Sunday, June 23, 2024

Anne Bonny is Tragic Backstories Done Right

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This article contain spoilers for all of Black Sails.

It’s only been a little over a month since Black Sails concluded its four season run with an amazing, uplifting, and fulfilling ending, which could have so easily been a grimdark horror show. While there’s no end of the praise I can pile on about the unburied gays or the seamless hand-off to Treasure Island that it included, when I think back on the show as a whole, there is just one element that leaves me a blubbering mess: Anne Bonny.

Look, it confuses me. If you had described every single character on the show and asked me who I was likely to fall in love with: the daughter with a fraught relationship to her father and a deeply ingrained sense of duty (wait, which one?), an empathetically driven sex worker who finds a path to empowerment through her political machinations and intuition, Jack goddamned Rackham, or a stabby pirate that says ‘fuck’ a lot and thinks violence is a perfect answer to most situations, I would not have selected option #4.

I am, of course, being reductive about Anne Bonny’s character. The thing about Black Sails is, with one or two exceptions, the story had a way of allowing the audience to understand and engage with each character’s perspective, and then let us draw our own conclusions about who to root for. Woodes Rodgers certainly went in a mustache twirling direction in the final season, but as far as our pirate and Nassau friends were concerned, we were normally given stakes in every camp. When Eleanor confronted Charles Vane just before his execution, I honestly didn’t know who I wanted to get the better of that conversation. Neither? Both? Both.

Still, the Anne Bonny of the show is simply a very violent and disturbed woman. It’s not like I’ve ever had patience for the Designated Badass or Angry Smol, either. So what the hell is it about her that I’ve found so deeply affecting?

The thing about Anne is, even in Season 1 where she was stalking around wanting to fight everyone and telling Max that her continual abuse and rape at the hands of Vane’s crew was her fault for not…castrating them on the spot (?), it was made clear both through the writing and Clara Paget’s excellent performance that there was more brewing beneath the surface than a nihilistic grit. Even more, though Anne Bonny meets the criteria for the Badass trope (she says like four words and can take cut down an entire crew when she needs to), the show never portrayed this as something Cool™ or to be worshipped, a la Darth Vader’s tone-deaf final scene in Rogue One. Rather, the potential for her to harm so many people and her gut instinct to turn to the violence was something other characters continually flagged as unhealthy, not even counting the one situation where she more or less snapped.

Jack: Jesus Christ, what’s become of my name? They pissed on me.

Anne: Tell me who did this.

Jack: So you can murder them all? What a wonderful idea.

However, one of the fundamental keys to Anne’s character is that moment where she snapped. Where she murdered an innocent sex worker and a relatively innocent member of Flint’s crew (I mean, they are all pirates) in a way that Bo accurately described as “monstrous.” Because despite that, and despite the obvious condemnation of what she had done by just about everyone in-verse, as well as the entire tone of its portrayal, Black Sails pushed deeper to show us the humanity—the fear—that had ultimately driven Anne to that point.

This is hammered home by the next shot we see of her, where there is both a visceral terror for the safety of others in the room because what we know Anne is capable of, and an extreme sense of pity for how utterly broken she appeared. She didn’t run, she didn’t revel in what she had done or coolly flip her sword to Max and say “sorry about the mess.” She sat in a closet, directionless and vulnerable while Max, an overly empathetic character who we saw be the victim of sexualized, gendered abuse and violence, assured her that she was safe.

It was really through Max that this vulnerability continued to be explored, first with her vouching to Idelle that Anne wouldn’t harm anyone else in her brothel:

“She’s not mad. She is adrift. Alone in the most terrifying way. What she will do next, I do not know. But I refuse to proclaim myself to be yet another one of her enemies by acting like I have something to fear from her.”

And ultimately with Max providing her safe haven, comfort, and a job offer, Anne contemplated her lack of understanding about her own fit in the world.

The writers confirmed that the relationship between these two women became something “emotionally impactful in a way we didn’t see coming,” and in a way that they allowed the narrative to follow in the end. What’s interesting is that though it seemed to start off at least somewhat cynically, Max and Jack playing mind games with each other through their respective relationships to Anne, it evolved into a mutual healing arc for both women.

For Anne, this included discovering her sexuality, but painting her feelings for Max as just being a coming out story would be incredibly reductive. Rather, Max was someone she could view as unwaveringly on her side (until she couldn’t), someone who offered no judgement and could understand the pain she was in. It was to her that she could showcase her vulnerability when she thought Jack had left, and explain how her simply following him after he saved her from a bad situation was not the best way about finding her identity. For Max, Anne was always genuine, often disturbingly so, and fiercely loyal, despite her floundering to find a purpose. Sort of…Eleanor’s antithesis in some ways, at least with the straight-forward simplistic view of things and complete refusal to put on airs.

Even though Max and Anne are hardly an example of the world’s healthiest couple, seeing two women understanding and supporting one another in this way, particularly given the setting, was affirming and meaningful. Their relationship was hard-fought, with Max having chosen Nassau over Anne in Season 3, and Anne taking the entire last season to forgive her, not even letting Max help dress her rather disturbing number of wounds. Yet everything was born of their dynamic and the unique empathy they were able to provide one another.

At the same time, Max was not the totality of Anne, nor was her relationship ever prioritized over Anne and Jack. OT3s outside of fanfic—true polyamorous matches with emotional significance for all parties—are basically unheard of in media. That Black Sails not only gave us one, but made the point to work overtime so we’d understand both dynamics and come to view them as complementary rather than competitive? Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve even come across that in fanfic.

It was made clear the way Jack had, at least in her words, “given Anne a life.” How he had the drive and the vision that fulfilled her to follow, while also feeling as though her skillsets and perspective were valued. What even were gender roles with these two? They certainly didn’t care. And it was largely that particular dynamic where the audience could see how mutually affirming and freeing this match was for both parties.

That’s the thing about Anne: she wasn’t defined by her relationships, and we saw her operating separately of both Jack and Max throughout the show’s run plenty. But the she navigated them, and the way she related to the world in a specifically transgressive way, is what made her character so impactful. Yes, she had a tragic backstory, by every textbook definition:

“I was married to a man once. Rotten fuck raised his hands at me, burned me, shared me with his men. I didn’t know any different, didn’t know I could do anything about it. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have thought I had it in me. One day, we were in a tavern. He was hurting me. And a man saw it. And he walked over and he slit his throat. That was Jack. I was 13. I always thought he saved me from something. Always been so fucking grateful. Now I wonder maybe Jack took me from something I was supposed to figure my own way out of.”

And yes, the trauma she experienced and completely unhealthy circumstances in which she developed was a large reason she was such a disturbingly violent character with a very limited ability to express herself. But unlike what we see with a typical Badass, or with those “tortured villain” types who lend themselves to leather-pantsing (Loki springs to mind, but there’s Grant Ward and Kylo Ren too), she was never a character who asked for excuses to be made. There were the two people who were able to touch something deeper in her, and through that, she pushed for more of a place of healing.

Not that her healing was…perfect or anything. She still was a pirate and junk. But she did self-sacrifice, fortunately not to her doom, and ended the series forgiving Max and embracing Jack’s legacy hunt with wry amusement.

The thing is, complicated pasts and fighting prowess actually do make for engaging on-screen character. It’s just that we’ve grown accustomed to them being attached to those who demand pity. Anne never demanded our sympathies, and never carried herself with any entitlement to them. She simply tried to move through the world to the best of her capacity, and solidify the connections she had made along the way. Just a wonderful, murderous, violent cinnamon roll.

Images courtesy of Starz

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