Crossbones Series Premiere Review: The (Pirate) King and I

By Ryan Sandoval

May 31, 2014

Crossbones S01E01: "The Devil's Dominion"

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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  • mcepin3 Jun 03, 2014

    Good few cast,but show is boring. I am gonna kill you.nope gonna save you,nope gonna kill you.nope you. I am gonna kill him,nope gonna save him... and all this in 1st episode:D Female "leads" drag to watch. No thank you---pass

  • KayWatkins Jun 03, 2014

    i probably would have been able to appreciate it if i hadn't seen black sails first. i couldn't help but compare and this show seemed like a cheap knockoff. the characters just don't have the grimyness of black sails which makes black sails come off a little more visually realistic (minus the sunglasses of course). generally love john malkovich but i'm not sure if he's enough to carry the show and outweigh the annoying sidekick to lowe. i'm on the fence as to whether i'll give it another chance.

  • shootingstar609 Jun 02, 2014

    I literally stumbled upon this show while channel surfing on Friday night. I love Malkovich's portrayal of Blackbeard and the historical aspects of the show. But, there were times I was not sure if this show is supposed to be a comedy or a drama or a drama with comedic aspects or a comedy with dramatic aspects. I'm guessing it's a drama with comedic aspects or at least that's the impression I got from the pilot. The characters of Blackbeard and Lowe seem well developed enough but the rest need a lot of work! Overall, it was passable Friday night entertainment.

  • Dollzz Jun 02, 2014

    I like it but I had a dejavu feeling... (black sails)

  • MorbidPet Jun 02, 2014

    Haven't seen the pilot yet but what the F is up with that Pinhead photo!?

  • helyanwe89 Jun 02, 2014

    I haven't ever seen Black Sails so I can't compare the two.

    It looks like it might pick up next week so I'll probably give this show a chance since there isn't a whole lot else on TV right now with most shows being on hiatus for the summer.

    I didn't really understand why Lowe decided to change his mind about killing Blackbeard when the Spanish showed up. Wasn't his mission to kill him? Why not just do that and then escape and report back that the Spanish are there?

  • phxcowbot Jun 02, 2014

    umm - because then Malkovich would be dead and no more stories to tell?

  • current Jun 02, 2014

    Part of the trouble with this is can't go far enough into more realistic darkness. Whereas Black Sails could but failed to do so. And as such both share the implausible story line of pirates living peaceably on an island with a kind of democratic law. Shame Putin isn't a screen writer.
    Where's the infamous black beard (that even featured in pictures of him), as it's not exactly a secret as to who he is on the island, but instead looks like some foppish weirdo.

  • left4dead Jun 02, 2014

    The trouble with John Malkovich acting is that you can always spot that he's acting, giving him a role where he gets to chew the scenery is just enabling him as far as I can see...

  • Laserwolf412_XL Jun 02, 2014

    It would have been so much better if someone who knew how to edit was in charge. I'm wondering if they had originally planned a 2 hour premier and instead of just cutting it in half decided to combine the whole thing into an hour. There were scenes that jumped time and location without any indication at all, and other transitions that were oddly placed and broke up the narrative.

    I recently watched the Lethal Weapon 6 episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and was strongly reminded of Mac's insistence of constantly explaining what was going on while it was happening so the slower members of the audience would be able to follow. The scene with Lowe and his assistant where the assistant went through the entire plot up to that point was exactly that. It's one of those moments where you realize that the people behind the show think you, or at least most the viewers, are idiots.

  • JackSaat Jun 01, 2014

    After watch Black Sails, this series feels weak. And the lag of T & T is not helping it at all! The story alone is at the point of comedy! However the female characters here are way better! That is a huge plus!

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