Back when it premiered in 2014, I settled down excitedly to watch Starz Network’s early-1700s pirate drama Black Sails. I had a notion going in that it was being marketed as Starz’s answer to HBO’s Game of Thrones, and would be trying hard to fold in a comparable amount of sex, depravity, and violence. I wasn’t wrong, but the first episode of Black Sails introduced a lesbian relationship that felt so painfully tailored to the male gaze that I actually lost interest and stopped watching, certain that the rest of the show would be cringeworthy. I only gave the show another shot as of a few months ago, when my partner kept asking if we could watch it together. Had it not been for them, I would have done the same thing over again, because the lesbian scenes were as bad as I had remembered. But we slogged through episode one, and as the show went on, I was surprised to find that things turned around in the best possible way.
Spoilers for the entirety of Black Sails below.
Black Sails is one part historical fiction and one part Treasure Island fanfiction. Robert Louis Stevenson’s characters appear alongside famous historical pirates like Jack Rackham, Edward Teach, and Benjamin Hornigold, setting up the fictional events that take place in the novel against a loosely historical backdrop. Although it gets off to a rocky start, the show is set on an enchantingly dramatic scale, with sea battles and heroic ruffians and all the good nitty-gritty Golden Age of Piracy genre tropes. It’s also packed with very interesting, dynamic characters. Some like Charles Vane get by on sheer toughness, while Jack Rackham makes it on wits alone in spite of being scrawny and a little soft-hearted. There’s a flavor of pirate for every viewer, which is pretty cool. It’s a Treasure Island fanfiction, clearly, that some self-promoting genius managed to get made into a high-budget TV show, and in keeping with the conventions of fanfiction, the main character, Captain Flint, turns out to be a bit of a Tragic Gay™. Not the very most tragic of the gays, technically, but a somewhat tragic gay nonetheless.
Unfortunately the lesbian relationship I mentioned between Max, a prostitute, and Eleanor Guthrie, who is running the settlement of Nassau in her father’s absence, continues to be very poorly presented and seems painfully gratuitous until the couple has a falling out a few episodes in. It’s clear that the writers were trying hard to hit their Game-of-Thrones-level edginess right out of the gate, so they scrambled to wedge some extra naked ladies into the first episode, with no mind for the personal development of the ladies themselves. They also gave Eleanor Guthrie some “edgy” lines that felt very incongruous with how assertive and competent she turned out to be. Her character’s introduction concluded with her remarking to a room full of men that “earners make my pussy wet,” which literally made me grimace the moment I heard it. This is a woman who, at age seventeen, is managing an entire settlement populated almost entirely by criminals, and overseeing legitimate trade on behalf of those criminals. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, she is inexperienced and is forced to navigate complex shifting allegiances, but she’s determined, intelligent, and incredibly prideful. It seems to me that Season 2 or 3 Eleanor Guthrie would grimace at episode one Eleanor Guthrie as well, and I attribute that to some bad writing, not character development. Doubly tone-deaf is the fact that what puts a rift between Max and Eleanor is Max (a woman of color) being raped by a bunch of dudes, and each woman’s perception of how that circumstance came about and who was to blame. Max and Eleanor’s roles each shifted as the show went on and their characters were handled more tactfully after the first season, but it’s real hard to get the taste of the first few episodes out of your mouth.
On the other hand, Captain Flint and his sexuality are actually handled pretty well. From the time he’s introduced, Flint manages to be incredibly sympathetic and charismatic in spite of being objectively a pretty terrible person. He lies to his crew, and when a would-be mutineer calls him out on it, he manipulates a lot of very good, likeable people and kills his challenger to keep his position. He later outright kills his quartermaster – also a very likeable character – and somehow gets away with it. He’s a ruthless, capable, incredibly charismatic, and intelligent man, and at every turn I ask myself why I’m still rooting for him, but I just can’t stop. He’s the absolute worst but I still want him to succeed.
Throughout the end of Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2, the audience learns that Flint was forced to leave England and become a pirate because he was accused of some kind of crime. Flashback scenes prompt the viewer to assume that he was engaged in an affair with “Mrs. Barlow,” the wife of a naval captain who Flint was working with to bring Nassau back under British law. If you’re used to picking up on gay subtext, you’ll probably start to suspect that this isn’t the case, but in Season 2 it’s revealed directly that Flint was actually in love with Captain Thomas Hamilton, and his sympathetic wife, who goes by Miranda Barlow once she flees England for Nassau, was helping to keep the two men’s relationship quiet. Thomas and Flint are ultimately found out by Thomas’s father, and Thomas is sent to an asylum, while for the sake of saving face, Flint and Miranda Barlow are charged with adultery and forced to leave the country.
As a character, Flint is a real game-changer. It’s rare to have a character as interesting as him to begin with, but he’s also a gay main character in a leadership position, saddled with no stereotypes, who has a fully fleshed-out story independent of his sexuality, and whose sexuality is meaningful and significant to his life without being stuck in as a cardboard cut-out where his personality should be. The only downside is that Thomas, Flint’s lover, is referenced only in flashbacks, and as far as Flint knows is either dead or locked up in an asylum. There is a lot of death and tragedy throughout the series; all the straight relationships range from “tire fire” to “dysfunctional at best,” and Flint is driven by grief in a lot of important ways, so I can’t call this out as unfair, but the sad story of gay lovers driven apart by vicious prejudice and made to suffer for years and years is so pervasive in media that I could have done without it. Flint and Thomas are reunited in a brief scene at the very end of the last season, but only after Flint has murdered and lied and pirated his way through the last several years, seeing many of the people closest to him die (sometimes by his own hand) as a direct result of assuming Thomas was gone forever. It’s a lukewarm happy ending to a decidedly unhappy story for Flint.
Being separated from Thomas, accused of adultery, and forced to flee the country could have served equally well as an impetus for the story if Thomas had escaped or been rescued, and he and Flint had fled England together. The end they had been pursuing together through the Royal Navy was to try to bring law and order to Nassau by pardoning all the pirates and giving them resources. Flint kept moving toward that goal even after becoming an outlaw himself, so the entire story of hunting Spanish gold to help Eleanor Guthrie build Nassau into a fully fledged city could have played out with few changes. Except for the fact that Flint wouldn’t be so grief-stricken every waking moment.
Sadly, like too many good fanfics, Black Sails has been cut short without a truly satisfying conclusion. The pacing and quality of writing started to decline during Season 3: the story became split up very choppily between different groups of characters, all of whose motives got muddier as time went on, and the trend continued in Season 4, which I’m sure contributed to the decision to cancel the show earlier this year. Regardless, we now forever have Captain Flint, the terrible, incredible gay pirate who could probably talk anyone into following him off the edge of the world. I hate it when people tell me I have to suffer through a few bad episodes to get to the good stuff (who has time for that?) but in this case I’m going to be that guy and tell you that if you have the willpower to plow through the first two episodes of Black Sails, you’ll enjoy all the pirate shenanigans that follow.