Here we are. The end of 4 seasons of one of the most underappreciated shows in recent years. Black Sails has been a wonderful thrill ride of stolen treasure, epic battles at sea and on land, political intrigue, and intense feels supported by one of the best casts of characters I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, though Black Sails was lucky enough to end on its own terms with a strong final season.
The finale was no different in quality. In fact, it was so good and gave me such wish fulfillment that I’m not sure I can write this with any credibility at all.
Spoilers for all 4 seasons of Black Sails below. I’m not sure why anyone would read this if they don’t know these spoilers already.
When I say wish fulfillment, I mean it. Black Sails gave me just about everything I wanted. The pirates defeat Rogers. He is imprisoned after a humiliating trial. Max gets Nassau. Anne gets her and Jack. Together they continue piracy under an unspoken agreement that it benefit Nassau. Silver and Madi reunite, though their relationship is on thin ice. Flint walks away from his war and reunites with a living Thomas Hamilton.
I don’t think the smile left my face for the last 15-20 minutes of the episode.
There was one more great battle. We got more great scenes with Flint/Silver, Silver/Madi, Anne/Jack, Max/Jack/Grandma Guthrie, Jack/Featherstone, and everyone else you want. A nice montage capped everyone’s immediate fate. Everything executed at the high level you expect. This was a beautiful send-off for Black Sails.
Everything was so perfect for me that I’m wondering just what I’m overlooking. I suppose things sort of sped towards the finish line after Rogers went down. I would have liked to see the process of Flint accepting his fate. We never saw any of the clue-placing leading Silver and company back to Flint’s buried treasure in the future. I also would have liked to see Flint and Thomas talk. As an Anne Bonny fan, I’d have liked another scene with her.
None of these particularly count as complaints, just selfish wishes for more.
Others may look at this and think things were too happily ever after. To that complaint I’d say these characters deserve this peace, especially since we know it is short-lived. It’s not hard to imagine how “Mark” Read’s appearance puts in motion the historical events which lead to Jack’s death and Anne’s imprisonment. Silver will still be a ruthless pirate decades later. Woodes Rogers will return to Nassau. Piracy ultimately loses out. Madi’s war will resume. Flint and Thomas have long years of trauma and separation to reconcile with each other.
After everything we’ve seen these amazing characters go through, they deserve this happy ending, however long or short-lived it lasts. Life is not always darkness and suffering, and sometimes the characters you root for win. In this era gripped by grimdark it was nice to see a show give fans a properly done happy ending.
And ultimately, the show stuck by its characters and themes. Flint’s war was always about revenge against England for Thomas, and he would give it up to reunite with him. Silver saw his selfishness through to the end, as well as his distaste for the pirate life. Madi split from him, at least temporarily, because of that selfishness. Jack maintained the thirst for notoriety which defines him. Rogers’s bloodthirstiness doomed him.
A happy ending is nice, but a happy ending entirely consistent with the paths these characters have been on really stands out.
Not to mention the way Silver’s actions hit reset on the state of the world, which tends to be the state of piracy. Nassau has returned exactly where it was in episode 1, as a British colony unofficially supporting piracy and unofficially run by a powerful matriarch. Pirates have returned to the fringes of the world. Black Sails ultimately ended up as the story of one powerful man’s quest for revenge. Flint’s thirst for vengeance twisted the world out of its natural shape.
As is usually the case, once you remove the powerful figure unraveling the world order, things return back to their intended shape. We know the general direction the world heads from here and Flint was too early and powerless to bring the change he desired. And again, Flint never sought out to bring change. He wanted to hurt England.
I might buy more into a happy ending complaint if things were actually changed or Flint succeeded. Instead we see characters who have failed or will fail later, but at this point in time managed something happy. And that’s enough for them.
This ending plain worked. It was entirely satisfying in a way I didn’t dare hope for. Black Sails had the opportunity to end its incredible story on its own terms, and those terms did not disappoint.
So where does season 4 ultimately rank compared to its predecessors? That falls to opinion, but I expect most would rank this final season behind the incredible second and third seasons. Topping them was always going to be difficult, and I think it fell a bit short. It made a few uncharacteristic mistakes. The pacing was a bit uneven, with some episodes speeding quickly by while others stalled in place. It didn’t quite transition from conflict to conflict with the skill those previous two seasons did.
I also deeply felt the gap left behind with the backseat Flint, Eleanor, and Anne took this season at various points. These characters did so much to drive the plot of previous seasons, and all of them simply spent too much time away this season. I enjoyed Flint as Silver’s cheerleader and second, but seeing him back in a position of power these past two episodes reminded me just how great he is in the role, and why the show felt that bit weaker without him dragging everyone along through sheer force of will.
While I missed Eleanor, and had plenty to say about her death, I will give Black Sails credit for handling it well. I think they did just enough to justify it for me; her death was the catalyst for Rogers’s rash decisions based on hatred afterwards, but he was never portrayed the way I feared he might be after he found Eleanor. He never become the pirate ally or stupid villain I worried he might become.
Her death also seemed important for the reset Black Sails aimed for in this finale. I’m sure the show could have found a way for Eleanor to be involved in this (I can think of a few ways), but the show seemed determined to usher in a new era. Flint gone, Nassau under new management, the war ended, a new era has begun for Nassau, and you can’t have that new era with one of the central figures of the old era around.
Does that mean Eleanor had to die? No, but I can see why she did. Too bad she didn’t die in a better way. I still have trouble excusing Black Sails for that.
It was not the only uncharacteristic misstep the show took this season. Billy’s arc was a prime example of the season’s pressure to link up to Treasure Island. Both his attack on Flint early in the season and his alliance with Rogers felt natural, but rushed. Berringer sucked. Blackbeard’s death still feels too explicit. The show did seem to revel in gore in a way it usually didn’t. Max’s change in motivations from one direction to another, well over the second half of the season, also felt off, though not entirely unreasonable.
In general, the writing was just a tad sloppier than the previously established standard. Which, again, considering how near-perfect seasons 2 and 3 were, is excusable. These negatives matter little when Black Sails does so much right. The fallout between Flint and Silver dominated the season, and Black Sails handled it perfectly through every episode. By the end I found myself desperately wishing the two would find some common ground again, even as I realized they should not.
We began the season with the two at their closest. Their hardships created a bond between the two stronger than anyone else in their lives (even Madi for Silver). No one knew their thoughts and motivations like each other. Over the course of season 4, Black Sails broke that bond bit by bit.
Using Madi as the catalyst for the split seemed obvious, but what made it work so well was the ambiguity of the disagreement and the way the two men still clung to each other as they split. Even at the end no one understood them like each other. Silver being the one who found Thomas and reunited Flint with him was perfect. Having him plan it over so many episodes especially so.
Despite everything they went through, Flint and Silver still cared for each other to the very end. Whatever you have to say about season 4, Black Sails nailed the growing and dying relationship between these two and that led to two amazing episodes to close out this season. Two episodes which rank among the best in the show’s history.
You also have Max’s journey to full power in Nassau, Anne and Jack helping her reach it, Madi being a Dutiful Princess all season, Julius and his army, and a season full of the kind of surprising, consistently logical plot moves which Black Sails does so well. Those considerable strengths made up for almost everything season 4 arguably (or unarguably) did wrong.
Not that I’m surprised. After the rough first season, Black Sails became a model for how to make a character-rich show which hits stunning emotional beats without devolving into the traps which plague so many shows of its ilk.
What do you want? Black Sails likely not only gave it to you, but exceeded expectations.
Want rich main characters with strong development? You’re not going to find many on TV better than James Flint, Eleanor Guthrie, or Long John Silver. Want a surprising plot? Few shows have ever caught me off guard as consistently as Black Sails did. Better yet, those twists always came about because of logical character motivations. I was never left wondering why Anne snapped and began searching for the Urca gold. Flint killing Gates was stunning but left no questions as to why. I never thought it was weird that Vane wanted to help Flint in Charles Town. Billy’s gradual turn from Flint ally to Flint enemy was always understandable.
Want heart-pounding action sequences? By the end of its run Black Sails was delivering battles as consistently excellent as any show on TV, and had the unique element of its sea battles. Side note, I’m sad we didn’t hear Flint shout, “Fire!” one more time. Want beautiful sets? Doesn’t get much more beautiful than blue seas and tropical islands. Want strong women characters? It doesn’t get much stronger than Black Sails’s diverse cast.
How about representation? I have to say, here Black Sails not only delivered but surprised in the best of ways. It goes beyond the number of LGBT+ characters in this world or the bisexual main characters. It goes beyond the fact these characters were allowed to have their romantic preferences without notice or judgment. Neither does it stop at these characters having different experiences with their romances for the audience to relate to.
Think of how Black Sails ended this fourth and last season. Max, a wlw woman of color and survivor, was allowed to have her relationship with the woman she loved. Anne Bonny not only had Max, but the man she loved as well. THE main character, James Flint, was reunited with the man he loved. Not only that, a gay character was BROUGHT BACK FROM THE DEAD (not literally, but you know what I mean…UnBury the gays!) in order to make it happen.
After a 2016 that saw LGBT+ characters killed off left and right, Black Sails literally did the opposite to give a bisexual main character a romance. And he was far from the only one.
Their treatment of these characters was one example of how Black Sails so carefully avoided exploitative storylines and moments with its characters. Other than Max’s storyline in season 1, the show treated everyone and everything with the respect it deserved. Think of how badly the Maroons storyline could have gone. Pirates convincing escaped slaves to fight back against their oppressors? It’s path rife with quicksand and sharp falls which could doom the show.
Instead Black Sails treated the issue with complete respect and care. They became another important faction with their own goals and gave us one of the best characters in the show with Madi. Better yet, the issue was not forgotten at all when the Maroons allied with Flint and Silver. The slave population on Nassau was not only remembered, but given its own storyline with another new character introduced.
Be it the role of women, LGBT+ characters, slavery, tyranny, or piracy itself, Black Sails never failed to give every issue it included a proper examination.
I know we bring up Game of Thrones a lot and sorry for doing so again, but just look at the difference between how these two shows handle things. Gay characters in Game of Thrones are given harmful, stereotypical characteristics and are used for humor and exploitation. Illogical plotlines are used to rape main characters, and said rape is focused on other characters besides the victim. Exploitative situations are created simply for shock value and quickly forgotten. Does anyone even remember Meera was assaulted?
Again, beyond the less than ideal handling of Max in season 1, Miranda’s fridging in season 2, or Eleanor’s death in season 4, did Black Sails ever misstep? I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Just think of how many showrunners would have used Anne’s injuries this season to craft an episode focused solely on Jack’s response to her suffering and eventual death.
I could really go on and on about all the things this show does right. I can imagine some of my fellow writers will have things to say in the future which I simply can’t cover here. Black Sails came out of nowhere and never got the attention it deserved. The reasons for this are complicated; a rough first season driving away critics, the fact it aired on Starz, and the stigma which came with being a Treasure Island prequel all played a role in the lack of attention paid its way. There’s also an immense amount of good TV to watch these days. Seeing it all is simply impossible.
I can only hope Black Sails gets the credit it deserves in the coming years. This is one of the best shows I have ever seen, with one of the best casts I’ve ever seen, and I’m going to miss the hell out of it. Thank you, Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine. Thank you to their crew and to the fantastic actors which brought this story to life.
You made something truly amazing that will stick with me forever. I can only hope future shows look at Black Sails for the incredible example you set.
Images Courtesy of Starz
Editor’s note: it was pointed out that ‘wlw’ is a better descriptor for Max than the original ‘bisexual’. A correction has been made.