Black Sails has never been the type of show that people gather around the water cooler in the same way they do for Game of Thrones or How to Get Away With Murder, but that has not stopped the show from delivering consistently great content. It also has some amazing female characters in a genre that can sometimes forget how nuanced women can be.
One of the most controversial characters on the show is Eleanor Guthrie, portrayed by Hannah New. From the very beginning, Eleanor has been a survivor whose decisions have often turned people against her. She is an important figure in Nassau, being the daughter of the wealthiest man on the island ,and wields her influence like a sword. For her, the world of the pirates is one that allows her, as a woman, to operate outside of the usual roles allowed to women. However, that often ends in the deaths of people around her. New confesses to loving playing Eleanor for her complexity: “I see her as a survivor […] quite often she does this that if she were male, she would be lauded for that kind of behavior. So for me it’s quite refreshing to play a character who doesn’t have to be likable. Why does she have to be?” As the final season arrives, we will see if all her ambition allows her to succeed in the end or if she will be forced to conform.
For many fans of more diverse characters in historical dramas like Black Sails, the character of Max, played by Jessica Parker Kennedy, was a very complicated one. In the first season, she is a prostitute who is the victim of rape multiple times. Initially, this was a major hurdle for me to continue watching the show. However, when I kept hearing more and more about how the show improved, I decided to give it another chance and was deeply impressed by the depth given to Max as the series continued. Being able to watch a character who survived so much violence be allowed to propel herself into a leading position of power and authority in the show was encouraging. So many times when sexual violence is critiqued, there is an assumption that we are looking for a sterile version of history, when what we are looking for are those issues being treated with the complexity and importance of what those actions really mean. In addition, Max is not the only important woman of color on the show. There is also the Maroon Queen and her daughter Madi, both occupying places of power in their own way.
Probably one of the most intriguing female figures in history, Anne Bonny is half-fact and half-fictional, which makes watching her story on Black Sails, portrayed by actress Clara Paget, a true delight. There is no real truth when it comes to Anne Bonny, but there is a lot of ass kicking. Anne starts off the show as a really cold and distant character, but she grows into a more compassionate person through her relationship with Max. What is interesting about Anne Bonny is that her backstory is one of a victim of sexual violence and physical abuse, and she fights to protect other women from that while still being a force of nature.
All three of these women are queer and strong in their own ways without having to lose any dimensions in their stories. They are allowed to be cruel, wrong, hateful, and victorious. Black Sails isn’t just a story about pirates or a prequel to Treasure Island, is it looking at how pirates went from being feared to becoming farcical figures in media. As executive producer Jonathan Steinberg aptly put it during our roundtable interview, “I get very interested by peoples’ stories that are not told…people who left an incredibly oppressive labor system. They are rebelling against being oppressed. How did we get from there [with pirates] to Captain Hook?”
Black Sails will tell the final chapter in that story as season four premieres on Starz January 29th, 2017 at 9pm.
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Princess Weekes is a part-time bookseller and a full-time writer with a Master’s in English from Brooklyn College. A former intern at BUST magazine, she has since written articles for The Mary Sue, BUST and maintains her own video channel under the name Melina Pendulum, discussing the intersection of pop culture, feminism and race. She is currently working on a fantasy novel about black witches during the Jim Crow era, while attempting to purchase every liquid lipstick the world has to offer.