[WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for Black Sails Season 4 Episode 1]
It would have been too easy for the minds behind Black Sails to conclude the third season on an unresolved cliffhanger with the final episodes seeing heroes lost, foes vanquished, and the status quo shifting entirely. Instead, they prepared the audience for one last chapter; the endgame that the pirates of Nassau and the British efforts of law and order have been pretending isn’t inevitable. As evident as is may be that the story is drawing to its climax, it’s hard to guess if the Golden Age of Piracy will be closed by Britain… or the pirates themselves.
In “XXIX,” written by series creators Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine and directed by Lukas Ettlin, the pirates enter into Nassau Harbor only to be dealt their most devastating blow yet, with Flint (Toby Stephens) scrambling to organize what’s left of their forces, and Silver (Luke Arnold) presumed drowned. As Jack (Toby Schmitz) struggles with his guilt and sense of duty over the death of Charles Vane, the “friendship” fanning the sparks of civilization in Nassau is rattled – just as Flint discovers how much power Billy (Tom Hopper) believes his mustering of a resistance has granted him. Where two heads once achieved the unthinkable, the new regime is quickly taking the shape of a three-headed monster.
As Close as Two Things Can Get
“And the Lord said unto Rebekah, ‘Two nations are in thy womb, two peoples within you who shall be divided; One shall be stronger than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23
With Steinberg & Levine penning the Season 4 premiere, it’s no surprise to see the story dive (figuratively and literally) into allegory and analogy before the action technically begins. The above passage, spoken by Flint, clearly draws a parallel, likening the twin brothers Esau and Jacob to himself and his quartermaster. The brother born first was Esau (named for his “rough, coarse” hair), followed soon after by his twin brother Jacob, born clutching onto Esau’s heel (thus his name, used to convey a “deceiver,” “one who follows” or “supplants”). The simplest reading: the Biblical twins were born in battle. But given how deftly the writers of Black Sails have wielded Biblical imagery and storytelling in the past, there’s clearly more at play.
The immediate image gives viewers all they need to see the story’s relevance to Flint and Silver: Flint has proven his strength in doing the hard, rough work of beginning the resistance against England, while Silver’s own power came as a result of latching onto Flint (even predicting in the previous finale that he would one day supplant him). Dig deeper, and the image of one child– one nation being born only to pull a new one into being, kicking and screaming, right behind it is an encapsulation of the show’s themes to date.
The pirates would fancy themselves a Jacob, as a colony built in the image of England, divided by an ocean, and determined to found their own nation. Billy would likewise cast himself as Jacob, keen on seeing the once-mighty Flint now “serve the younger.” (While we’re at it, “James” and “Jacob” share the same ‘supplanter’ meaning – a similarity Blackbeard and the late Benjamin Hornigold would likely appreciate.)
Beyond the allusions and symbolic weight welcoming fans back into a story filled with both, the opening ‘drowning’ begins the unraveling of the premiere: Silver sinks to a new level of darkness un-tethered (in some heart-stopping underwater work from Arnold) and Flint, thinking he’s been carrying a burden all his own, is reminded of what it means to be truly alone. How much those feelings will change by the show’s end… is unclear. This is a story of a ‘James’ and a ‘John’ though, so if we’re keeping with our Bible, it’s a tale of brothers: one famous for his anger and martyrdom, and the other living long enough to write the story himself. We’ll let you guess which is which.
Whose Word Will Govern?
The third season saw Billy Bones rise from a sailor to the heights of Flint’s inner circle, making no secret of his dislike for the captain’s extreme tactics, bargaining of human life, secrecy, moral superiority… well, the list goes on for a while. But where his decision to remain behind and incite a resistance in Nassau seemed like a case of self-realization, his resolve to see Flint removed from relevance goes beyond giving Nassau a “new beginning” under Long John Silver. Where Rebekah dressed Jacob in goat skins to have him play the part of his stronger, rougher brother, Billy used his gift of storytelling to turn John Silver into a veritable Pirate King, self-appointed.
Seeing Billy and Flint confront one another may be thrilling for the former’s rise to leadership, but the greater narrative turn is the real sign of the show’s march to conclusion. Where Billy once stood beneath Flint and Silver – as unable to resist their combined will as anyone – he now stands opposite Flint: a shift that threatens to plunge the men and their cause into uncertainty. Madi (Zethu Dlomo) is able to halt Billy’s move past Flint (and the repercussions it would bring), but the real solution is noticeably absent. And when it arrives, it will lock into place the rise to power fans have been waiting to see.
He may have left as one of three men prepared to retake Nassau, but his absence has shown how much more important Long John Silver has become. While Billy now commands an army that likes him, Flint demands an army that fears him – and it’s Silver’s leadership alone that can integrate the two. Let’s just hope he gets back in time.
“I Will Play The Part”
A wise man once said that “the villain makes the story,” and Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) is proving better at playing that part than he may even realize. Gone is the appearance of ‘civilization’ (subtly communicated in the swapping of his signature white cravats with, fittingly, grey), as Rogers now commands unquestionable authority and obedience, letting fanatical, revenge-driven officers mutilate pirates upon capture. And long before he actually dons his new swords and pistols, the former privateer is looking a pirate once more.
It may not be a coincidence that his descent has coincided with urging Eleanor (Hannah New) – his wife – away from his dealings, at least to the eyes of those who now matter. It’s also possible that just as Billy is illustrating Flint’s claim that men new to power often “assume that it has no limits,” Woodes Rogers is demonstrating how effectively darkness can disguise itself as reason or righteousness (when it may simply be impending bankruptcy behind his incivility to allies). In the end, it’s Jack Rackham who may have given all the explanation needed: everyone in Nassau is a villain – and Woodes Rogers isn’t even new here anymore.
Judgement in a Dead Man’s Eyes
The death of Charles Vane plays a surprisingly small role in the season’s opening, having subsided into Jack Rackham’s conscience more than anyone else’s. After taking up the mantle of Charles Vane in the decisive naval victory against the British, it seems the absence of a suicide mission has turned Jack’s guilt and loss into shame. It was bound to happen at some point, with Jack’s edge in cunning and rhetoric being less valuable, or less effective when all-out war begins. Thankfully, Jack has Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) to talk (scold?) him back to his senses.
It’s here where the real payoff comes, as Anne already underwent her identity crisis back in the second season. As harsh as her language may be, she drives the point home as Charles Vane would: Charles is dead, and wondering what would make a dead man happy becomes a lot less important when it means getting shot or stabbed. It’s an interesting new path for Jack to walk, since true acceptance of his ‘best self’ may rest at the end of it. He’ll need to get moving, though, since powerful men ignoring the mission for personal vengeance is apparently breaking out on all sides of the alliance.
Fans may lament that only one season of Sails remains, but the premiere does what so few of its kind do: continues the momentum of the finale while delivering even more plot twists, raising the stakes, and confirming that there’s no desire to keep fans waiting for the end to come into view. With their fleet smashed, their men depleted, their leader missing, and future entirely in doubt, these characters seem set on trajectories guaranteeing their stories won’t extend beyond the age of Nassau’s piracy.
That the episode also contains the series’ most complex, elaborate, and extensive action sequence yet shows the showrunners are eager to make the show’s farewell memorable in every sense of the word. Sound design and cinematography are in top form, and at this point it’s almost unnecessary to say each cast member is competing to steal a scene. But it’s all in service of the character drama that makes it all matter, and more than anything, the premiere reminds us why Black Sails remains one of the best such stories on television.
Black Sails airs next Sunday, February 5th @9pm ET on Starz.