'Black Sails' Delivers 2 Duels in a Stunning Game Changer of an Episode

Season 3 Episode 6, "XXIV," sees an epic gunslinging western and a battle of wits.

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 6, “XXIV.”

Who is top dog?

“XXIV” is about kings and their sovereignty. Rackham rules a kingdom in his own mind; this second Pirate Republic he envisions. But surprisingly after last episode, chasing it is working out for him.

He’s never been as good a pirate as his compatriots. He’s not a natural fighter like Vane, not as strategic as Flint, and his ego hinders him from meeting Silver’s intelligence. Because he’s not as skilled, he’s never had a sleight-of-hand reveal the way they have, usually accompanied by a monologue while the camera pans out to reveal a clever plan with a flourish (i.e., Silver’s Season 2 gold bait-and-switch). But now, for the first time, Rackham gets his own moment, talking while the camera pans to reveal the fruits of his cleverness — his message to Anne.

Rackham isn’t formidable in appearance or reputation, and though the latter bothers him, he’s finally using it to his advantage. His duplicity works because of his foppish image. If Flint or Vane were in that office with Rogers, they wouldn’t have mildly discussed books.

Who is utterly screwed?

Woodes Rogers is smart, but these last two episodes have displayed his fatal flaw: He comes from a world where women are subservient to men, and he expects women in Nassau to act like women in London. He showed his naïveté last episode with his susceptibility to seduction, whether monetary (from Max) or sexual (from Eleanor). We see it again here when he assumes Anne Bonny will bow in deference to the nice man asking her to relinquish her money. Rogers knows Anne’s reputation, but he’s clearly taking it as seriously as he’s taking the “don’t trust Eleanor” concept.

At the episode’s end, when Rogers stands alone with Eleanor and Max — each of whom, behind her pretty dress, is even more mercenary than Flint — it shows how far he’s in over his head. So long as Rogers underestimates its women, his only grip on Nassau is a cravat it can easily untie.

Pirate-Gangster is the new Buddy-Cop

After a half-season buildup to a Flint and Blackbeard meeting — not to mention the yearlong wait for a post-Charleston Flint and Vane reunion — it’s safe to say the duel sequence was important. It could have been a letdown. If Flint killed Blackbeard, that would be anticlimactic (and a waste of Ray Stevenson). But if Blackbeard killed Flint, that would defeat the purpose of Black Sails being a Treasure Island prequel.

If Blackbeard can’t lose but Flint can’t die, a fight presents the ultimate conundrum. Black Sails navigates it brilliantly by doing what it does best: demonstrating its self-awareness and letting its characters be real, fleshed-out, complicated people.

From the outside, the duel is about Flint and Blackbeard fighting over their Helen of Troy or Lyanna Stark. Vane is the proverbial princess in the tower — he’s got the hair for it. Winning him is as much about their pride as it is about his value. But the duel is really about the future of their way of life: The pirate as a cowboy figure (Blackbeard) versus the pirate as a nation-building guerrilla warrior (Flint). Trust Black Sails to seamlessly weave political ideology into its action scenes.

During the duel, the show simultaneously meets and subverts our expectations. With the Blackbeard death fake-out in Round 1, Black Sails shows its savvy by acknowledging that his defeat would be anticlimactic. By Flint’s defeat in Round 2, it acknowledges that the Blackbeard the show has established can’t plausibly lose. By having Vane swoop in to aid Flint, it acknowledges that Flint can’t die yet. If this makes it sound predictable, it isn’t. Each move has logic when you consider it after the fact, but the scene keeps you on your toes during its course. That’s good fucking writing.

On another show, Vane’s intervention might be a deus ex machina, but like his decision to rescue Flint in Charleston, it works because it’s organic to his character. As delightful as his scenes with Blackbeard are, it’s been odd seeing him answer to someone. Before Flint’s arrival, we see he feels it too, brooding alone even with women and drinks abound: Vane parties when it’s his party. He wants to see himself — and Nassau — as free.

But by having him initially fade into the background — disappointing us with his unassertiveness — and drawing our attention to Flint and Blackbeard’s Deadwood-esque standoff, the episode plays its own sleight of hand. Charles Vane always does the wrong thing when it’s the right thing to do, and whenever we forget that, he reminds us in a spectacular fashion.

The duel triumphs by driving a thrilling action sequence with natural character motives instead of plot convenience. That seems like a simple concept, but so many shows fail to grasp it. In the same vein, Flint could have shot Blackbeard while he was down. That he refrains is consistent with a self-image won’t allow him to fight dirty in front of his men. That it also helps, the plot feels secondary.

The most unexpectedly eloquent

Before Rackham’s duplicity, his meeting with Woodes Rogers is a pleasant surprise. With all due respect to Rogers, a mild-mannered bureaucrat doesn’t exactly stand out against the other colorful characters. But either there’s more to him than Eleanor brings out, or Rackham simply makes everyone more fun with his sheer presence. Their book discussion is nothing short of glorious, and it showcases how Black Sails excels at pairing odd-couple characters.

The most intriguing hostility

Allying Flint and Vane is a masterstroke. We’ve seen them trying to kill each other; we’ve seen them united in battle. But the final scene marks a new direction: We’ve never seen them quietly conspiring.

Though each has gradually taken on more of the other’s qualities — Vane has grown more measured; Flint more hot-headed — they remain too different for this to be anything but precarious. Flint’s conduct is Machiavellian; Vane abides by his particular honor code. This marks the first time we’ve truly seen him back-stab, which clearly doesn’t sit well with him.

Their alliance is a minefield just waiting for a wrong step, which is why it’s so exciting. Black Sails could go anywhere from here. The fact that a show with so much of its ending already known (thanks to Treasure Island and history) manages to be this unpredictable is storytelling of the highest order. TV doesn’t get better than this. Hell, since TV outclasses movies now, movies don’t either.

Stray nuggets of gold:

  • The cravat.
  • On another show, the whore with Blackbeard would have solely existed as Background Tits #3. But even in her short screen time, Black Sails gives her a voice.
  • Rackham’s one-liners have been on fire this season: “Please understand, I’m quite particular about my library.”
  • Unfortunately, too much happened to linger on John Silver and Madi. But so far, their relationship is functional and communicative and endearing. Which means they’re doomed.
  • Max might claim she “is” Nassau — but if anyone is, it’s Idelle.
  • I’m glad I didn’t put a “final verdict” section in these the way I did for my reviews of The Leftovers, because I would sound silly saying, “This is the best episode yet!” every week. But the show would force me to. I’ve said it before, but it can’t be said enough: Black Sails is kicking the rest of TV’s ass.
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