For four seasons, the Starz drama series Black Sails has been one of the biggest, most epic, most impressive productions on television. Its excellent storytelling, expert production design and terrifically talented cast of actors gave us heroes to root for and love, and terrifying villains that we could hope those heroes ultimately escaped. It’s sad to say goodbye to a series that has exemplified such excellence throughout its run, but we can still imagine where those who survived sailed off to next and mourn those that we lost.
To reflect on the four-season run that they can be undeniably proud of, showrunners Jon Steinberg and Robert Levine got on the phone with Collider to talk about the responsibility of making a show they’d love to watch, what they’ll take from the experience of making Black Sails, figuring out the fates of the characters, the final moments between Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and John Silver (Luke Arnold), whether they ever thought about exploring Treasure Island, what’s next for Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz) and Anne Bonny (Clara Paget), and what they took from the set.
Be aware that there are MAJOR spoilers discussed from throughout the series.
Collider: Do you feel that Black Sails has been truly appreciated for just how good it is and the quality of excellence that it displays, or do you think it’s one of those shows that’s been sadly underappreciated and it will be discovered by more people when they watch it, after it’s all over?
JON STEINBERG: I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m allowed to answer that question because we’re in it too deep. I will say this, for both of us, as an understanding of what our jobs are and aren’t, I feel like we approach this where our responsibility is to make something we’d love to watch, and try to do it in a way where it will hold to as much investment or scrutiny as you feel it deserves. I think we did that, and I think we’re pretty proud of where it landed. Whatever it turns into when you put it into the world is in the hands of the gods. All you can do is keep doing the work. It would definitely be nice, if it was a thing that continues to live and that people continue to find. Hopefully, it will age well.
After four seasons and getting to wrap up this show the way that you wanted, what will you take with you from the experience of making Black Sails? Are there things that you learned from making this show that will make the next show easier, or is that even possible to do?
STEINBERG: Well, it can’t be any harder! I think that’s a safe bet.
ROBERT LEVINE: Never get on the boat!
STEINBERG: No kids, no animals and no ships. That’s the new rule for us. We are both different writers and different producers, after six years of making this show, and having been given the freedom to do things that a lot of people have very long, successful careers and don’t have the opportunity to try. We’re really appreciative of having been given that. I think the next show will be easier, for a number of reasons, both because of this experience and because we were determined to make this as difficult as possible. But, I think these things are always difficult. If it’s not difficult, than you’re not doing the job.
Especially with this last season, when did you what the end point would be for each of these characters? Did you know how all of them would fare by the finale, when you started the season, or did you find some of their paths, along the way?
LEVINE: It’s always a little bit of both. You’re always trying to forge ahead and fumble around in the dark. You know where you’re going and aim in that direction, but you have to be ready for the story to speak to you and surprise you and suggest something different. The Flint and Silver ending, in its outlines, has always been there. We always knew that that was the climax of the story throughout, for both of them. It’s the most important relationship, for both of them. When it finally reached this moment of going from two people who seem to have nothing in common to being wary of each other to being opportunistic allies and then friends to two people who know each other better than anyone else in the world, and then finally reaching that point of not being able to go forward, was going to shape the end of their story. The specifics of when and how gradually became more clear, but we knew that that’s where the show and the season were specifically headed.
Do you think that Silver would have eventually come to the same conclusion about what he was going to do with Flint, or was his decision influenced by constantly having people in his ear about it?
STEINBERG: I don’t think it’s a choice he would have made, 10 episodes ago. It feels like it’s a choice that was made only because of the two massively formative relationships that have developed and become that way, in Season 4. A lot of the people who were in his ear were largely manifestations of the voices that he was already hearing in his own head, giving him that internal conflict, whether it’s Billy or Hands or Madi, or whomever. It just felt right, as a way to finish telling his story, that his story ends with him conceiving of this act of mercy. It felt like a way to spin the way you find these characters in Treasure Island, in a way that felt interesting and a little unexpected.
How did you come to decide that this is what Flint’s fate would be, and that we would be left questioning whether or not that’s really the truth?
STEINBERG: When you read the book, you’re told that Flint died in a very specific way, and it’s a way that doesn’t immediately suggest story. He died alone, some indeterminate period of time after the exciting stuff happened, and he died in a very lonely, sad place. When we talked about planting flags in the ground of things that we considered to be canon, and you have to account for them, that was one of them. It felt like it was important, and it felt like a challenge to figure out how we could acknowledge that and also make it work for us, and recontextualize it and make it a bit of a mystery. There’s a lot of people telling a lot of stories in Treasure Island, and a lot of people telling stories in this show. If this show is about anything, it’s about the fact that narrative can be a very powerful thing, when used properly. So, it felt right that the ending was steeped in that idea.
It definitely felt like these characters were presented with the choice of either creating their own narrative or living up to the narrative that people have created for them.
It seems as though Flint’s love for Silver was stronger than his good sense towards him. He seems to have known, deep down, that Silver was going to betray him, and yet he stood by his side anyway. Did Flint ultimately care more about Silver and their partnership than Silver cared about him?
LEVINE: Wow, that’s tough. It’s hard to say.
STEINBERG: I think that relationship is meaningful to both of them. It is singular, for both of them. We’ve never seen Silver invest in someone, in this way. So for him, it’s very new. It’s the first one of these relationships that we are aware of. We’ve seen Flint invest in people before, but not in this way, where he has allowed himself to be both Flint and McGraw, openly, and found some measure of comfort in that state. So for him, it’s new, also. I would argue that it’s not a contest, as to which of them felt it more deeply, but I think it was definitely meaningful. Personally, there wasn’t ulterior motives in their affinity for each other. It is genuine and it is complicated, in the way that it’s always complicated when you love someone. You don’t always make the best decisions when that thing is threatened. It’s very hard to conduct a post-mortem when relationships like that are involved, in terms of figuring out what promoted you to do what. That felt true and right, and I think we resisted the urge to simplify it, when given opportunities to, because it felt like it suddenly became less interesting.