Just like a spicy glass of wine or pecan praline ice-cream, I couldn’t resist a comparison of Black Sails and Crossbones. Regardless of what I think of either show, it’s super exciting to have two pirate shows on tv that are attempting a more serious, grounded take than say, Pirates of the Caribbean (which is still enjoyable if only to see Depp and Rush as Sparrow and Barbosa). Another show called Port Royal was supposed to go into production, but maybe they dropped it. (I think it was HBO) So tons of credit upfront to the creators and producers for giving us these shows!
First, I offer kudos to both shows for featuring strong female characters. We have Eleanor Guthrie, Max, and Anne Bonny from Black Sails; and Kate, Nenna, and Selima on Crossbones. These women are working hard to survive and carve out some semblance of independence and strength in a world where women were treated like chattel. And at least, Black Sails doesn’t try to make these women necessarily heroic or independent of the male-dominated social structure. They have to survive within that society, including sleeping with men to get what they want. I don’t believe for a second Blackbeard on Crossbones would be keeping Selima around with her refusing to sleep with him. For someone like Blackbeard, she has nothing to offer that he doesn’t already think he can do for himself. So maybe there’s something else going on between those two the show hasn’t yet revealed.
Now the sheer nature of the pirate havens like New Providence and their looser hierarchies probably provided a smidgen more social space for women to be independent. Eleanor Guthrie is an interesting character, having taken over her father’s merchant trade and using that to gain power and influence. But she pissed off Charles Vane and I’m excited to see that play out next season. Max is a prostitute yet she climbed out of becoming a literal slave to the pirates to a powerful force, running the brothel with Jack Rackham.
The historical, Anne Bonny, and her female pirate counterpart, Mary Read, were truly fascinating figures.
Historical records show Bonny left a fairly prosperous life to marry a penniless sailor. When her father disinherited her, she and her husband moved to the Bahamas. When Bonny became upset with her husband’s job of turning in suspected pirates, she shacked up with Calico Jack Rackham. (Her story is truly worthy of a novel.) When she was captured along with Jack Rackham and Mary Read and sentenced to hang, (Bonny was only twenty years old!) both claimed they were pregnant (found to be true) and were not hanged. No one knows to this day what happened to Bonny and for all we know, her descendants could be alive and well.
Both shows mix characters based on real life figures and fictional ones. At first, I was skeptical of the premise for Black Sails, a sort of Treasure Island prequel, set during the time when pirates ruled New Providence. But they are doing a great job of melding the fictional and nonfictional worlds. Flint is a dynamic character who electrifies his scenes no small thanks to Toby Stephens, who completely kills it without over-doing it (unlike Malkovich with Blackbeard). I LOVE watching Flint sneer. (Eleanor appears to love the sneer as well, which really got Flint’s smolder going, leading to an almost kiss DAMN.)
But initially I was way more interested in the portrayal of the historical pirates: Charles Vane, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, and Benjamin Hornigold. Damn their eyes for not including Black Sam Bellamy :), but belay that because they did include Charles Vane. Vane was a hard-core, sometime brutal pirate, so I wasn’t sure if I’d like him on the show, but hot damn, he’s my favorite right now, especially shirtless. So ultimately, Black Sails succeeded in weaving the Treasure Island story and characters with the pirates of New Providence in ways that both captivate and preserve the impact of these colorful figures.
Crossbones features Blackbeard as the central figure with a great actor portraying him in John Malkovich. But my concern, as with all things John Malkovich, was whether Blackbeard came across as Blackbeard or as John Malkovich playing a pirate. Sadly the latter seems to be more the case. I don’t care whether he has a black beard. Nor do I care when a movie or show has their own take on a story or character, as long as they stay true to the core of the character. If you’re going to do a movie about Batman, what you show on screen better be something that resembles the dark, brooding, somewhat psychotic crime fighter. Otherwise, call him something else. Just like Disney did with Captain Jack Sparrow. I can embrace Sparrow because he’s their and Depp’s own creation. If they would have instead called him Charles Vane or Jack Rackham, I would have hated it.
Crossbones takes place in 1729 for crying out loud. Blackbeard was killed by Lt. Robert Maynard in 1718. And yes, the show starts out saying the accounts of Blackbeard’s death were wrong. He’s very much alive! Well, in real life, Maynard strung Blackbeard’s head off the bowsprit of his ship for all to see so not sure how you play that one out Crossbones. Sigh.
I’ve been researching quite a bit about Blackbeard for my second pirate book, just before he was ambushed and killed in North Carolina. Blackbeard never set up a little fiefdom on an island or dabbled in mystical bs. He was very practical and tactical. He friggin blockcaded the Charleston harbor for two weeks! He spent some time on New Providence, but for the most part, he sailed the seas, raiding the Caribbean and up and down the U.S. coastline. And while Blackbeard is touted as a feared pirate, and he was smart in promoting that image, records show that he (and Sam Bellamy) never killed one of their captives.
I am actually enjoying more the story surrounding Kate and her crippled Jacobite husband, James Balfour, and the possible love triangle with Lowe. I’m finding James’s backstory interesting, his participation in the failed Jacobite uprising and subsequent torture, and the tragic situation his injuries created with Kate. I want to see how all that plays out more than seeing Malkovich chew scenery as the supposed Blackbeard.
Both shows do setting and scenery well. Whether on islands or on ships, both have given us some fantastic broadsides, beautiful ships, and lovely, sparkling tropical waters. I’ll watch the shows just for that. It’s nice to have those visuals to inspire the writing especially the activity on board the ships. I loved the scene in Black Sails where they beached Flint’s ship for a careen. It’s such details that bring that seafaring era to life.
And ultimately that’s what I’d like these shows to do and I believe Black Sails is doing a better job. I can’t wait for season two and depending on how long the show lasts, I’m very curious to see if they will bring in Woodes Rogers, the British officer who basically brought New Providence to its knees and became its governor, but not without a fight, from Charles Vane, of course. I hope they do pursue that thread because it will bring some very good conflict and show the eventual demise of the Golden Age of Piracy. Also, Hornigold sided with Rogers and helped him route out the pirates who did not take the pardon. So when’s season two?