Black Sails – Review 4×05: ‘XXXIV’ or Man Pain, Ahoy!


Over the last three and a half seasons of Black Sails, one of the show’s major strengths is taking a concept and genre normally dominated by men and making its women just as complicated and strong as its men. It consistently treats its female characters well, allowing them to be fully formed with strengths and weaknesses, but also with their own motivations, their own wants and needs. And that’s what made this week’s episode of Black Sails so maddening and quite frankly, disappointing. There is so much more to come in the last four episodes of Black Sails, a veritable whirlpool of events that must and will draw our attention away from the demise of Eleanor Guthrie, so many questions to still be answered: Where is Billy? Did Madi really perish in the fire? Will the pirates finally unite under one flag? If so, for how long? And lastly, for fans of Treasure Island, how the hell will Flint move that cache without Silver knowing about it? And I hope you’ll forgive me if I didn’t address or speculate in this review, but this week, we salute Eleanor Guthrie and her unjust ends.

As always, the action was incredible, the threads of each plot coming together seamlessly and with a coherence almost unknown on shows that pride themselves on battle sequences and special effects. The Spanish invasion of Nassau was just as bloody and just as complete as we all imagined it would be. Our characters were pieces on a chess board that are masterfully moved around to bring to the show it’s ultimate checkmate in the latter half of season four, but somehow in the midst of all this, one character got left behind.

Eleanor Guthrie’s character arc since the beginning of season three has been an exercise in frustrated viewing. While some might argue that her experiences as a prisoner could have changed her irrevocably, what we knew about her prior to that event gives very little evidence to support that kind of change. The Eleanor Guthrie we loved (and hated) in seasons one and two never let anything stand in her way, regardless of her own circumstances or obstacles in her way. Eleanor Guthrie stole a pirate crew out from under Charles Vane and then orchestrated the events that led to his execution She ran Nassau like a well-oiled machine. She plotted with Flint to steal millions of dollars from Spain. Eleanor Guthrie that graced our screens in season three and most of season four was a shadow of her former self and perhaps that was the point, but it didn’t make for good viewing.

Another one of Black Sails’ strengths is the ability to root for all the characters, despite their goals being diametrically opposed to one another’s. The perfect example of this is that Billy Bones and Charles Vane conversation in season three, you know which one. They were on different sides, enemies even and we were rooting for both of them to come out on top. With this Eleanor, her goals were difficult to comprehend and thus impossible to cheer along as they were so closely aligned with Woodes Rogers, a character that most of the audience either actively despised or felt almost nothing for compared to the other characters. It was only an episode or so ago when her relationship with Rogers played on the screen at the same emotional resonance as those with Max and Charles. And yet, her last moments were about her relationships with Rogers and very randomly with Madi, whose connection to her feels tenuous at best. We were given a glimpse of her former connection to Flint prior to her demise, but – and I hate to say this, but it feels accurate – the entire purpose of Eleanor’s death seems to be about Woodes Roger’s man pain, something the show has assiduously avoided in the last three and a half seasons. Even the death of Miranda Hamilton felt purposeful as it directly causes the destruction of Charlestown and Flint declaring total war on civilization. What is left for Woodes Rogers to do? What revenge will he take for Eleanor death and do we as the audience even care about it? As an audience, we were far more invested in Flint’s downward spiral than we could ever hope to be in Rogers’s.

There are so many other things happening as the series rounds the turn into its final half-season, but Eleanor Guthrie’s untimely death looms over it all. We do know that Max and Jack are headed North, so perhaps that will be Eleanor’s legacy, the eventual interference of a powerful colonial family, but was that the best way to serve her character? A death by an anonymous Spanish soldier where her last words were of a husband the audience was barely convinced that she cared for?

It is a credit to Hannah New’s ability that the death was given any credibility at all. Her performance draws the audience into the tragedy of Eleanor’s death, even while the reasoning and story that led up to fell short of what we’d hoped for her.

Back to our regularly scheduled awe of the intricacies of Black Sails’ journey towards Treasure Island next week, but for now, I simply leave you with this.

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