1 Apr 2017

Black Sails is the best show you aren't watching!

𝔗onight on US Tv, Starz is showing the final episode of the pirate drama, Black Sails, and its the best TV show you haven't been watching.
Many have dismissed the show as just another historical Blood N' Boobs titillation (not without good reason, right enough), but that is to miss completely what the creators of the show set out to achieve.


Blood.
Boobs.
Set just prior to the events of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island (its working as a prequel), it is a blisteringly realistic look at what life would have been like for the outlaws of the high seas operating right at the cusp of British Imperial expansion. And it pulls no punches debunking the lie that operated throughout that expansion - that British (and Spanish) Imperialism was the guiding hand of 'civilisation', and that they were a positive force for good.

The show is presented unapologetically from the pirates point of view - that their society, with overt prostitution, ale-swilling and on-street duels was a functioning one, where commerce was encouraged through the ports, and everyone was for themselves, but also for each other. But when the English came in to claim territory (with the only claim to the land being that they could outmuscle the inhabitants with bigger weaponry - a trend that has continued to this day, Britain is one of the largest arms-dealers on the planet to tyrants and warlords) they brought slavery, brutality, sexual repression, top-down pyramidic imperialism, inequality and greed. Lots and lots of greed.

The pirates are not portrayed as loveable rogues like in the Johhny Depp movies--one of the main characters is a brutal rapist, and another one declares his presence in a tavern by beheading one of the customers in the middle of the floor. But the English are shown to be their match in that department, and then some. A major pirate was killed in this final season by a method called keelhauling - dragging them from the deck of the ship, underneath the keel where they would be battered against the hull and torn up by barnacles. It was a brutal scene to watch (and brilliantly revealed for me, as I was slowly figuring out what the fuck was happening), and the whole thing was performed in front of imprisoned pirates, in the expectation that they would learn from the experiences of their friend and confess their crimes to the empire.

Of course the crime the empire were interested in was property theft. Not the pesky deaths of sailors on the cargo boats, the property theft. Because in imperialist society, property is the only measure of a man. (Yes, a man; the show plainly shows how women were sidelined on the 'civilised' side and reduced to looking pretty for their man.) The fact that the British stole the raw materials in the first place, and envalued them through the toil of indentured servitude is shown as well. The pirates stole from the pillagers, and the pillagers sought torrential vengeance for it.

The show is packed full of ideas making you question the origin of the societal mores we all take for granted today (the Fathoms Deep podcast discusses this well in its first pod http://commonroomradio.com/2016/05/29/episode-0/) - where did the idea that two men sharing a bed was incalculably evil stem from? Or that property should be designated to one, and only one, possessor? Or that any indulgence in the vices of life should be accompanied by guilt from within, and scorn from without? From the onslaught of 'civilisation', and smuggled to the masses under the cloak of religion. The ambition of scope for a show that is ostensibly Blood n' Boobs is truly staggering.

The cast overall is perfect (there are a few actors who seem a bit out of their depth in the company of the others, but that can be overlooked). Of particular note are the performances of Toby Schmitz and Clara Paget, who play the dandyish Jack Rackham (who invented the skull and crossbones flag), and his bisexual partner Anne Bonny, who was among many feared pirate women during The Golden Age. Their dramatic journey is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time - a very difficult trick to pull off.

And then there's the fun bits! With pirates! The technical film making on display is brilliant, with huge action set pieces, where peril feels very real are commonplace. In season three the pirates attempt to be free one of their brothers from a caravan of horse-drawn military carriages with a daylight ambush, and it is truly one of the best action sequences I have ever seen. And the show doesn't gloss over the mundane day-to-day shit that the pirates would have had to endure like the rest of us - bookkeeping is maintained, spuds are peeled and hulls are swept on the ships that have run aground. 

The show has set up a dramatic finale, and it's genuinely baffling to imagine how they can tie up the various story strands they have built up in one episode, but the stories have been so dense through the series run, I'm confident they can pull it off. So I'll only have one more chance to hear the breathtaking title music by Bear McCreary with the anticipation that I don't know what's to come, and that upsets me.