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‘Black Sails’ Season 1 Episode 1 Recap: “I.”

black sails pilot

I’m going to tell you right now: Black Sails is terrific, a show that aims to and actually could potentially fill the void left by Spartacus. The pilot premieres Saturday, but Starz is offering those in the U.S. the chance to watch the pilot for free online. Check it out here and come back to us.

The pilot feels as big as any show on the air, and is as sweeping or as epic as any HBO show, bolstered by Bear McCreary’s booming score and a fantastic title credit sequence. We begin in Nassau, in the Bahamas, in the year 1715. The era is billed as the golden era of piracy…but in reality, pirates are facing the prospect of widespread colonialism and therefore “civilization,” and are about to enter a “war against the world,” putting their cutthroat lifestyle at risk and on the brink.

In the opening battle, their outlook doesn’t seem very hopeless. A Naval ship finds themselves running from pirates, but their position is hopeless, as the pirates are gaining on them, and the deck is full of whispers as to the pirates’ identity: Captain Flint and his men. John Silver (Luke Arnold) flees below deck to weather the storm, as cowardly as the big cook who is also huddled there. The cook’s confident of his survival: everybody needs cooks, even pirates. Pirates don’t need cowards. The cook is also in possession of some mysterious object…and soon, the two are coming to blows. You know the handsome (most everyone is handsome in a Michael Bay production, even what is billed as a grungy, realistic tale of pirates) guy is going to win, and when the pirates arrive, he’s stolen the cook’s identity, offering his services to the Walrus, while also keeping secret his possession of a very important piece of paper.

Captain Flint (an impossibly well-grizzled Toby Stephens of Die Another Day) and company have swept through the ship, blowing up and massacring most of the crew, all to pillage the ship’s contents of oil. Or so the pirates are led to believe. But it becomes abundantly clear that Captain Flint and his first mate/Quartermaster Gates (Mark Ryan, the voice of Bumblebee) are after a far bigger prize, a goal that they’ve kept hidden from their crew.

In the aftermath of the battle, the immense and immensely scarred Singleton (Anthony Bishop) delivers the spiel to the survivors: welcoming them all to join their group, that many of his fellow pirates came from similar origins, and now they can live as free men. It’s clear that Singleton sees himself as a more deserving Captain than Flint, and this is another step in his campaign for captaincy. Flint has been going on a wild goose chase for months after what’s so clearly in the pocket of his new cook Silver, and because of these “lean months,” the crew is hungry for more booty.

Thankfully, when they arrive at land, on New Providence Island, they can at least get a different kind of booty. New Providence Island once was ruled by colonials, but no longer; now the island is governed by the pirates themselves. Silver is the only new crew member for the Walrus (the only one they can afford), and as such, he needs to go through a rite of passage. He’s sent to see Blackbeard, a proposition that would scare any pirate…but in this case, the only Blackbeard comes from under the whore’s britches. Yup. That’s the kind of wonderful set up one can look forward to on Black Sails, apparently. Silver has not only evaded death, lied himself into a job, and found himself in possession of an invaluable item…but pirate hazing apparently involves boozy orgies. I want to be a pirate.

Photo: Starz

From there, we’re introduced to all the various players in this Game of Thrones-on water. Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) appears to be the owner of the local bar, a Madam, and a wealthy one at that. It becomes clear that she’s the daughter of Guthrie, the man financing much of the pirate expeditions, making a boatload of cash by selling stolen goods through proper channels. Gates goes to Miss Guthrie to ask for money to help keep their crew happy in order to stave off mutiny, and to remain under Flint’s control, as it’s clear that Singleton is nearing a call to vote. Because pirates have elections, too!

Silver, meanwhile, learns the downside of group sex: one of them always wants something. A clever, beautiful whore named Max (90210 and The Secret Circle‘s Jessica Parker Kennedy) has taken possession of the mysterious parchment, realizing its importance. She wants in, to help Silver broker a deal, and wants half. Silver finds the suggestion preposterous, but naked and hungover and without the paper in hand, he’s not really in a position to negotiate. And so, the two of them search out buyers, while also figuring out what exactly it is they’re trying to sell.

Meanwhile, Captain Flint and Billy Bones (Merlin‘s Tom Hopper) go to see Eleanor’s pappy, Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael). They seek money, and Flint reveals his plan to win backing: that he’s been tracking the Arca de Lima, the Spanish’s treasure galleon, possessing up to $5 million in riches. So, while Silver doesn’t hold a treasure map, Black Sails isn’t that over the top, he may as well have: he holds the schedule of the ship, which could lead one to the Arca‘s location. Guthrie’s ready to tell Flint to go fuck himself peddle his papers elsewhere, when the Captain of a Navy ship arrives, ready to arrest Guthrie on charges of smuggling and selling illegal goods. Cunning timing.

Where it gets sorta silly, is when it becomes clear that Singleton’s merely a puppet of Captain Charles Vane (Zach McGowan, the Fabio of pirates), a ruthless ruffian who wishes to merge Flint’s crew with his own once Singleton becomes Captain. His slithery spies Anne Bonny (Fast & Furious 6‘s Clare Paget) and Rackham (Toby Schmitz) do the sleuthing, and catch wind of Flint’s bribery, and the changing winds in the upcoming re-election. Vane murders those that have changed their minds…a development that doesn’t make Miss Guthrie happy. We’re unsure why Eleanor would give money to Flint’s cause or give a $#*!, since it’s clear that Vane out-earns Flint these days, but when she arrives and punches Vane in the face (and gets punched right back), we learn that the pair of them used to be lovers. That seems to indicate that Eleanor might be currently sweet on Flint…until Max cleans her up, and then makes love to her. Yup, this is Starz.

The best parts of the episode have yet to come, however. Billy, near mutinous upon learning the depths of Flint’s lies, nearly kills Flint, but instead, they kill the Navy representatives who have arrived to arrest Guthrie. Then they snag an injured Guthrie and bring him aboard for leverage.

From there, in a speech to Billy and then to his men, Captain Flint comes alive, proving Toby Stephens’ commanding screen presence. “Civilization is coming, and it means to exterminate us.” Pirates need to unite under a King, and Flint sees himself as that King. When Singleton calls a vote to become Captain, that’s when Flint reveals his plan to the crew, and paints Singleton as the man who has stolen the schedule from the ship’s log. Instead of a trial (held by Gates, who’s clearly Flint’s man), the two fight to the death in a brutal, awesome, bloody sword fight that reminds one of the glorious arenas of Spartacus. Flint (but of course) wins, barely, and through some masterful manipulating and politicking, has won back over his crew, and set us off on a rollicking adventure.

While one might find all of the various plot-lines and characters as unwieldy, and more than a little needlessly complicated and confusing, I mostly ate it all up, impressed by the near limitless angles and possibilities that this first hour offered. Hopefully, the remainder of Black Sails capitalizes on its promise.

Grade: A-