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Black Sails Heads into Dangerous and Disappointing Waters

Anyone who has read my reviews knows how much I love Black Sails. After a shaky first season, it followed up with two excellent seasons that easily rank among my favorite seasons of TV ever. So far season 4 has done a mostly good job continuing the quality of those seasons. The gray characters have been excellent and the plot is both tense and surprising. However, there have been questionable moments worth paying attention to, possibly troubling signs to notice, though certainly not enough to detract from the show’s overall terrific quality.

Until now. We might have a problem.

Spoilers for 4×06 “XXXIV”

Basically me right now.

Recap

First things first, the “what happened?” Black Sails opened this week with chains struck off the slaves at the Underhill estate. The woman representing them is reluctant to strike a deal with John Silver for an alliance, but he offers up a captive Billy Bones. He asks in exchange that she bring the other freed slaves on the island into their alliance, and that Billy remains alive. The woman (sorry, I don’t know if anyone ever said her name) agrees.

Billy tries to escape but is quickly subdued.

Flint and Jack Rackham remain where they were last week, talking on the beach. While they watch from a distance, Eleanor wonders why Madi trusts Flint. Mr. Scott didn’t trust Flint, and Eleanor assumed his mistrust would pass to his daughter. Madi counters by saying he trusted no one in Nassau. He let Eleanor believe Madi and her mother were dead despite Eleanor growing up with Madi and Mr. Scott’s family functioning basically as her own.

Eleanor storms down to the beach to take Flint away. Jack throws out threats about killing them, but does nothing.

We shift to Nassau in a state of alarm as the Spanish fleet approaches. Featherstone is told it consists of 12 ships. He tells Idelle to grab the ledgers and whatever money they have so they can escape aboard the Walrus, while the messenger runs to tell Silver about the invasion.

Meanwhile, the council inside the fort argues over what to do about the Spanish. One of the British soldiers tells them the ships gave Woodes Rogers’s signal, telling them to stand down. They argue briefly about its legitimacy but realize it is him. While the others are content to wait in the fort, Max wants to find Eleanor. When no one agrees she storms off.

Aboard one of the ships, Rogers sees the Walrus sail away. He asks the Spanish governor if he will pursue. The governor refuses to split his fleet and lets the Walrus go. He also gives the order to fire freely once their ships reach range. The assault begins as Max hurries away astride a horse.

Oblivious to the destruction of his kingdom, Silver visits a brutalized Billy to express his regrets about what happened. He blames Billy for forcing a choice between himself and Flint. However, he still considers Billy a friend and wants him to help with Nassau. With his reputation, Silver can easily convince the pirates to accept Billy back if he swears not to move against Flint again.

Billy tells him to live with his choice, and Julius’s slave army arrives.

Next we see Max arrive at the meeting point where Jack and his men still wait. She tells him she wants to find Eleanor. Jack unleashes his resentment for her betrayal regarding the treasure exchange from season 3, but Max interrupts to tell him about the Spanish attack. She begins to tell him about Rogers’s involvement but Jack, obviously, was well aware. He warned Flint he would do something of the sort last week, after all.

One of his men spots the Walrus and Jack gives the order to retreat back to the ship. He invites Max along.

Along the way back to Nassau, Eleanor tells Flint she must have picked the right hostage for Madi to be so protective. Flint talks about their former alliance and wonders if they might be allies again someday. Eleanor responds with a withering look. They spot Spanish soldiers and flee. Flint takes charge here, and not for the last time in this episode.

Back at the Underhill estate, Silver tells Julius about the deal with Eleanor and asks the slaves to be his partner in the common cause of freeing the New World. Julius questions the loyalty of the pirates and their ability to maintain a partnership because of what happened with Billy. The messenger Featherstone sent arrives with word of the invasion.

Silver decides to set up defenses at the estate and fight the Spanish, assuming a disorganized retreat would cause more death. He all but orders Julius to retrieve his men to help fight the battle. I guess he assumed Julius had no real choice.

In Nassau, the ugly aftermath of the Spanish assault is underway. He’s asked where the pirates would retreat to and tells about the Underhill estate. His council approaches and he finds out about Eleanor leaving the fort. When he asks the Spanish to order his wife not be harmed, though, he is told any such order is impossible. The soldiers have begun their pillaging and no order is left.

Out at sea, Featherstone tells Jack about his plan to wait for others but suggests they could leave right now. Jack refuses and decides to wait. Max asks to see Anne. She finds Anne resting and admits to betraying her, but does not apologize. She says she did what anyone would have done in her position and Anne would know any apology is another lie. Max never wants to lie to Anne again. Anne angrily tells her to leave ,and we can see the damage still showing from her fight.

We return to Flint and Eleanor, where Flint tells her that Woodes Rogers brought the Spanish to Nassau. Eleanor refuses to believe it. Flint does not push the issue and tells her they need to defend their position. Eleanor undoes his shackles so he can help. A Spanish patrol coincidentally happens to arrive right then and Flint leads a successful defense.

Three Spanish soldiers lagged behind. They run off after seeing the aftermath of the battle. Flint decides to pursue and leaves two men behind to guard the house where Eleanor and Madi are hiding.

Eleanor talks about the “deaths” of Madi and her mother affecting her badly. She says it must have been hard to live away from civilization, and Madi says living away from her father was the hardest part. Eleanor then asks about being able to live away from society, so long as you’re with someone you love. Madi says it is possible.

Foreshadowing alert! Foreshadowing alert! I think, anyway.

Outside the house, one of the Spanish soldiers is shown to be playing dead. During the fight he only received a rifle smack to the face. Remember this, because it’s part of a larger narrative I have some words about.

Meanwhile, Silver learns that a Spanish force heads his way as well. One of the pirates expresses his doubts about winning and Silver tries his best to inspire him. Another of the pirates frees Billy while everyone is preoccupied. He wants him to at least have a chance to flee the Spanish.

The pirates seem to hold the Spanish off, but Silver leaves the defensive wall because he hears something. Spanish cavalry bursts from the fields around them. Somehow, multiple waves charge right at Silver without ever taking a swipe at him. This attack turns the tide and Israel Hands calls a retreat.

The episode returns to Eleanor and Madi. Madi tries to start a fire but crappy flint prevents it (no…literal defective flint). Eleanor hands her another one that works and goes to look out a window, where she notices both of the guards left behind lie dead outside. The soldier faking-dead attacks Eleanor and knocks Madi out. Eleanor puts up a valiant fight but suffers a deep wound in her abdomen. Keep in mind she’s pregnant. She manages to grab a log from the fire and set the Spanish soldier on fire, which sets the entire house on fire as he flails. Eleanor tries to wake Madi as the house burns.

Silver’s pirates also struggle to win a fight from their defensive position. A Spanish rider nearly sets their building on fire but Julius’s army arrives to turn the tide. Silver’s pirates join the fight and manage to drive the Spanish off.

Flint and his soldiers return to find the house collapsing into the flames while Eleanor lies dying outside. She asks if her husband was with the Spanish. Flint lies and tells her he was not. Eleanor says she tried to save Madi but could not, which visibly distresses Flint. Eventually Eleanor dies from her wound.

I have a lot to say. A LOT to say. Not now though. Let’s get through this first.

Flint travels back to Silver with his group of soldiers, where he finds out the extensive losses they suffered during the fight. Silver asks where Madi is. Flint doesn’t answer, which tells him what happened. One of the pirates reports their remaining forces, about 30 men, and says they can still fight. Flint refuses to fight because he doesn’t believe they can win. A visibly distraught Silver agrees with Flint, and the order is given to evacuate to the beach. Even the injured will not be left behind.

Out at sea, Featherstone still argues for fleeing before the Spanish find them. He asks Jack about Max seeing Anne. Jack says he’ll wait another hour before leaving. Featherstone talks to Max and thanks her for standing up to Berringer. He tells her he remembers the good she’s done, reaffirming his support for her.

Max laments that they no longer have anything to show for all their effort and sacrifice. Which is exactly what she feared since last season. A pirate reports movement on shore. Jack and Featherstone ID them as Flint and the pirates. Featherstone mentions how ragged they look, and Jack says time will be needed to realize all they have lost.

We return to Woodes Rogers as he finds Eleanor dead. I would feel more sympathy if this death wasn’t solely due to his actions. Maybe listen to her next time rather than unleash a hostile force outside of your control.

Back on the ship, Max come across the various captains as they finish a meeting. Featherstone tells her the plan is to follow Flint to the Maroon Island. There they will regroup and refit. Max confronts Jack about the plan, saying that people like them have been losing to civilization for thousands of years. Despite everything they did they failed entirely.

Jack blames the failure on Max betraying them. He says the others wanted her dead and he argued against it, but threatens to kill her anyway if she insults him more. Of course Max doesn’t back down. She says killing her would prove they have no idea how to defeat Woodes Rogers, because she knows how. She wants Rogers to pay for everything they’ve lost.

To this end she proposes she and Jack head north to see Eleanor’s grandfather rather than follow Flint.

Meanwhile, Silver sits alone and anguishes over Madi’s death. Flint checks in on him and tells him that Jack has not followed them. He then apologizes for Madi and assures Silver that he did everything he could to protect her. Silver says it was not Flint’s fault. Flint seems to want to say more but leaves Silver alone.

They arrive at the Maroon Island to find many ships and huge numbers of pirates and slaves waiting. Madi’s mother tells Flint that they began to arrive about the time of the request for the treasure, and news of Nassau’s fall brought even more of them to join the fight.

Flint’s promised revolution has begun.

Review

Let me start off on a good note, because this episode did have a lot of likable qualities.

The disorganized defense due to Spain’s perfect timing made for excellent tension. All the important leaders needed to mount any semblance of a defense spent the entire invasion separated. Seeing each of them deal with their circumstances made for great television. War always makes for great interaction and character moments, and Black Sails made damn good use of its characters facing life or death with every decision.

As usual, John Silver stood out among the positives. Seeing his confidence gradually melt away as he desperately tried to keep the fight alive was fantastic. For all his efforts to live up to his pirate king reputation, the pressure managed to suppress that effort over and over. Silver has never been the true general of the pirates. He is the face.

The actual building and control of the pirate army was Billy’s job. Flint was the general. Madi controlled her Maroons. Silver’s job was basically personality control and unification. Here he had to take on all these tasks alone. He had to control the pirates, he had to convince the freed slaves, and he had to lead the pirates into battle.

He did not do a bad job, but it was a job you could not really expect him to succeed at.

Now Flint has, yet again, managed to wrest control away from a usurper. Make no mistake, Madi’s “death” has crushed John Silver. I’ve mentioned before how Madi has driven Silver into this position of responsibility. The rest of that push came from Billy Bones. Now both are gone from his life and he has let power slip from his fingers. Flint slipped right back into familiar authority.

Which, to be clear, I do not think Flint did so eagerly or maliciously. Say what you want about Flint but he has accepted a secondary role to Silver this season. He has offered guidance and strategic support when needed. When someone has to step up and take control, though, Flint comes naturally to the role. It showed with the aura of command he held over the British soldiers, and it showed again with the other captains at the end.

Thing is, what happens when Madi turns up alive?

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’d be stunned if she died in that fire. TV is notorious for the “no body, no death” rule, and this is about as prime an example as you could ask for. Showing Eleanor dead but not Madi highly suggests she is alive. When this becomes known to John Silver, along with the circumstances which led to the attack that killed Eleanor and nearly killed Madi, you can guarantee he will not take it well. Especially if Flint leads them into yet another failed attempt to take and hold Nassau.

Not to dig into the Treasure Island well too many times, but we know Silver and Flint left each other on bad terms before the event of that novel. The subtle decline of Silver and reemergence of Flint was beautifully executed. It should the gushing headline of this episode.

Instead, well…it’s time to talk about the death of Eleanor Guthrie.

Believe me, I’m not upset because a main character died. I fully expect more deaths among the main cast. Black Sails is airing its final season, it features a sizable number of realistic pirates who met gruesome fates, and we have seen some of them meet such fates already. The thing is, unlike in real life, deaths of main characters in a fictional story always serve a purpose. Sometimes that purpose turns out to be Doylist, such as Barristan Selmy dying to make room for Tyrion Lannister in Meereen. Sometimes you have the Watsonian explanation for someone like Ned Stark and the way his guilt over the death of his sister led him to make not the most strategic choices in the world.

As a fan, I can only guess as to the purpose of killing Eleanor Guthrie off here and in this manner, especially mid-season. The thing is, none of the directions for this move that I can think of inspire me with much confidence.

The most obvious direction her death can take is one we hate here at The Fandomentals; to fuel a male character’s development. In this case, obviously, Woodes Rogers. Eleanor’s death ties directly to his actions. He refused his wife’s deal. He went to the Spanish and brought them to the island. This led to a hostile force he cannot control killing his wife. It only stands to reason that we might now see poor Woodes Rogers changed by the death his actions led to.

If Black Sails goes in this direction, it will be straight up junk. As Kylie puts it:

“Who the fuck is Woodes Rogers and why is he cannibalizing the show?”

There are ways a female character can die, leading to a male character’s development, with it still being meaningful and not necessarily a problem in its essence. I may not always like it, but I can understand it in certain cases. Black Sails did something similar with Flint and Miranda in season 2. I may regret the missed opportunities with Miranda Barlow, but she was a minor character who existed to serve the storyline of a main character. That was true when she entered Black Sails and true when she exited, and there’s no denying that she was given space to assert her agency.

The same is not true of Eleanor Guthrie and Woodes Rogers. Eleanor is as close to a main character as Black Sails has. She has been here from the very beginning. Her importance has consumed even other main characters such as Charles Vane and Max. Up to this point, Woodes Rogers has also served her storyline. Everything he does revolved around how it affected her.

Make no mistake, these have been the two driving characters of this show.

To reverse that now will be very hard to justify. And it frankly has an unpleasant implication I didn’t expect from Black Sails—one that plays into sexist storytelling conventions.

Unfortunately, it seems the most likely option for where the show is going with this death. Woodes Rogers defied his wife’s deal. Rogers went to the Spanish. Rogers unleashed them on Nassau. He did all this without a hint of his intentions to his wife or any inclination to sit down and, you know, talk to her.

If there was any confusion about the Rogers-centric intention of this route, the episode constantly reinforced it with every scene of his. After all, he was the one showing hesitance and remorse when the invasion began. Black Sails took the time to show a woman being assaulted by Spanish soldiers. They took the time to have a character explain to Rogers how the soldiers were out of control.

And of course, they showed his tragic discovery of his wife’s body and the subsequent breakdown. Why is this man getting all this attention at the expense of the characters we’ve loved and followed since the show began?

At about this time in the real history of Nassau, Woodes Rogers defeats an attempted Spanish invasion. With Black Sails making him responsible for the Spanish coming to Nassau, the evidence increasingly adds up to killing off Eleanor as motivation for him to turn. Even worse, it could be the motivation for Rogers teaming up with the pirates out of regret, because this terrible incident changed him. Especially if he finds out from someone that she was pregnant.

In short, using the death of a woman main character, one of the biggest main characters on the show, to increase the role and importance of a minor character within her storyline. Needless to say, we’re not impressed around here.

The very questionable series of events which led to Eleanor’s death doesn’t help matters either. Let’s start with the soldier responsible for killing her. For some reason Flint’s forces were content to simply knock this guy out and not bother stabbing him. Why? We literally just had an episode showing pirates stabbing British soldiers on the ground to make sure they were dead. They were in the middle of a fight where everyone was slashing everyone. No one took 2 seconds to stab the guy only knocked unconscious.

Then Flint, who clearly cared about keeping Madi safe at the very least, only left two men to guard her and Eleanor. Two men who could have walked by the aftermath of the fight and checked the bodies, by the way. Why? Did he really need so many soldiers to chase down three runaways? And it just so happens that these two soldiers were somehow so incompetent and lacked such any kind of basic communication that the Spanish soldier was able to sneak up on both.

None of these singular points are particularly egregious. But as we like to say around here, it’s the pattern.

They wanted Eleanor dead, and made use of the idiot ball to make it happen.

Now, maybe Black Sails does better than what I fear. Maybe Max winds up the protagonist benefactor of Eleanor’s death and Woodes Rogers plays the villain. Max’s grief did receive even greater focus than Rogers, both regarding Eleanor’s death and Anne’s near-death. She has also taken a leadership role with Jack’s direction. Maybe this does end up about her instead of Rogers.

While that would be preferable to the Rogers direction since it’s at least a subversion of the “manpain” trope, Black Sails would still have a problem because, frankly, Eleanor’s death was not necessary to take the show in either direction. To again quote Kylie:

“I think Eleanor being alive actually has more punch, because then he’d have to face her. And with Max, she’s seeing everything she built burn. I don’t think she needed Eleanor dead on top of it.”

I won’t say there is no direction to take which does not do better than we expect. It’s just hard to imagine Black Sails taking a direction with Woodes Rogers or anyone else that could not be taken, and possibly even improved, with Eleanor alive. Turning Rogers against the Spanish? Wouldn’t his history and short-sightedness be plenty enough? The Spanish are already likely to screw Rogers over and take control of Nassau from under him. The governor hates him for torturing and killing his brother.

And wouldn’t any potential alliance with the pirates happen much easier with Eleanor?

Want to keep Rogers as a villain? Wouldn’t Eleanor being alive strike home that tragedy and make us feel bad about it, since we’d experience her regrets and sorrow for losing him?

As for Max, there is absolutely nothing she is feeling right now towards anyone or anything that would not be true in a world with a living Eleanor. She already resents Rogers. She has lost everything she wanted for Nassau. Anne lies recovering from near death because of him. He destroyed her dreams. She has every reason already to hate Woodes Rogers’s guts and want to destroy him.

Wouldn’t Max’s efforts have even more power if his wife stands beside her?

I really thought I’d be typing something like this out because of Anne Bonny. Two weeks ago it looked like we might see her die over the course of an episode. I worried her death would be used to fuel Jack’s character. I never imagined we might see something worse. And this is no doubt worse. At least Anne and Jack are on equal territory as characters. However, much I may not like one dying just for a rush of drama and development for the other, I could get over it if done well.

That’s not the case with Eleanor and Woodes Rogers. Eleanor was at least two levels above him on the list of important characters. And she might be dead to give that relatively minor character development.

And you know what? I’m still worried we’ll see Anne die in some illogical way just to give Jack character development. In fact, I will surpass worry and move right into expectation if Black Sails turns Eleanor Guthrie’s death into character fuel for Woodes Rogers next week.

I hate that I just wrote so much skepticism about a show I love so much. Seasons 2 and 3 did such a terrific job writing its women the right way. Season 4 has been excellent, if at times toeing a dangerous line. Even this episode was mostly excellent. It was tense and exciting and contained developments I liked.

Unfortunately, recent episodes keep throwing in these single moments that worry me all the good things Black Sails has done will lose out in the end to harmful tropes. Blackbeard’s death pushed the limits, Anne Bonny’s fight with the British brute continued an [arguably] excessively violent tone, and now we might have the main female character killed off to develop a minor male character.

Steer clear, Black Sails. You’re too close to safe harbor and status as one of the best shows ever to steer into dangerous waters now.


Images Courtesy of Starz

Bo
Written By

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and feels slightly guilty over his love for Villanelle.

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