Would that be a bad thing in any way? This isn't Game Of Thrones, where a couple Peter Dinklage or Maisie Williams scenes can make a full episode seem awesome, and more importantly, it shouldn't try to do that. Game Of Thrones was at its worst when it seemed to be a straightforward narrative told from multiple perspectives (its first 3-4 episodes, to be precise). Once again, I don't feel like Black Sails is daring enough to actually really disrupt its story structure.

Part of that is that Black Sails continues to punish its most societally weak characters while letting the strong continue, where Game Of Thrones punished its powerful. In GOT, the four main characters to die in first season were its powerful or potentially powerful patriarchs. Meanwhile, in “IV.”, Black Sails reinforces its punishment of its woman of color by having her punishment and sexual assault continue without giving her any kind of agency. This isn't merely distressing for feminist reasons, but it also indicates Black Sails' unwillingness to take major risks in its the consequences of its storytelling.

Of course, Black Sails could still prove me wrong, and actually twist its story into different directions, and redeem wheel-spinning episodes like tonight's. I'm just betting against it right now.

Stray observations:

  • There's a real excess of expository monologues in this episode, too, starting with the flashback to Morley talking to Billy. What's especially unfortunate is that the mysteries of Miss Barlowe are effectitvely conveyed by off-kilter camerawork, making several of those monologues seem irrelevant.
  • “...yes it matters, Jesus, fix it please!” Still liking Billy.
  • “A place where she matters. A place where you matter. But you and I both know the truth: places like this do not last.” And then there are moments when I feel like Black Sails understands the politically charged setting it's dropped its characters into.

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