The third episode of Black Sails’s fourth season features the pirate drama’s most brutal death yet. Ray Stevenson’s Teach, aka Blackbeard, undergoes a form of naval torture and execution known as keelhauling. Though he shockingly survives being dragged beneath a ship, he still meets his end when Woodes Rogers becomes frustrated and shoots him. Black Sails creators Jonathan Steinberg and Robert Levine got on the phone with Inverse to discuss the conceptualizing of that scene, why Woodes Rogers (Luke Roberts) spared Jack (Toby Schmitz), and how this will shape the rest of the season.
What came first: Your interest in depicting keelhauling, or your sense that Teach’s time was up? Was this always his planned method of death?
Jonathan Steinberg: [Keelhauling] has always been a thing we’ve been aware of and existed in the background of our writers’ room board of things to try. But it’s probably something that would have gone away had it not found a match in a character story that needed something that big and that gross. It was a marriage of opportunity. Within the Teach story, we knew we wanted to send him out in a big way. A death that said a lot about him — commenting on his own sense of mortality expressed in Season 3, a sense of not wanting to die in his bed. Also as an expression of his new relationship with Rackham. There’s a moment in that death in which he saves Rackham’s life, just through sheer force of will and refusal to go down easily.
Why does Rogers spare Rackham, after planning to keelhaul him next?
Robert Levine: There’s a big Rogers component to [the scene]. His arc for the season is the extent to which he’s been drawn into the amorality of this conflict that he might not have been willing to admit. This is a moment in which he initiates this keelhauling in hopes that the force and the cruelty he displays will break the back of the pirate resistance. Teach’s refusal to die forces him to reconsider. This might be turning on him in a way that’s counterproductive to what he set out to do, which is to embolden them instead of break them.
Steinberg: Rogers starts telling a very visual explicit story about what awaits these people when they cross him. Teach’s refusal to die hijacks the story. It’s subtle but the way Luke [Roberts] plays it, there’s a sense of disappointment at the end. He wanted to come out of this looking like a strong man and Teach is the star of that moment. This wasn’t the way Rogers wanted it to go, and that makes it difficult for him to want an act two of that story.
What was your interplay like with Ray Stevenson?
Steinberg: It was important to him that we were true to what’s known of Edward Teach and to play it as straight as possible. The challenge was to figure out a way to be true to what’s known about the way Teach was killed, and also have it do all the things we needed it to do for this story. Obviously Teach wasn’t keelhauled, but having found a way to express the soul of that moment in a more dramatic way, Ray got why we had to serve both masters.
Levine: Ray understood in a very instinctive way Blackbeard’s place in this universe, and he embraced it.
Was it logistically complicated to plan?
Steinberg: Because we don’t do this much gore, as an engineering issue it was complicated. We’d all heard the word keelhaul before we started but there’s shockingly little out there about how it actually worked. We assembled a committee between our pirate historian and sailing consultant to reverse engineer how one would do this. There’s a challenge and a real opportunity to do the first onscreen version of doing something this well-known. As hard as it is to watch, one of the goals of the show is to make a storybook world real; to understand the truth of it.
Speaking of gore, will this be the goriest death?
Steinberg: Yes, this was a 10 out of 10 in terms of what we could stomach. We watched this episode with some of the cast, and in unison they looked at us and asked what’s wrong with us. I don’t enjoy it but you needed to understand that his body was destroyed and there was this will that just wouldn’t go away. I don’t know how to tell that story in any other way and for Rackham to see this.
How will this impact Rackham moving forward?
Steinberg: That felt like an important moment in Rackham’s evolution, to witness someone larger than life like that go through that ordeal, and for Rackham to be reminded that the debt he owes to Vane is only a part of what’s motivating him.
Levine: He spends episode two and three expressing a sense that ‘I am a peer of Teach and all of the other guys that came before me.’ This is a moment where he realizes that those guys were one of a kind. His role in the mythology of Nassau and of piracy isn’t going to be the next Teach. It’s something different. The rest of the season is about him finding a place he can stand that feels true to him, not as someone who could withstand what Teach just withstood — I don’t believe he thinks he could have. It’s a reminder that this thing is dying, that the guys who started it were special.
This is the most compelling way Teach could express to Rackham that they made this connection over Vane’s death, that he was willing to fight this fight. Partially as a measure of defiance to Rogers, but also with some sense that the more times he forces Rogers to do this, the more likely it is that Rackham survives the day.
What’s next for Season 4 from here?
Levine: If you think about the season as having three acts, this would represent the transition into the middle. There’s a suggestion of it in that moment Israel Hands hesitates before he [kills Berringer] and Silver gives him the nod. An understanding that once we do this we can’t go back — and we’re not entirely certain what we’re entering into.
The fourth and final season of Black Sails is currently airing Sunday nights on Starz.