“Black Sails” pulls no punches depicting the brutality of the pirate lifestyle, but its very premise asks the audience to sympathize with “monsters” by posing questions about the nature of villainy.
“When a king brands us pirates, he doesn’t mean to make us adversaries. He doesn’t mean to make us criminals. He means to make us monsters.”1 These words from the pilot episode of the Starz drama Black Sails lay out the central themes that run through all four seasons of the show. Black Sails tells the story of the pirates of Nassau in the early eighteenth century, combining real historical figures with the fictional legends of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, of which the show is a prequel. In a setting where every major character is a hostis humani generis (Latin for “enemy of all humankind,” a legal status historically applied to pirates) living in a culture where lies, betrayal, and murder are prerequisites to survival, it’s impossible to for any of the characters to be truly moral. Black Sails pulls no punches depicting the brutality of the pirate lifestyle—the frequency of gore and death rivals the concurrently-airing Game of Thrones. But Black Sails’ very premise asks the audience to sympathize with these “monsters” by posing questions about the nature of villainy. Who decides who is a villain, and why? How did these people end up becoming the monsters of history? As co-creator Johnathan Steinberg said in an interview with Inverse, “[The story] is also about what piracy understands itself to be, what we understand it as, and how and why those two things are disconnected.”2
Every major character connects to questions about the nature of piracy, but the question of villainy is chiefly explored through the show’s protagonist, Captain James Flint (Toby Stephens), the most feared pirate captain in the Caribbean. Flint embraces violence as much as the next pirate, but whereas most of the denizens of Nassau are content living as thieves on the fringes of society, Flint has loftier goals: He seeks to establish an independent Nassau that can sustain itself and protect itself from the threat of civilization encroaching on their pirate haven. As the series progresses, so do Flint’s goals: His plans evolve from a free island to a full-blown revolution against the British Empire. These goals set Flint apart from typical standards of antiheroism, both compared to the other pirates and to antiheroes from similar shows.
Antiheroes, as a rule, depend on empathy in order to function; audiences relate to a character’s grief, or anger, or love, and are thus willing to watch them commit the terrible acts that arise from those emotions episode after episode. Flint has all those emotions, but they are hidden in the early episodes, hinted at in outbursts of anger which lack context or explanation. Through the first season, we learn about Flint primarily through his ideologies, and come to root for him based on the intellectual and ethical appeal of his stated goals. The plot kicks off with Flint on the trail of a Spanish galleon, the Urca de Lima, carrying a massive treasure. He seeks to plunder the Urca gold, not for personal greed (as most pirate stories would frame it), but to fund Nassau as a pirate republic. He explains his plan in the second episode:
We could build ships to defend our shores and train new men to sail them. We could work the land, grow crops and raise cattle. Then whoever arrives on our shores first, be it England or Spain, will be in for a most unwelcome surprise. A nation of thieves.3
This plan comes to carry deeper significance as we learn about the nature of piracy in this world; Flint’s plan to create a “nation of thieves” wouldn’t sound like a very noble goal if the pirates really were the monsters they are reputed to be. The show gets its audience to side with the pirates’ cause by demonstrating that the true appeal of piracy isn’t getting rich or indulging bloodlust but social and financial equality.
In accordance with historical accounts, Black Sails paints a picture of pirate culture as being much more egalitarian than the rigid hierarchy of England. Pirate crews have democratic votes on major issues, including electing their captains, and every crew member holds a financial stake in the ship’s plunder. Though not immune to the overt racism and sexism of the period, pirate crews can include people of color and women, as seen with the contingent of African pirates on Flint’s ship, or Anne Bonny, a famous historical pirate (played by Clara Paget) who sails with another crew. Piracy is a meritocracy of violence: If you’re cutthroat enough, you can rise through the ranks. It’s a deadly but appealing alternative for those who have been marginalized and mistreated by English civilization. The very concept of “civilization” is the main antagonist of Black Sails, which Flint articulates in the first episode: “When I say there’s a war coming . . . I don’t mean with King George or England. Civilization is coming and it means to exterminate us.”4 By setting up the dichotomy of piracy vs. civilization as a fight between freedom and oppression, the show gives Flint’s defiance of English rule the air of a righteous cause. In this light, Flint looks something like a freedom fighter, and the audience recognizes his violence and ruthlessness as tools against injustice.
Ideas and values establish the ethical framing of Black Sails, but antiheroes still need empathy to be truly effective as characters. Stephens’s nuanced performance does the heavy lifting in evoking empathy for Flint, but there is a disconnect between the pathos and logos of the character during the first season. His emotional core is still hidden from the audience, leaving us questioning our allegiance to him when he goes beyond the given criminality of pirates. In the final episode of season 1, Flint chokes his friend and quartermaster, Mr. Gates (Mark Ryan) to death. Gates threatened to ruin Flint’s chances of capturing the Urca, so the audience understands, strategically, why he had to go. Still, it’s difficult to remain on Flint’s side while watching him slowly murder his best friend, even as he cries, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over Gate’s body.5 Gate’s murder is the most nakedly emotional we have seen Flint at this point in the show, leaving the audience conflicted between sympathy for a broken man and disgust over the cold-blooded murder of a major character.
Combating the uncertainty we feel about Flint at the end of season 1, season 2 introduces flashbacks interwoven through the episodes which provide much-needed context to Flint’s motivations and show the real emotion behind the antihero. These flashbacks guide the audience gradually through the origins of Captain Flint, who was previously known as James McGraw, an officer in the British Royal Navy. They also put a face and name to the pathos that Flint has kept hidden: Lord Thomas Hamilton (Rupert Penry-Jones), a free-thinking aristocrat in London. Flint’s vision for a self-sustaining Nassau was originally Thomas’s idea. Tasked with finding a way to end the pirate scourge in Nassau, Thomas proposed a radical plan to pardon the pirates of their crimes and train them to work as laborers on the island. Episode 5 of season 2 reveals that while working together on this plan, James and Thomas fell in love. When their affair was discovered, Thomas’s father had his son committed to an asylum, where we later learn he died, and spared James the noose (homosexuality was punishable by death at the time) on the condition that he flee London. This was the tragedy that birthed the “Captain Flint” identity. James fled to Nassau and became a pirate under this new name, with his sights set on bringing about the future which Thomas imagined. With his backstory in place, the disparate puzzle pieces of Flint’s psyche at long last fit into place, and his goals take on new levels of emotional resonance for the audience. Not only is he trying to fulfill his lost love’s vision, his vendetta against civilization now carries the weight of personal trauma—a life turned to ruin by England’s homophobia. He is driven by grief, love, and anger, all in conjunction with political ideology.
Flint’s journey throughout Black Sails follows a push-and-pull rhythm that keeps the intellectual and emotional appeal of his character in balance with his fraying morality. The reveal of his backstory gives the audience a new fount of empathy for Flint, who subsequently pushes the boundaries of what we will accept from him, just like he did with the murder of Gates. The latter half of season 2 sees Flint traveling to the colony of Charles Town with Thomas’s widow, Miranda (Louise Barnes), in the hope of convincing the governor to resurrect Thomas’s idea for a universal pardon. While there, Miranda is killed and Flint is framed for an attempt on the governor’s life. Displayed in front of a crowd of civilians in a sham trial and asked if he has anything to say in his defense, an enraged Flint embraces his role as the villain in civilization’s narrative, declaring, “Everyone is a monster to someone. Since you are so convinced that I am yours, I will be it.”6 He then proceeds to blow up all of Charles Town with the help of some other pirates, a symbolic declaration of war which kills countless people, and in doing so challenges the audiences’ new repository of empathy. Later on, Flint expands his rebellion against the Empire by making an alliance with an island of maroons, a society of escaped enslaved people hidden away from civilization. He proposes a partnership to their queen in episode 5 of season 3:
For every man in your camp, there are thousands somewhere in the West Indies living under the same yoke, chained in fields, pressed on ships, sold into indenture. When they see a sitting governor protected by His Majesty’s Navy, deposed by an alliance of pirates and slaves, how many consider joining that fight? . . . Bring down Nassau. Maybe, you bring it all down.7
With this alliance, Flint sets his aims not just on a safe haven for pirates, but freedom for everyone who has been oppressed under the British Empire. The worthiness of such a goal further complicates our opinions on the lengths to which Flint will go to achieve it. The more violent and revenge-driven Flint becomes, the more righteous his cause. It’s debatable which is his truer motivation—the emotional or the ideological, revenge or revolution—but the cleverness of Black Sails is that we are rooting for him either way.
With such a strong argument for his righteousness, it would seem inevitable that Flint become subject to the “bad fan” interpretations that beset so many TV antiheroes. In her writings about the phenomenon she dubbed the “bad fan,” cultural critic Emily Nussbaum discusses the type of viewer who relishes in the badass qualities of antiheroes while ignoring the critical elements of their characters: “There was always a subset of “Sopranos” fans that just wanted better and bloodier whackings—and there’s a subset of “Breaking Bad” fans that will always want Walt to wear that hot black hat.”8There are certainly fans of Black Sails who revel in Flint’s violence and Machiavellian tendencies, but the facets of such an interpretation are more complicated than what Nussbaum observes in other shows. Nussbaum’s “bad fans” are intoxicated by the power fantasy presented by antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White—almost exclusively a straight white male’s power fantasy. Flint subverts this due to his sexuality; in this way he is more comparable to The Wire’s Omar Little, another gay antihero on a morally complex TV show. But unlike Flint, Little is not The Wire’s central character, so Black Sails builds on the precedent by elevating their queer antihero to protagonist status. Beyond the mere fact of his sexuality, Flint also embodies very specifically a gay power fantasy. While Flint possesses all the hypermasculine trappings of the typical straight antihero, his queerness is not incidental to his antiheroic behaviors—on the contrary, all his badass actions are done in the name of the man he loves. Flint’s story is one of queer rage against an oppressive society. His violence, while on paper no less morally reprehensible than any of Tony Soprano’s “whackings,” expresses an escapist fantasy in which one can combat homophobia with armed revolt. Many fans of the show are LGBTQ people who find catharsis and validation in Flint’s unapologetic fury against the civilization that ruined his life and killed his love, and see a rallying cry in his demand for reprisal: “[England] took everything from us. And then they called me a monster . . . This ends when I grant them my forgiveness, not the other way around.”9 The queer catharsis of Flint complicates the notion of the “bad fan.” It’s not to say that marginalized people aren’t capable of being “bad fans,” but the power dynamic of those who relish in Flint’s bloodlust is inverted from the usual straight antihero.
Still, queerness isn’t the only way Black Sails subverts the precedent of antiheroes in TV. As mentioned, every major character on Black Sails constitutes an antihero, and all of them are driven by an ideology like Flint’s that builds on the purely emotional drive of typical antiheroes. Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), a heterosexual rival pirate captain, spends the first half of the show as a dark foil to Flint. Vane is crueler, more volatile, and more overtly villainous than Flint, apparently interested in violence only for personal gain. Despite seeming like evidence for the monstrosity of pirates, Vane reveals his ideology later in the show, and he joins Flint’s rebellion because of his fierce devotion to freedom as an ideal. Vane’s anarchism, rather than just being an excuse for cruelty, is a deep belief born from growing up as a slave. In season 2 episode 8, he writes in a manifesto, “I know too well the pain of the yoke on my shoulders and of the freedom of having cast it off. So I’m resolved, I will be no slave again. And as I am free, I hereby claim the same for Nassau.”10 It’s a belief for which he gives his life at the end of season 3, when he is hanged for piracy under the auspices of Nassau’s new governor and becomes a martyr for the rebellion. Vane’s development and eventual death show that the true, undeniable villain in this story is civilization itself. He goes from an antagonist to Flint, a darker shade of moral gray who makes Flint look nobler by comparison, to an ally who dies for Flint’s cause at civilization’s hand.
Black Sails takes great pains to show that no matter how violent or amoral an individual may seem, civilization and its defenders are the real monsters. The most disturbing act of violence in the whole show does not come from Flint, nor Vane, nor any pirate, but from Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts), the new governor of Nassau and a personification of civilization. In episode 3 of season 4, Rogers executes the pirate Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson) via the torturous historical practice of keelhauling (in brief: the victim is tied to the rigging and dragged underneath a ship through razor-sharp barnacles until they bleed out). The long, unabashed, nauseating sequence of Rogers ordering Blackbeard dragged beneath the ship three times makes Flint’s murder of Gates look merciful by comparison. And this is only the most visceral example of civilization’s evil. We have seen it in numerous guises over the course of the show: the tragedy of James and Thomas, the deaths of Miranda and Vane, and the origin story of every pirate, all of whom came to Nassau through some measure of institutional injustice. Black Sails is rooted in history and the stylized drama of a period show, but this messaging resonates through time to its modern viewers, challenging us to question the stories that civilization tells us and the monsters it tells us to fear. As Flint puts it in the series finale:
They paint the world full of shadows, and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons. Their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true. We can prove that it isn’t true. In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility. There is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it.11
These words are both a thesis statement for the show and an invitation for the viewer. Wherever the shadows are drawn and whatever dragons we might be taught to fear, it is always worth considering: Whose light are we living in, and what possibilities might we discover if we took a step into the darkness?
- “I.” Black Sails, season 1, episode 1, directed by Neil Marshall, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, aired January 25, 2014, on Starz.
- Lauren Sarner, “‘Black Sails’ Creators Talk Series Finale and Flint’s Fate,” Inverse, April 3, 2017.
- “II.” Black Sails, season 1, episode 2, directed by Sam Miller, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, aired February 1, 2014, on Starz.
- “I.” Black Sails, season 1, episode 1.
- “VIII.” Black Sails, season 1, episode 8, directed by T.J. Scott, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine, aired March 15, 2014, on Starz.
- “XVIII,” Black Sails, season 2, episode 10, directed by Steve Boyum, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, aired on March 28, 2014, on Stars.
- “XXIII.” Black Sails, season 3, episode 5, directed by Alik Sakharov, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine, aired February 20, 2016, on Starz.
- Emily Nussbaum, “‘Breaking Bad’ Returns,” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, August 12, 2013.
- “VII,” Black Sails, season 1, episode 7, directed by Marc Munden, written by Michael Angeli, aired March 8, 2014, on Starz.
- “XVI,” Black Sails, season 2, episode 8, Directed by Steve Boyum, story by Marc Berzenski and Maria Melnik, teleplay by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, aired March 14, 2015.
- “XXXVIII,” Black Sails, directed by Jonathan E. Steinberg, written by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine, aired April 2, 2017 on Starz.