You guys may not know me well enough to know that Black Sails is, to me, one of the highest achievements in the history of television. Though I haven’t been reviewing this fourth and final season on here so far, mostly because I watch it so late at night on a Sunday and have to be up Monday morning, I watch it every single week without fail.
Black Sails is a prequel of sorts to Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It follows the tale of famed and fictional pirates alike, names you may recognize such as Captain Flint, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Anne Bonny, and Long John Silver. The overarching story of the entire series is Captain Flint’s mission to make Nassau into a self-sustaining free pirate colony without any intervention of English rule.
I’ve watched this show since about midway through season 2. I remember when I first heard of it, I thought it would be cool, and then I forgot about it until the HUGE plot twist mid-season 2 that had all the celebrities I follow on Twitter tweeting about it when they never had before. I won’t give you guys too many spoilers, because I HIGHLY suggest you go watch this show! Even if you don’t see this until after season 4 has ended, it’s utterly binge-able so there’s no worries there.
Something I’ve long thought is that this show is so good because it’s very real. It shows some of the grittier realities of life in that era. However, it’s also not as gratuitous as some of the series out there in the gore, sex (there’s a fair bit of sex, but it isn’t EVERY EPISODE), rape, ect. I’m a big fan of historical-setting dramas, but most of them I don’t watch because they’re all just over the top and unwatchable, especially since I don’t watch TV shows that have repeated instances of rape without consequences.
What Does This Have To Do With Horror?
Unlike a lot of show and movies that horrify their audience with gore and overly dramatic things, the way this show uses reality to be more terrifying than anything else is exactly why it does “Horror” better than most films and TV shows of the Horror Genre.
(Some MAJOR spoilers here, but not ALL of the spoilers, so you won’t be ruined from watching the show)
I’ve seen some terrible shit on TV and in movies, and usually when something is really horrific, it’s super gruesome or whatever, but Black Sails does it differently.
In season 1, Max’s rape was THE MOST horrifying shit ever, like, it wasn’t as graphic as it could have been and that isn’t a show like most of these historical shows where people get raped left and right. It was horrifying because it happened at all. Everyone that was meant to be a liked character was horrified by it. Even the ones who didn’t do anything to stop it, they were visibly disturbed. It was something so profoundly terrifying to watch because it was realistic and the only reason I was able to even keep watching the show is because I knew from a friend that the rapists were all going to be killed for it.
In season 2, when Silver had to have his leg amputated, they didn’t SHOW the leg being sawed off or anything that closely, no, the horror came from the way everybody on the crew was so frantic, and the way he was sobbing and crying that he didn’t want this even though he would’ve died if they didn’t saw off his leg. It was the HELPLESSNESS that made it so fucking horrific, much like with Max’s rape. There was so much going on, and it was such a turbulent scene, and the terror came not from the gore of seeing a leg sawed off, but from the reactions of everyone in the scene with him.
Last season, one of the most disturbingly horrifying things I’d EVER seen on TV was Vane’s hanging. It wasn’t gruesome, it wasn’t like having someone chopped open and their guts falling out, it was horrific because they made it crazy simple. No music played, nobody was speaking, and when he hanged, he was slowly strangling since his neck didn’t snap, and his friends were allowed to come tug down on his belt to make him die faster and suffer less. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen because they showed the faces of everyone in the crowd, all of those who had been clamoring to see a hanging, and they were all averting their gaze and stunned silent. It was raw and simple and utterly horrifying.
And last night’s scene took the cake. I won’t say who because of spoilers as it has only been half a day, but A BIT of a spoiler: someone got keelhauled. If you don’t know, keelhauling is the legendary pirate/naval punishment where they tie someone up and drag them along the bottom of the ship and, with all the barnacles basically, it’s like being dragged through razor sharp rocks and it just shreds someones’ flesh. Well, it wasn’t just that, oh no, it wasn’t just one time. The person commanding the keelhauling did it once, and then he was still alive and breathing, so he did it again. The second time they thought he was dead, but he was still alive. So they did it AGAIN. A third time. And it wasn’t the shredded flesh that was disturbing, they didn’t REALLY focus on that too much. It was the way that the entire crew was chained up and forced to watch it. It kept showing the faces of the men grabbing onto each other with shackled hands, terrified and forced to watch with the implication that each and every one of them would be keelhauled. Like with Vane’s hanging, there was no music, there was nobody making sounds. It was just the sound of the wind in the sails and the horrible scraping sound of the body going along the hull. It was so profoundly horrific and I will have nightmares over that, I’m sure.
Why Is This So Effective?
By making the horror the product of human nature, by showing the fear in others, the disgust, the trauma, it makes it not about ‘oh blood and guts’, but rather it makes it about fear. Without a scary music score, without (for the most part) a focus on the gore of the situation, and without this over the top dramatic nature, it makes it feel far more real in a way that makes it feel more human. There’s something far more disturbing about a slow, silent torture and the reactions of those witnessing it than highly dramatic music and blood spraying and guts flying.
Black Sails is honestly not that horrifying or gory of a TV show for a historical drama that’s on a pay-channel and therefore has basically no limits to what they can and can’t do. For the most part this show is about action and adventure and really compelling characters. In fact, I would say that most of the praise for this show comes from how different it is from other historical dramas of its ilk because of the focus on very compelling characters and a distance from gratuitous blood and gore.
But when it gets horrific, it gets horrific.