Black Sails is a show full of scheming, reversals of fortune, and general skullduggery. Each week, we’ll break down the conniving, betraying, ass-kicking, and unexpected alliances as they emerge. Let’s dive into Season 3 Episode 3, “XXI.”

Who is top dog?

This is John Silver’s episode. Throughout his development from irksome conman to beloved quartermaster, he’s been perpetually confident, with easy smiles and ready quips.

That’s why it’s so powerful to see him angry and downright vulnerable (“Without these men, I’m just an invalid”). When I spoke to Luke Arnold he said, “It’s like I play a different character each season.” In an episode also featuring shark wrestling, the most intense moment is the silence following his confession to Flint about the gold. It’s audacious as hell; Silver just watched him shoot two men for less.

We’ve always known he’s smart, but this is the first hint his ingenuity might eclipse Flint’s. As Silver points out, all his predecessors ended up dead. To dance with Flint, one must beat him at his own game. But even more shocking than the gold confession is his admission about relinquishing his share. In a single scene, Silver nullifies two seasons of scheming. On another show, that might seem inconsistent with his personality: Here, it demonstrates how Black Sails is unparalleled at characterization.

Just your average everyday fishing trip.

Who is the utterly screwed?

I haven’t mentioned Toby Stephens’ performance much only because if I noted every time he impressed, there’d be no time to comment on anything else. It’s a given that he’s one of the best actors on TV, but Flint’s crying scene is exceptional, even for him. We’ve seen Flint rage. We’ve seen him worry while pretending not to. We’ve seen him when he doesn’t like himself much.

But he’s always been indomitable; sure-footed and quick-witted through dire situations. Shipwrecked? Just steal a Spanish warship using nothing but will and the help of an inexperienced fighter. Condemned to hang? Just sit in contained fury until a rescuer shows up, then greet him with “What the fuck are you doing here?” His low-simmering rage has always had a zen quality. Watching him cry alone on the floor, proud posture slumped, is a startling, heartbreaking gut punch of a scene — all the more impactful because it’s incredibly un-Flint.

Pirate-Gangster is the new Buddy-Cop

Luke Arnold as John Silver and Tom Hopper as Billy Bones.

The evolution of Silver and Billy’s relationship has been nearly as satisfying as Silver and Flint’s. Billy’s exasperation with Silver was one of the highlights of Season 1 — it’s hard to say whether that or their friendship is more fun to watch.

For Flint, desperation manifests as breakdowns in private and murder in public. For Silver, it involves recklessly and ingeniously dropping the gold bomb and waiting for the explosion. But when Billy is on the ledge, he remains committed to the crew — giving a pep-talk to a spiraling Silver. The two have had their differences, but once he’s on your side, his loyalty knows no bounds. It’s especially intriguing to ponder how idealistic Billy will end up a bitter alcoholic who fears Silver circa Treasure Island.

The most unexpectedly eloquent

Look how much he's matured -- he remembered to put on pants for this balcony stroll.

Rackham and Anne are always fascinating, but the past few episodes, they haven’t had time to discuss much besides business. Their scene on the walkway was one we didn’t know we’d been missing until we got it. Neither of them are sentimental, which makes it all the more impactful when they open up. Rackham’s feelings about Vane leaving (“I don’t know why, but it bothers me”) and Anne’s brusque yet insightful commentary (“Plenty of men have done shit just to hear Charles Vane call them a proper pirate”) hold infinite layers.

There’s their reversed dynamic: Rackham is usually the one making observations, but she’s sharper than she gets credit for. Then there’s the layer of their complicated relationship with Vane; in many ways, he’s like their older brother. They have a long history, he often annoys them, but part of them will forever seek his validation. It’s understandable.

An occasionally terrifying, oddly endearing older brother.

Then there’s the layer of their unspoken anxiety about the changes on the horizon. It’s a lovely moment; a contemplative calm before the storm. Unfortunately, it emphasizes how much more emotional weight their scenes hold than Anne and Max’s. Luckily, the show realizes that.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

Relationships are more compelling the more we know about the motives of those involved: It’s why Eleanor and Vane’s was richer in Season 2 than Season 1. Max has always been tricky because we know what drives her less than any other character. It’s never been clear whether she loves Anne or cares mildly but cares more about strategic alliances. It’s hard to feel invested in a relationship when one side is a question mark. It’s harder still when the known quantity — Anne — is in another relationship with far more depth. But just when you think the show has a flaw, the writers demonstrate their awareness and sneakily turn it around: Their breakup happens right as we see Max’s first glimmer of authenticity. That glimpse of the woman behind the curtain gives the scene more weight than it’s got any right to have.

Stray nuggets of gold

  • In an episode brimming with beautifully mournful relationship beats, Miranda’s line to Flint about their complex dynamic stands out: “I was mistress to you when you needed love. Wife when you needed understanding. But before all, I was mother.”
  • The last two episodes got in Vane’s head. This one examines him through the eyes of others — from Blackbeard’s paternal pride, to Anne’s comment about the lengths men go for his regard, to Rackham’s melancholia at his departure, to Hornigold’s proclamation that he’s an agent of chaos. Vane is apparently the Joker of Black Sails.
  • It’s official: Eleanor is savvier at handling military men than pirates. Also, Woodes Rogers continues to be annoyingly difficult to dislike.
  • Only on Black Sails do we get meaty emotional moments in the same hour as shark wrestling. This episode epitomizes how the show has its cake and eats it too: It knows that part of you is watching a sophisticated period drama for its eloquent writing, characterization, and world-building — and part of you is watching a pirate show for crazy shit like shark wrestling.