It made sense for the Emmys and Golden Globes to ignore Black Sails in the Acting and Best Drama categories for the first season; it takes time to acclimate the viewer to the series’ world and characters. And while Toby Stephens as Captain Flint has always been a force of nature, the side characters did — at first glance — come across as types and ciphers. Silver and Rackham were variations on The Sly Trickster, Anne and Eleanor two sides of the Tough Woman coin, Max was the Whore With A Heart of Gold, Charles Vane was the (pirate) Bad Boy.
Of course, as the show went on, it became clear all these characters had far more depth. By the third episode of Season 2, it couldn’t be denied that Vane had more intelligence and honor than he initially appeared to, we saw that Anne was more nuanced than a cookie-cutter Strong Female Character, and we were beginning to see where Rackham and Silver’s ideals were leading them. By Season 2 there was no doubt: This is not a show with shallow characterization.
Then came the fifth episode, which revealed Flint’s past. Not only did it affirm that Black Sails is quietly one of the most thoughtful shows on television in how it navigates sexuality, it was also payoff that had been building for over a season — proving just how strong the show’s writing is. In just one short scene, Flint suddenly had motives that made sense for the story while also giving us a much-needed insight into his character.
That made it clear once and for all that the writers were playing the long game. This was no Game of Thrones knockoff, but a unique brand of storytelling, all its own. The season received Emmy nods for visual effects, sound editing, and that opening title, but the Acting and Best Drama categories remained unrecognized.
As a season of television, Season 2’s plotting is unparalleled. The first two episodes were an expertly rendered mini-adventure that balanced action with character work as Flint and Silver stole a warship and reluctantly bonded while simultaneously manipulating the crew. The rest of the season tricked us into thinking the main conflict would be between Flint and Vane. That alone made for a rich ideological center, as there was merit to both takes on the pirate lifestyle (Flint as a nation-builder, Vane as a freedom fighter).
But instead of ending in an epic fight between the two men, in a brilliant stroke of storytelling, the show yanked that rug out from under us and ended with them as unlikely allies. The way it happened might have felt forced, but thanks to meticulous plotting, acting, and characterization it felt inevitable, even as it surprised us. In other words, it was award worthy drama.
Still the Emmys and Golden Globes did not give due recognition. But awards take time to catch up — after all, Game of Thrones finally won a Best Drama Emmy for it fifth and weakest season. It was understood that the award was really for its stronger seasons. Surely, then, the following year awards would pull their heads out of their asses and notice Black Sails — the smartest and most expertly crafted of today’s epic shows.
It might have made sense for it to continue to go unrecognized this year if Season 3’s quality dipped, leaving Season 2 as a lucky fluke, but it was quite the opposite. Not only did the writing and Stephens’s acting continue to be a cut above most other shows, but Season 3 also delivered contenders for the Best Supporting Actor category that could no longer be overlooked.
Previously, Stephens as Flint was the only performance we could realistically call “ignored” — because although Zach McGowan was a revelation as Charles Vane, putting on a voice unfortunately isn’t the style of performance that awards traditionally acknowledge; Toby Schmitz and Clara Paget didn’t have tremendous amounts of screen time, and while Luke Arnold did a great job giving Silver dimension as he evolved, he wasn’t otherwise given the opportunity for earth-shattering range. All these performances deserved recognition, but it was also not mind-bogglingly illogical that it didn’t happen.
But as Jack Rachkam once said, to be underestimated is an incredible gift. By the end of Season 3, Arnold and Schmitz both delivered classic performances of incredible range — the kind that give you those “good acting” chills, particularly in episode 7 for Silver and episode 8 for Rackham. Both were a cut above most of this year’s “Best Supporting Actor” crop, while Stephens was as magnetic as ever. If even one of them got a nod, it would have been a long time coming. Instead the Emmys continued acknowledging performers who boast a grand total of three facial expressions.
Acting aside, in Season 6’s big battle episode, Game of Thrones pretended its heroes were screwed, then proceeded to do an obvious last-minute deus ex machina rescue (the Vale swooping in). It was visually stunning but narratively the kind of material you find in a-run-of-the-mill action movie. That is getting a nod for “Best Drama” this year.
In its own big battle episode, Black Sails did something similar, in making the viewer believe our antiheroes were at a disadvantage. But instead of randomly having reinforcements swoop in, the show used Silver’s character development and manipulative nature to toy with our expectations. Was Dobbs truly on Silver’s side, or had Silver overestimated his own powers of persuasion?
When it was reveled that Dobbs had not betrayed Silver and was indeed leading Hornigold’s men into a trap, the subsequent forest battle was just as epic as anything on Game of Thrones, but it also wasn’t action purely for the sake of it. It used a mixture of Silver’s characterization and good old fashioned smart storytelling to unfold the reveal.
Three seasons and counting, nobody can say, with a straight face, that Black Sails is not drama of the highest caliber. Awards are theoretically supposed to acknowledge the best, but television storytelling does not get stronger than Black Sails. Continuously overlooking it does not make sense in a world as lawless as Nassau or Hollywood.