Black Sails was Starz’s four-season sweeping prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel Treasure Island, and it was miles better than it had any right to be. It balanced a cast of Stevenson’s characters and real-life pirates and their contrasting goals and personal foibles way better than Game of Thrones ever did. At the center of the series is the notorious Captain James Flint, who we learn was once (under the name James McGraw) a Royal Navy lieutenant who fell in love with a young idealistic lord named Thomas Hamilton and his wife Miranda. They planned to stabilize the British colony of Nassau by offering pardons to pirates, allowing them to join the workforce, and lowering the crime rate all at once. It was a risky plan, a radical one, and not one that many people approved of.
Unfortunately, those who disapproved rooted out James and Thomas’ relationship and weaponized it against them. Thomas Hamilton was whisked away to an asylum where he is said to have died, and James McGraw and Miranda Hamilton were told to never be seen nor heard from again. Instead of fleeing to live lives of genteel banishment in Paris or Brussels, they left for Nassau where James McGraw disappeared, and Captain James Flint, the most brilliant and feared pirate of the colonies, was born.
Black Sails is about the power of a story, and for that reason, it’s also about identity. McGraw chooses to become Flint because he knows that’s who he needs to be to get what he wants. Society has deemed him a monster, so he will become a monster. But the role of Flint changes him, as he becomes part of the brutality of the world outside society’s borders, and as he gains a clearer understanding of the brutality of society. As time goes on and Flint faces more and more loss, he decides that he no longer wants British rule in the colonies at all. Instead, he wants a war, with pirates and escaped slaves fighting side by side, united against English tyranny. He almost accomplishes it too, until he’s betrayed by someone close to him.
Black Sails is about the power of a story, and for that reason, it’s also about identity.
This betrayal is an interesting one, as it has to do with who Captain Flint really is. It comes, not from an enemy, but from a friend with personal reasons to avoid war with England. That friend believes that if Thomas Hamilton were found alive, Captain Flint would be “unmade” and abandon his attempts to start this war. It’s an interesting concept, however it feels a little elementary to distill an entire person, especially one as complex as Captain Flint, as being shaped only by one event, however tragic the event may be.
While this character raises the question that maybe Flint can be unmade, there’s another argument to be made that the resistance to England which lies at the heart of Flint exists, not necessarily only because of personal grief, but because of collective grief in response to collective injustice. Perhaps this is best defined by one of Flint’s most memorable quotes, as he faces his betrayer, “This is how they survive…. They paint the world full of shadows and then tell their children to stay close to the light. Their light. Their reasons, their judgments. Because in the darkness, there be dragons. But it isn’t true. We can prove that it isn’t true. In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it.”
“In the dark, there is discovery, there is possibility, there is freedom in the dark once someone has illuminated it.”
There is freedom in the dark, particularly for those who haven’t fared well in the light. There is space to build new ways of life with new rules. Pirates, though with obvious ethical problems of their own, are a fitting metaphor for marginalization, of the collective power of people living on the outskirts of society, people whose sheer existence threatens society. It’s poetic that James McGraw becomes Captain Flint. that the bigoted fear of the misunderstood transforms McGraw into something that is actually worth being afraid of, into a man who might actually change things.
Pirates are a fitting metaphor for marginalization, of the collective power of people living on the outskirts of society, people whose sheer existence threatens society.
Black Sails ends on an ambiguous note. Flint is betrayed, his plans for war dashed, but there’s also an implication that Flint may have been reunited with Thomas Hamilton. It would certainly be a narrative comfort for Flint to disappear and James McGraw to return to life. But that happy ending only rings wholly true if one believes that Flint was created solely because of Hamilton’s death and not because of the society that encouraged it. It wasn’t only Thomas who was hurt by England, James McGraw was expelled too, forced to live his life in the shadows because of who he was and because of what England was.
Queerness, though it is born out of love and desire, is not only love and desire. Society doesn’t allow it to be. McGraw’s society certainly didn’t. His society made it monstrous, and that shaped him into understanding the world in a different way than if he had been allowed to remain in the light. It forced him out of society and made him into something to fear. In doing so, it gave him a revolutionary sort of perspective, one that had the potential to change the world. In this way, Black Sails separates queerness from romance (though it does give it due to queer romance as well.) Most importantly, it sheds light on how fear of the unknown can be used to maintain current power structures, and it makes the argument that to overcome it all, we must embrace the unknown, understand society’s monsters, and spend some time in the dark.♦
Tiffany Babb (she/her) is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She’s a regular contributor to The AV Club’s Comic Panel and the Eisner Award-winning PanelxPanel Magazine. You can find her poetry in Rust + Moth, Third Wednesday Magazine, and Cardiff Review.