Crossbones Series Premiere Review: The (Pirate) King and I
The best thing about pirates is that everybody calls each other "mister" all the time. "Mr. Chadwick, secure the rigging!" and so on. Okay, maybe that’s the second-best thing. The real best thing is what I like to call "the swashbuckling factor"—taking dangerous risks, gambling with fate, adventuring on the high seas. Yes, all that stuff is what makes pirate life fun. There’s a unpredictable movement to it all, a wild urgency paired with barebones preparation. Ducking cannonballs while drunk on rum. Sword-fighting above shark-infested waters. That thing where you cut a rope and fly up onto a mast, also while drunk on rum. In short, pirating casts a vote for anarchy in the face of the stuffiest of authorities: the Royal Navy (a.k.a. the Man a.k.a. Ye Olde Tightwad). Freedom is the greatest treasure of all, and any pirate king worth his weight in doubloons will tell you as much. "The Crown says we can’t sail the seven seas, does it? Screw that!"
In this pilot episode
of Black Sails titled "The Devil's Dominion," alleged Crossbones focus Edward "Blackbeard" Teach (John Malkovich) touted himself as "a fellow with no wish to be governed, inspected, indoctrinated, preached at, taxed, stamped, measured, judged, condemned, hanged, or shot." No, this is not the story of the Tea Party. It’s a tale existing in the wake of TV’s other recent pirate drama, the Starz/Michael Bay ditty Black Sails. There, Captain Flint held a similar freedom-seeking point-of-view against England—but since it's a stance that's natural to piracy, I’ll can forgive the similarity in Crossbones (there’s another similarity I won’t forgive, but more on that later). I prefer high stakes in my television, and taking on the ideology behind the throne is suitably epic.
When we first encounter "Commodore" Blackbeard, he's barefoot and seated among a whole bunch of clocks, cradling his troubled pate. What is bothering him? Time itself? He's hiding on the secret island of Santa Compana, where the name Blackbeard is swapped out for the more respectable "Commodore." Malkovich, whether he's been directed to or not, plays the dread pirate legend with sinister excess—his performance recalls some combination of King Lear, Gus Fring from Breaking Bad, and Christopher Lloyd in Camp Nowhere. His kingdom consists of Kate the quartermaster (Claire Foy), puzzle-hungry advisor Selima (Yasmine Al Massri), stoic warrioress Nenna (Tracy Ifeachor), male warrioress Charles (David Hoflin), and rebuilder of broken things, the wheelchair-bound James (Peter Stebbings). So yeah, these scallywags...
That's the crew of speaking characters. There are also a ton of scummy island types: roustabouts, riff-raff, hooligans, gypsies, tramps, and thieves. Also probably a few beach witches. They exist to burst through doors or corner people—you know, general mob stuff. And as their "non-leader" leader (he states, "This island has no king nor wants one. I serve the pleasure of my people until it's no longer their pleasure"), Blackbeard demonstrates an uncanny knack for assessing people’s weaknesses. He's a psychologist in that respect, a charismatic man with an eye for reading people, someone who grows bored without equal mental company. Oh, and coexisting with this eccentric persona is a madness that makes him see and fear ghosts.
Now, an esteemed and educated viewer such as yourself might ask, "Didn’t Blackbeard die when he was 38? I mean no offense to John Malkovich’s face and gray hair and 22 years seniority, but..." Tut, tut unimaginative skeptics! Crossbones has you covered: Blackbeard DIDN’T die. We know this because a British spy supervisor (played by Julian Sands) says as much to the man who's tasked with killing the retired pirate, our hero Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle). I know all of NBC's promos implied that Crossbones would be a Malkovich vehicle, but really we’re following the dashing brillo head who's been assigned to off the pirate at the Royal Navy's behest.
Coyle does such a fine job as the roguish lead that it's a shame the series hasn't marketed Lowe and Blackbeard as more of a pair. When we meet Coyle's Lowe, he’s traveling on a British ship undercover as a surgeon, along with a device known as a "chronometer." Basically a chronometer is a historical GPS prototype that provides sailors really accurate information about location, and it seems very steampunk in nature. In fact, this machine of gauges and shined brass is so valuable that Blackbeard's cronies burned Lowe's fingertips in an effort to get more information about it.
Somehow the Crown predicted that Blackbeard wouldn’t be able to resist going after that big juicy chronometer, and the next thing we knew, Lowe had shot the device to pieces and poisoned its inventor, Mr. Nightingale (Henry Hereford). Total spy move. We then followed Lowe and his annoying-ass loblolly boy Mr. Fletch (Chris Perfetti) as the two were captured by 'Beard’s thugs and held in tropical custody. Seriously, Fletch came off as a gibbering, wide-eyed comic-relief character in a Disney cartoon, and I did not care for his boorish antics. He was helpful in the expositional dialogue department, though.
The remainder of the hour involved a lengthy decoding of a book bearing all the secrets of the chronometer (and ostensibly how to rebuild it), and whether or not Tom Lowe and Fletch would be put to death. There were a lot of frustrating stops and starts to this thread: First, Blackbeard threatened death upon Lowe should he fail to keep the poisoned Nightingale alive. Then Nightingale died, but luckily Lowe found the cloth key to deciphering the code in the dead man’s pocket. Lowe committed it to memory and burned it, à la John Silver from Black Sails. Historically speaking, this is a common pirate trick used all the time in cases of maps and treasure.
It’s clear that Crossbones wants to play up the relationship between Lowe and Blackbeard—and it should, as the pair shared multiple engaging scenes full of banter about existential topics. At one point, the husband of the lady quartermaster Kate pegged the duo as "sharks circling each other." I'd agree, as they do achieve this feeling. When an astute Blackbeard described Lowe as a man afraid of being discovered... as a coward, he wasn't far off. But there's no other Blackbeard to describe Blackbeard, unfortunately, so the show fills in his story with myth and town gossip. We don’t see Blackbeard "drink the marrow of infants," but there's plenty of talk to be had about how he haunts people's dreams and is an all-around legendary nightmare. However, he did slit a dude's throat after saying, "Allow me to introduce myself," and he also threatened to string Lowe up by his "bollocks." So I guess that’s terrifying. Also he acupunctures his own head.
There’s kind of a thing going on with Kate and Tom, too, because everyone else on the island is too busy humping coconuts. So far their longest conversation has been about "swimming," which is apparently a rare activity for inhabitants of this island. By episode's end, they were taking a dip together and they had the ocean all to themselves. I guess during shore leave, all a pirate wants to do is hole up with his riches indoors, get tipsy on rum, and sleep with a prostitute.
Meanwhile, intent on completing his mission, Lowe successfully poisoned Blackbeard by dabbing some lethal fluids exactly onto the corner of the codebook, where people always touch when they lick their fingers and turn pages. Then Blackbeard passed away and his spirit turned to seafoam...
OR DID IT? See, I told you there were stops and starts. While Fletch and Lowe were about to escape in the dead of night, they saw none other than ALLESANDRO D’ALVARADO, righthand man to the viceroy of New Spain! As the wretched Blackbeard lay dying, Lowe raced back to provide him the antidote. P.S. A good spy always carries the antidote to his poisons. Clearly with the arrival of Allesandro D'Alverado, something much bigger than one measly chronometer was at stake, and Lowe did not want to miss out.
So begins our adventure: Blackbeard and Lowe engaged in a mental chess match with deadly odds, Lowe and Kate entering a possible romance, Lowe himself a murderer several times over with mysteries all his own, the 1729 equivalent of a space race, and a plot against England involving the alliance with New Spain. These are all threads worthy of exploration and I'm happy to be along for the ride. I just hope Crossbones knows where it's going.
What did you think of Crossbones' debut?
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