[WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for Black Sails Season 4 Episode 4]
The minds behind Starz's Black Sails are setting a new standard for what a final season should truly be, since the writers intend to get every ounce of story and unexpected conclusion out of these final ten chapters. After the premiere saw the pirate alliance dealt a massive blow, and the following episode brought major characters to all-out conflict, the pirates seemed to get their first taste of victory. Sadly for them, it seems that fighting an un-winnable war may be much easier than sowing the first seeds of significant revolution.
In "XXXII," written by Peter Ocko & Michael Russell Gunn and directed by Marc Jobst, John Silver (Luke Arnold), Flint (Toby Stephens), and Madi (Zethu Dlomo) begin the task of managing the pirate alliance following the capture of Nassau Town, and are forced to deal with a new, internal threat when Billy (Tom Hopper) finally returns after their... heated departure. Elsewhere, Jack (Toby Schmitz) and Anne (Clara Paget) are subjected to their own form of English revenge, as Eleanor (Hannah New) and Max (Jessica Parker Kennedy) concoct a plan to leave Nassau behind them - for good.
Opposing Voices, Both Arguing They Are Right
The opening of the episode begins not with our cast of characters, nor the British forces to whom they are opposed. Instead, a glimpse of slavery in all its naked atrocity takes the spotlight, as the overseers of Nassau's plantations dole out the punishment promised should one revolt to join the pirates. The scene concludes with the fall of Nassau to the pirate alliance revealed, leading one slave - 'Julius' - possibly feeling the first stirs of revolt, himself. The characters, setting, and consequences are new to our story - but propose a new theme the rest of the episode will emphasize: that while this may have seemed an un-winnable war, something is beginning.
The leading trio of Silver, Flint, and Madi are not yet aware of what outcome, if any, word of Nassau's fall has triggered elsewhere on the island. They face their own challenges, as the victory has given way to chaos (they are pirates, after all). No time is wasted in showing the conflicting perceptions among the pirates and their former and current figurehead. Where Flint gives orders to a new Captain's Council, it's Silver's word that rules. Elsewhere, Silver's grand rhetoric is viewed as separate from Flint's more pragmatic style. It's not a problem for the two men, since they long ago realized that their voices work best in unison - and both are more focused on the goal of a free Nassau than the how of getting it - at the moment.
Unfortunately, the episode's near-idyllic braintrust of Silver, Flint, and Madi isn't the entire picture. Silver may have been separated from the two for only a brief amount of time, but can now see what viewers have watched develop beat by beat: Flint has adopted the role once played by Thomas Hamilton, and Madi, the one once occupied by James McGraw. Madi's skepticism, like James's, faded away once Flint's vision and motivations were revealed to be morally just, and his argument of sparking rebellion across the British Empire persuasive.
These three could even do it, if left to their devices... but there's one more piece to the puzzle.
There is sympathy yo be felt for the plight of Billy Bones, tasked with fueling resentment, fanning those sparks into the flames of resistance, and ultimately aiding his allies in re-taking the port of Nassau. Now that his mission has been achieved... what role is there for him to play? The show itself makes it easy to take a side against Billy, having directly ignored Madi and Flint's logic, leading to the harm or death of an unknown number of captive slaves. Not to mention murdering the Underhills. Oh, and potentially turning what slaves ultimately do revolt against the pirates who brought them and their loved ones harm. Billy's attempt to lead a war of action, not resistance led to folly - but his pride may prove to be his undoing.
Where Flint feared being cast as the story's villain so long ago, Billy seems to have cast himself as a hero, but failed to rally his men around himself instead of Long John Silver (a mistake we doubt he would make again). Billy's biggest problem - the one he fails to see when railing against Silver, pleading with him to remember a time when neither of them bought into Flint's crusade - is that, quite simply, he is not willing to die for the cause his allies now pursue. It's what makes the idea of "building a wall" and protecting as many as he can so appealing... and what's also ticking down the seconds to the moment he becomes a greater obstacle than an instrument.
In one way, Billy's greatest fault is the one Madi pointed out in the previous episode: too much sanity has driven him mad. He now stands in a room of his former brothers all refusing to see the world as it is, instead seeing it as as it should or could be - and believes them to be the ones driven mad, having contracted the infection of Flint's conviction. For those still fond of Billy, we can only say that he's not the first war-time leader confounded by victory, and won't be the last.
This, The Truest Form of Love - Love Through Suffering
"Where no hope is left, is left no fear." - John Milton, Paradise Regain'd
The Anne/Jack plot thread of the episode may be taken as little more than a chance to show the brutality of civilization (or that allowed by it), and a chance for Anne Bonny to finally achieve a moment in the narrative that is active, influential, and undeniably hers. To this point, Anne's journey has been one of, if not the most successfully concluded, having left behind the idea that her life was stolen from her, and now fighting with confidence, pride, and in defense of those she loves. And when she and Jack watch as their men are killed one by one, Anne sees the moment calling to her louder and louder with each hammer blow.
Seeing her emerge victorious is satisfying, but being left bloody and beaten so close to the death of Blackbeard is no coincidence. Black Sails loves a good trio, and the proposed, inverted, and layered similarities between Jack and Blackbeard, Jack and Anne, and now Anne and Blackbeard will keep fans busy long after the next episode airs. And the same can be said for the man tasked with enacting the savage vengeance that now drives the "British Empire" at work in Nassau - known only as "Milton" ( a reference unlikely to be missed by English literature fans, particularly given John Milton's argument for the English Commonwealth in the face of monarchy).
Anne gives a literal demonstration of love through suffering, mentioned so long ago in connection to Thomas Hamilton, James McGraw, and Miranda Barlow. And by embracing the truth she denied for so long - that she was willing to be hurt, wounded, or even killed for others - Anne joins most other cast members who unlocked the invincibility of principle, only to meet the wrath of a world built on crushing such free thought soon after. And in "XXXII," she is not alone.
The sudden reveal of Eleanor's pregnancy may not have an outward impact on her decision-making (Nassau seems a lost cause, whether or not she is carrying a child), but she, too, is reacting to the inevitable ending of her own dream for Nassau by returning to the beginning. Well, the beginning of the show, at least. The simple question "Where would we have gone?" is enough to shake the certainty of any viewer confident that Eleanor and Max's wits will see them through the coming battles. Eleanor is nothing if not strong, determined, and always cloaked in confidence - even if it's simply false confidence. To see her finally forced to question if things would not have been better had she simply fled with Max in the name of love shows how bad things have truly gotten. And, true to Max's own character, she has left such questions in the past, where they belong.
One could argue that as Eleanor finally concedes she may have been wrong from the very start, new choices and maneuvers are revealed. It's hard to imagine how Woodes Rogers will react when he learns of her willingness to surrender Nassau to the pirates, but regardless, her acceptance of her life's work being a war against the unstoppable tide is - or, at least, could be progress. Max seems to be faced with a far harsher, but no less eye-opening inevitability. That her instinct to take Eleanor and run may not have been a sign of immaturity or infatuation, but prudence. And, even worse, that the life of civilization she longed for - the one she would watch in all its perfection through her father's window - was never what it seemed to be.
The episode's conclusion is a well-crafted practice in uncertainty and upending expectations of both characters and audience. Will Silver go along with Flint's choice? Will Eleanor hold up her end of the bargain? Is there truly a way to avoid armed conflicts once Woodes returns to Nassau? And most importantly, what will Billy have to say about the deal when he hears of it? We'll all have to wait and see.
Black Sails airs next Sunday, February 26th @9pm ET on Starz.