Black Sails, Season 1: Episode 2 – “II.”
Written by Jonathan E. Steinberg & Robert Levine
Directed by Sam Miller
Airs Saturday nights at 9 on Starz
Following last week’s premiere of Black Sails, it was clear that the toughest obstacle the series was going to face in its first season was making such a large group of characters interesting enough that we have stakes in the landlocked portions of episodes. “II.” largely begins to address some of those concerns, and while there is still a lot of work to be done with central figures like John Silver and Charles Vane, the rest of the group members are starting to become much more recognizable as characters and not just people who are on the screen.
“II.” begins by focusing on what is currently the love story in Black Sails – the relationship between Hannah New’s Eleanor Guthrie and Jessica Parker Kennedy’s Max. Starz programs, despite the criticisms they often receive, have often been at the forefront of original programming that depicts non-heterosexual relationships without so much as a second thought. The world of Black Sails is, in this sense, without judgment. It’s great to see this kind of portrayal just because time isn’t spent looking at the how’s and why’s of Eleanor and Max’s connection; instead, we’re dropped into it, accept it immediately on its own terms and confidence, and let their story function just like any other love story. In this case, that love story is just as difficult as the average one, with both characters being pulled in different directions. Eleanor, when faced with Max’s plea to leave with her, can’t fathom abandoning the life she’s spent so long trying to build for herself even when Max is breaking down, hoping that the love they share will be enough to convince Eleanor. New and Kennedy deliver this in brilliant fashion. Eleanor’s inner-conflict is clearly painted across New’s tensing face as she has to turn her back on her lover. And Kennedy is utterly convincing in the aftermath when Max is reduced to a damaged shell of herself.
Accompanying the development of the love story is the chase to find the ledger page that John Silver is still carrying. In a clever bit of self-preservation, Silver destroys the paper after memorizing its contents. The charisma that Luke Arnold gives to Silver makes for a lot of fun, but of all the characters so far, Silver is frustratingly underdeveloped. Vane, too, is too one-dimensional, but he at least can stomp around being the bad guy and doing bad guy things. It feels like we’re meant to be sympathetic towards Silver, however, and that distance needs to be bridged if he’s going to remain one of the main characters. Even the peripheral characters in this episode have clearer motivations, especially Gates and Billy. It might be the benefit of being paired up while Silver is mostly running around alone, but Mark Ryan and Tom Hopper get to do a great bit of mentor-apprentice material. Billy, troubled by how he fed in to Flint’s lie as if it were second nature, gets a pat on the back from Gates, who has been around the block much longer and knows that these kind of tricky situations are all too common in the life of a pirate. So, when seeing scenes like this that draw out so much in so little time positioned alongside Silver’s story, which entirely consists of plot-based logistics and no insight into the man of Silver himself, it leaves something to be desired and to get us to care about whether he succeeds or not.
That’s not to say that every character needs that kind of development. Clearly, some secondary characters are just meant to be secondary. Toby Schmitz, Clara Paget and Hakeem Kae-Kazim all excel in their “small” roles as Jack, Anne and Mr. Scott. Again, little details can go a long way just in terms of making characters distinguishable, and the character designs of all three have wonderful tinges to them. Jack’s sideburns and mustache fit right in with Schmitz’s portrayal of the sly, resourceful man to keep Vane a little more level-headed. Anne Bonny’s hat is always tilted down over Paget’s eyes so that we hardly see her face, giving her a genre-common air of mystery that fits with this kind of character. And Mr. Scott’s hairdo is just spectacular. Kae-Kazim, especially, manages to step out in front of his limited role as Eleanor’s retainer, bringing a stern and obviously caring warmth that grounds Eleanor when she’s at her most stressed and/or lost.
The heart of “II.,” though, belongs to Flint. More than any other character, his driving force is laid out. He is willing to go to dishonest and violent lengths to reach his goal of drifting away from the sea into a life of peace. He recounts one of the lesser-known parts of the story of Odysseus, situating himself alongside the lost-at-sea traveler trying to find his way home. “Home” in this sense is more of an idea than a physical place, but it’s no less important to Flint than it was to Odysseus. For being the captain of the ship, Flint actually doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but when he’s the impetus for change in the world of this series, he becomes much more important overall. Considering how much trouble it takes just to get the piece of paper back, we can only assume that Flint’s concept of his future life is far off yet. But it’s something for him to think about before falling asleep, and it’s something for us to root for on his behalf.
– Sean Colletti