Black Sails

2018/05/08 writing

I like Black Sails a whole lot. I like its dialogue and ideas quite a bit.

The show is little-known enough, and the places for discussion about it so scarcely frequented, that it's frustrating that every time someone comes here to discuss the ending, a bunch of rabid fanboys come from the woodwork to zealously try to institutionalize their opinion about it.

So, I want to explain my three main points as they pertain to my interpretation of the ending, indending to. Intended as a polemic corrective.

Black Sails aspires pretty hard to be something somewhat literary. There is ample foreshadowing for many plot developments, as well as symmetries, lovingly flowery language, carefully intertwining character arcs, etc. This isn't some cliffhanger schlock-fest, there's premeditation.

Let's also acknowledge that a deliberately ambiguous ending would be no oversight or flaw. Such a device has a rich, well-received history: Was Hamlet mad? Does the top fall in Inception? What happens at the end of The Sopranos? What really happened in the raft in Life of Pi? What happens at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude?

An ambiguous ending of that sort takes talent to craft. At the very least you need a story that achieves satisfying closure in more than one way. People who spend time after experiencing those pieces of media trying to figure out the true ending just miss the point completely, it's tragic like dumping ketchup on a nice steak is tragic. The whole point is that ideas are being conveyed in a way that explicitly overrules the necessity of the plot having to resolve to that conclusion. Black Sails blatantly aspires to this tradition,

A story is true. A story is untrue. As time extends it matters less and less. The stories we want to be believe... Those are the ones that survive, despite upheaval and transition, and progress. Those are the stories that shape history. And then what does it matter if it was true when it was born? It's found truth in its maturity... Because what's it all for if it goes unremembered? It's the art that leaves the mark. But to leave it, it must transcend. It must speak for itself. It must be true.

There's also of course the paradox of the tie-in to Treasure Island. On the one hand, Flint must be alive, because according to the stories in that book, he dies much later! However, if you're doggedly going to commit to the fact that following Treasure Island is paramount, then you also have to contend with the fact that Long John Silver is a complete, thorough, down-to-the-bone piece of shit with not a shred of allegiance to anybody in his body in that story. That he would in fact lie and kill and plot to murder a child, just to get his own way. So you cannot both demand that the book is zealously adhered to in terms of Flint's fate, because that also implies adhering to Long John Silver's character. A good paradox.

Second are the explicit and figurative hints via death imagery.

They literally pack, into a very very short sequence, almost too on-the-nose if you ask me: walking through some big gates, three weaving women, paying the ferryman for passage along a long dark hallway, and some literal heavenly looking fields. Not to mention the whole modern "we didn't put down your dog, we just took it to the farm" he feeds Madi.

As for dialogue, much like many of Long John Silver's other lies in the show, their strength lies in the fact that he isn't, strictly-speaking, lying. He's telling a lie that is sort of the truth. He did reunite Thomas and Flint, no matter whether you decide the story he tells is real, or whether he kills him. Even if he kills him, every single thing he tells Madi remains completely true. "I saw a different side of him", "I unmade him", "They're together now".

In their confrontation, details like the birds flying off (implying a loud sound like a yell or a shot), etc., or the fact that immediately after that scene the next scene opens in Ms. Guthrie's home with her servant putting out a candle, all are blatant imagery about life going out and have been discussed exhaustively. Feel free to quibble about it, but don't pretend it wasn't deliberately placed there to provoke exactly this discussion.

However, it is the last point is most important. Because it's why this all matters a bit.

The real reason why I'm frustrated about the zealousness of those who which to go for the "reunion" ending, is that they keep saying it's a "happy ending", or a "better ending". I find this pretty preposterous.

Maybe if you consume the show primarily as a soap opera, in which the only thing that matters is where the characters you've come to love end up, that would be a happy ending. It's a very narrow, I-only-give-a-shit-about-my-friends attitude, embodied for example by Long John Silver saying over and over variants of how he doesn't give a fuck about anyone other than himself and his loved ones, he just wants peace and rest and happiness for himself. Okay, if you look at it this way that's a happy ending.

However, the show has a strong political component. The speeches given by the characters throughout the show are very obviously heavily inspired by left-wing labor rhetoric through history. From the very first episode onwards, there's explicit talk about wages, profit-sharing, alienation, financial debt being the driver of exploitation, wage slavery. It is everywhere! It's what drew me into the show in the first place, as a left-wing person who is incredibly bored of the banality of the quests in other media adventures ("save civilization from some foreign threat! superhero cops rock! wohoo!").

I would wager that the people behind the show read, or were otherwise inspired by material in the neighborhood of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic , a historical work which discusses precisely how the rise of global capitalism had to overcome pirates and slave revolts, particularly when empires were so weakened by war. Much like in another Starz show, Spartacus, the heroes here were fighting Slavery. Also, Flint's look and character was obviously inspired by Lenin.

So, going back to the plot, the two narratives are deliberately in tension throughout. There's the idea that we do what we do because of passions and personal reasons and pittances, that all we're all just looking for personal fulfillment; but there's also the idea that being wronged by the world leads one to understand how fucked up it is, leads one to develop class-consciousness and become truly able to imagine fighting for something bigger than our own selves. Flint is embroiled throughout the show, in almost perfect equivalence, with accusations that he's "consumed by hate" and "lost himself" (fully substantiated, mind you), but also, people say stuff like this to him,

Great men aren't made great by politics, Lieutenant McGraw. They aren't made great by prudence or propriety. They are, every last one of them, made great by one thing and one thing only... the relentless pursuit of a better world. The great men don't give up that pursuit. They don't know how. And that is what makes them invincible.

And he is invincible. Since, as per Rackham, he cannot be allowed to die, even if he does actually die, for what he means to his people.

When LJS tries to pose an irresolvable question, he explicitly tells LJS that he would in fact sacrifice Thomas for Thomas' cause, much in the exact way that he advises LJS to fight for Madi's cause instead of for his own cause. They are two opposing viewpoints, the show isn't potraying LJS as "correct" and showing Flint he's lying to himself. Flint's very own last lines are all about how what he is doing is so much more important than romance,

All this will be for nothing. We will have been for nothing. Defined by their histories, distorted to fit into their narrative, until all that is left of us are the monsters in the stories they tell their children.

All this to say that I don't understand in which planet the "reunion ending" is a happy ending. That ending reduces a heroic, brave, courageous leader who never wavered from doing what was necessary for the greater good, to a broken selfish lover that was only lashing out the whole time in basically an extended tantrum. "The only reason you were fighting slavery and an oppressive empire that destroyed your life for being gay, is because you were heartbroken. I got you your pacifier back."

This isn't a happy ending, it's a sad, completely anti-revolutionary ending. Thomas and Flint, freedom fighters who wanted to change the world, end up shackled picking cotton, consoling each other in obscurity.

M: You truly believe it is possible? That as disadvantaged and disabled as we are, that anything we do here is going to make the least bit of difference to the men in London?
F: Well, that's the trick, isn't it? If no one remembers a time before there was an England, then no one can imagine a time after it. The empire survives in part because we believe its survival to be inevitable. But it isn't. And they know that. That's why they're so terrified of you and I. If we were able to take Nassau, if we are able to expose the illusion that England is not inevitable, if we are able to incite a revolt that spreads across the New World... then, yeah... I imagine people are gonna notice. "Too much sanity may be madness, and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be."
This is how they survive. You must know this. You're too smart not to know this. 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. And who has been so close to doing it as we are right now?

When Flint speaks of monsters, in his last line, he isn't just referring to pirates, who we now see as evil thieving cannibals or whatever. He's talking about revolutions in general, which docile populations are taught to fear and avoid, whose leaders we're taught to re-imagine as petty and selfish.

Many people online (mostly Americans?) truly seem to think the French revolution was a bad thing, in spite of the obviousness of what Mark Twain points out,

There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.

So, it's not a happy ending at all. A happy ending would be if they wage a war and won and ended slavery and imperial rule and changed the course of history, led by a gay man and a black woman. The "reunion ending", to me, is a sad ending.

So, anyway, completely unnecessary rant given how many more pressing issues there are out there, but I just absolutely needed to get this off my chest.

Devoted Black Sails posters, please stop telling newbies they are wrong and that you own the actual ending. The show blatantly artfully allows for a classic choose-your-own-story finale, and the ending you presume is a "happy ending" is at best controversially so.