Opinion: Black Sails Crafted One of the Greatest Character Twists in TV History (Heavy spoilers)
Black Sails is a show that sadly continues to be underrated, the show is best summed up as Pirates of the Caribbean for adults. Its full of crafty and clever characters, hidden motivations and ever-changing power dynamics, every character has their own goals that they will continuously go to morally questionable lengths to achieve. Throughout the shows admittedly rocky first season we are introduced to the mysterious Captain Flint played by the excellent Toby Stephens, a man who is in pursuit of a legendary treasure galleon in the hope of making the pirate settlement of Nassau an independent nation.
Throughout the first season there are hints as to Flint’s true motives and his connection to a women known as Mrs Barlow; it is made clear that they are on the run from England after an affair which caused Mrs Barlow’s husband to lose his life. We also are given clues that Flint is particularly hateful of England due to feeling that he will be forced to “apologise”, a statement that is unclear initially.
Throughout the first half of the shows phenomenal second season, we are given flashbacks as to Flint’s past, where it is revealed that he was a well-respected member of the royal navy. His name is revealed to be James McGraw and he is assigned to help the husband of Mrs Barlow, Thomas Hamilton, who hopes to bring order to Nassau. During these flashback scenes we begin to see a friendship forming between Flint and Hamilton, whilst the beginnings of an affair also sprout between Flint and Mrs Barlow. Throughout these scenes we see the temper that we’ve come to know from Flint as well as his skills in a fight that by this point have been well demonstrated.
We also learn that Flint’s plan to make Nassau independent came about due to Hamilton’s desire to pardon the pirates of Nassau in order to save them from England’s noose, an undoubtedly honourable goal that gives Flint’s actions more context. After Hamilton’s plan is rejected by his father and those within government, Flint goes to his commanding officer, who summarily stripped Flint of his title and rank after Hamilton’s father claims some unsavoury activity is going on. The show does a fantastic job of convincing you that the affair between Mrs Barlow and Flint is the cause of this, Afterall Hamilton is part of prestigious family and a scandal like that could be damaging.
However, this is where the show reveals to us its grand plan for Flint that has been hinted at from the start. In a powerful scene between Flint and Mrs Barlow in present day, she pleads with him to stop feeling “ashamed” it is then revealed that Flint and Hamilton were in love, the show then gives us added context to previous scenes showing the connection the two shared. The scenes work perfectly and add layers to Flint’s character and will have rewatchers noticing cleverly placed details that hinted at Flint’s sexuality that to those not in the know would not be picked up on.
As a viewer this scene completely took me by surprise in the best way, I immediately felt tremendous sympathy for Flint, the score by Bear Mccreary is fantastic in the moment and I recall getting a little choked up. Seeing this moment immediately made me reconsider everything I knew about Flint and his actions, the murder of Mr Gates had far more weight to it knowing that Flint felt he couldn't possibly tell him the truth.
Flint’s persecution works perfectly within the themes in the show about people driven to savagery by the tyranny of their society, Flint being viewed as a “monster” by England is made even more impactful when we are told the reason he has been labelled so. Why this twist works so well for me is it adds a layer of sympathy to a character that most viewers may struggle to understand initially he’s a character who we don’t understand where his morals come from, in this one scene we instantly understand him on a much more human level.
I also need to praise Toby Stephens for his phenomenal performance in these scenes, he brings a whole new level of vulnerability that we hadn’t seen up until this point that really sells his heartbreak.
In this one twist Black sails takes Flint from someone who we feel cannot be trusted and is a danger to our characters, to someone who has an honourable goal and has been shaped by the persecution he has faced. This is just another reason Black Sails is one of the most underrated shows of all time.
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