Game of Thrones has triggered a flood of shows with immersive worlds, byzantine plotting, and a mixture of flowery dialogue, sex, and swords. The many followers trailing in its wake have ranged from terrible (The Bastard Executioner) to decent (Vikings) to excellent (Black Sails). But as good as some imitators can be, nobody’s quite caught up with Game of Thrones — until now.
It’s taken time because there’s no doubt Game of Thrones had the superior first season: It grabs you by the throat right from its pilot, when Jaime Lannister shoves Bran Stark out that window. Black Sails takes longer to hook you. But its slower takeoff gave it stamina to build into subsequent seasons that reach new heights with each episode. By this point in their respective runs — Black Sails’ third season; Game of Thrones’ impending sixth — it’s time to come to terms with a truth: Black Sails has vaulted to Game of Thrones’ level and soared past it.
Both exemplify television at its best, even in this age of great TV. In spite of its flaws, Game of Thrones remains spectacularly engrossing, and I don’t even agree with the general consensus that Season 5 was bad. But Black Sails leaves it in the dust in several key areas.
Let’s talk about blood
Westeros and the Pirate Republic of Nassau are dog-eat-dog worlds. Fights are part of daily life on both shows. When you think of the best in Game of Thrones, the Hound versus Brienne is a standout. There’s no glamorous posing or slick antics; it’s visceral and dirty. It feels true to life, even in the backdrop of a world so different from our own.
Every Black Sails fight is this adrenaline-fueled and gritty. But they’re exactly as brutal as they need to be; no more and no less.
Nobody can say that of the other main epic Game of Thrones fight; Oberyn versus the Mountain. With Oberyn’s gruesome head-explosion, the show goes so far beyond the realm of necessary gore, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Oberyn’s death plays a role in the story; his eyeballs and brains blorping out in a blood-geyser does not.
The same applies to Theon’s prolonged ordeal with Ramsey. Game of Thrones thrusts sadism upon viewers and characters alike; Black Sails handles its bloody beats with economy. When Captain Flint kills Peter Ashe in Season 2 of Black Sails, neither character nor show feels the need to dick around with torture. He runs him through with a sword and moves on. When Charles Vane crucifies Mr. Guthrie, we don’t see the deed itself. Only the aftermath is relevant.
There’s a difference between provocative scenes and wallowing in nihilism. Game of Thrones crosses that line with some regularity; Black Sails knows when to stop.
Let’s talk about whores
Prostitutes play a key role in both worlds. In Black Sails, the men are often at sea and rarely marry –– so whores it is. In Game of Thrones, marriages are often political, so to the brothel they go. Game of Thrones gave rise to the term sexposition by setting expository monologues to the backdrop of gyrating naked women, because otherwise why would viewers pay attention? While the HBO show has improved since the days of Littlefinger’s brothel musings, whores still exist primarily as window dressing. When they’re dangerously close to showing personalities, they’re killed off.
In the same vein, Game of Thrones’ male to female nudity ratio remains so skewed — sex scenes display women’s bodies, men are improbably clothed — that it’s even prompted comments from the cast. The frustration isn’t about naked people; it’s about who is exposed, and what that might imply about a show’s attitude about its presumed audience. If male actors are saying “the lack of naked dudes is bullshit,” you know the situation is rough.
On the other hand, Black Sails has an even male to female nudity ratio from the start, and gives its prostitutes three-dimensional roles, with personalities beyond sex. One of its scene-stealing secondary characters is a whore, and we don’t even see her practicing her craft, unless the scene is relevant to the plot.
Others are even engage in non-sexual activities like art (i.e., designing a flag for Jack in Season 2). Black Sails even lets whores with minor roles have voices. In the sixth episode of Season 3, we’re introduced to one who would have been Background Tits #2 if she was on Game of Thrones. In a mere two minutes of screen time on Black Sails, she voices her opinion about her place in society. Black Sails demonstrates that it’s possible to depict a world that devalues women without constructing the show itself that way too.
Let’s talk about cringeworthy lines
Though both shows have elegant writing that’s just as deft at two-man-play dialogue scenes as action, they’re not flawless. Both have delivered one clunker apiece that makes you wonder if the writers interact with human women. But there’s a key difference: Black Sails’ happens in its pilot, when Eleanor tells a roomful of male business associates that profit “makes her pussy wet.” While it’s an ear-bleeder — not for its crudeness, but for its credulity — every show is afforded a few freshman missteps, and the writing has improved immensely since. Game of Thrones is further away from freshman year, so one would hope it’s matured, or talked to girls by now. But the infamous line happens not in its first season, but its fifth. You know what it is.
You want a good girl, but you need the bad pussy? It’s not that Game of Thrones doesn’t deserve acclaim. But there is no earthly reason why a show that still makes freshman moves like this is nominated for every award, while a show that’s matured far beyond it isn’t.
Let’s talk about movement
Jon Snow and Daenerys are the Game of Thrones characters whose arcs are most removed from the main narrative. We’ve been waiting to see how these strands will connect for five seasons now. Forty-eight episodes and five years later, we’re still waiting to find out about Jon Snow’s mother.
Black Sails has a similar slow-burn approach, but with more economy. Similarly, for much of Black Sails first season, we wonder why Charles Vane is important enough to warrant such screen time, if all he does is brood and go on a solitary lumberjack adventure. He’s supposedly a notorious pirate captain, yet we barely see him on a ship. But the show doesn’t make us wait for his relevance: By the end of Season 1, he circles back to the main narrative, and by Seasons 2 and 3, he’s so crucial, that he drives much of the plot.
His arc is like if Daenerys actually rode her dragons into Westeros by the end of Season 2. There’s a difference between marinating your story threads and taking five-plus seasons to reach the point.
Let’s talk about complexity
Game of Thrones is filled with characters we love to hate, but Black Sails is filled with characters we hate to love. There are no black-and-white villains. Everyone does the best they can under their circumstances, often betraying allies and murdering those who don’t deserve it and grappling with those decisions along the way. The show trusts the viewer to see the shades of grey and decide for ourselves who to root for, if anyone.
This isn’t to say Game of Thrones doesn’t do this — look at Jaime Lannister or even Arya for intriguingly fucked-up ambiguity — but it also indulges in pat depictions of evil in the form of Joffrey, Ramsey, and Walder Frey.
Game of Thrones is still one of the top three shows on TV — and the fact that we can still say that even after that jejune “bad pussy” line is powerful indeed. But it’s been hogging all the chatter while Black Sails remains under the radar. It’s time to even the score, because Black Sails is on its level and just keeps climbing. We’re no less excited to find out Jon Snow’s fate — but it’s also time to give the pirates of Nassau what they’re owed.