Why you should watch Black Sails on Netflix if you love Game of Thrones, Shōgun or The Last Kingdom

The pirate drama Black Sails just landed on Netflix. If you're into genre television and you haven't seen it, prepare to meet your new favorite show.
Black Sails © 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC
Black Sails © 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC /

Yesterday, the historical pirate drama Black Sails landed on Netflix, marking the first time this Emmy-winning series has ever appeared on the streaming service. Black Sails ran from 2014 to 2017 on Starz, and across its four seasons the show carved out a passionate following with its high seas action, intricately detailed plot and settings, unique soundtrack, incredible cast and stellar writing. If it sounds like I'm just gushing a lot, that's because I am: Black Sails ran opposite Game of Thrones during its heyday, and was one of the few genre shows that was on the same level — plus, it had a more consistent level of quality all the way through the end of its run.

Black Sails is a historical drama set during the early 18th Century's Golden Age of Piracy, when the strength of pirates was at its peak in the Caribbean. It's also a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island. The series takes fictional characters like Captain Flint (Toby Stephens), Long John Silver (Luke Arnold) and Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), and places them alongside real-life historical pirates like Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz), Anne Bonny (Clara Paget) and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach (Ray Stevenson), imagining how they might have interacted if they really shared the high seas during this fascinating period of history.

If you're into shows like The Last Kingdom, Outlander or FX's recent hit Shōgun, there is a very good chance you'd also enjoy Black Sails. It's a high-quality period drama with the same sort of bloody showstopper moments and intricate character work. Because both it and Outlander are Starz shows, they share some DNA — both series are even scored by Bear McCreary, the mastermind composer behind The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica, and far too many other projects to name.

Black Sails Season 4 2017
Black Sails © 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC /

What is Black Sails about?

Black Sails details the rise and fall of the city of Nassau, which was the capital of piracy in the region, while simultaneously setting up the events of Treasure Island. From an adaptation perspective, there are few shows out there that walked such an interesting, unique line in relation to their source material. The series begins with Captain Flint and his crew on the trail of the Urca de Lima, a Spanish treasure galleon with a cargo hold full of so much gold it has the potential to reshape the balance of power in the colonies. At the same time, Nassau itself is a powder keg of intrigue, as various pirates vie to become the most influential crew in order to steer the free city's future.

Needless to say, England doesn't take kindly to the idea of one of its former colonies being run by pirates. The idea that civilization has declared these people outlaws it at the heart of the show. But what does civilization even mean when it's used to dehumanize people, and those on the outskirts show more compassion for their neighbors? Black Sails asks these kinds of thorny questions, with lilting writing that would make Shakespeare nod in approval.

Black Sails is also a series centers queerness in some very interesting ways, examining how queer people were treated in history and the function of shame in society. HBO's Our Flag Means Death is in many ways a love letter to this series, though I can't explain exactly why that's the case without going way too deep into spoilers. You'll just have to watch yourself to understand what I mean!

I know I've been making a lot of comparisons, but if Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had a bastard pirate baby, it would basically be this show. It has the action and politics of the former, as well as the sort of deep character study that characterized the latter. Captain Flint is only one character among many in this ensemble cast, but his gradual slide from a charming yet dangerous ship captain to a self-accepting "monster" is in many ways the beating heart of the series. It's one of the few character journeys in modern television that is truly comparable to Walter White's.

And Flint is only the tip of the iceberg — every single lead has plenty of time to shine, from the wise-cracking Calico Jack Rackham, to the ambitious prostitute Maxine (Jessica Parker Kennedy), to the manipulative John Silver, to the foul-mouthed noblewoman crime boss Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New) and more. This series gave every single lead actor such great material that I get simultaneously happy and sad whenever I see them in other shows. Happy, because it's always nice to see them on screen; sad, because after watching them work at the top of their games on Black Sails, it can be difficult to see them in parts where they're not given the same level of material. This show is that good.

Black Sails Season 4 2017
Black Sails © 2017 Starz Entertainment, LLC /

Black Sails only gets better as it goes on

I do want to give one disclaimer about this series, however: Black Sails can have a little bit of a steep on ramp, and its first season is by far its weakest. That's not to say it's bad — it isn't by any means — but similar to Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, the first season simply pales in comparison to everything that follows. Combine that with the fact that it throws you in the deep end, leaving it to the viewer to pick up on the intricate politics of Nassau, and it can be a little intimidating out of the gate. I'm of the opinion that the first season is much more enjoyable on rewatch, when you have a firm grasp of who all the players are in relation to one another.

However, right at the top of season 2, it becomes immediately clear that the show has upped its game drastically. The remainder of the run is masterful, top-tier television that I would confidently stand up against any of the other great shows from TV history. There's a reason that Black Sails fans are such fanatics every time someone brings up this beloved series. Now, you can find out why for yourself!

All four seasons of Black Sails are streaming now on Netflix. Good luck and enjoy your journey to the bloody, turbulent seas of Nassau!

Luke Arnold Essentials. Exclusive: Feast your eyes on art from Black Sails star Luke Arnold's new graphic novel Essentials. dark. Next

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