No Fairy Tale: ‘Black Sails’ Exposes the Gritty World of Pirates You Thought You Knew

Showrunner Jonathan E. Steinberg talks about raising the stakes in the epic, action-packed new season of the Starz Original Series Black Sails, revealing what it took to expose audiences to an entirely new side of the pirate genre.

James Minchin

Standing in a room filled with Spanish gold, pirate captain Jack Rackham and brothel owner Max smile. They’ve finally gotten the bounty for which they’ve fought so hard: the Urca Treasure. Their wide grins indicate what they’re thinking: all of their problems are solved.

“It turns out they’re not,” Black Sails showrunner Jonathan E. Steinberg says, “and in a number of ways [the treasure] actually makes life difficult and more dangerous.”

Starz’s Black Sails centers on the events that happened roughly two decades before Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved Treasure Island, during the Golden Age of Piracy. It’s a realistic, gritty look at a group of pirates fighting for survival on New Providence Island—and for control of Nassau as the British Navy returns to claim it as theirs.

“The arrival of the British Navy and the civilization staking its claim to Nassau again raises the stakes that were theoretical before,” Steinberg explains of Season 3, which premieres January 23rd. “It’s not just people standing around feeling the shadow of the empire, it’s here and it’s real.”

When Steinberg and Black Sails co-creator Robert Levine first began researching the world of pirates, they discovered much more than the clichés and fairy tales they’d known, like most of us, since they were children. “It’s such a world that, in some part because of Treasure Island and Peter Pan, has become this adventure universe that’s just about action and fun and fantasy, and the reality of it was that it was desperate, and it was politically relevant,” Steinberg says. “It’s a moment in history in which there are people on the British frontier who are feeling like they are now outside civilization, and they are unable to join it again.”

Steinberg and Levine wanted to introduce audiences to an entirely new side of this genre. “As violent as the pirates were, it was not a pleasant place to be an employee on a British Naval vessel,” Steinberg explains. “A lot of those guys were kidnapped and pulled off the street and thrown into the hold of a ship, and their family had no idea where they were. They’re gone two years at a time with no wages.”

Pirates were born as a reaction to that grueling reality. “When you step outside of civilization and you can no longer count on it for survival, or for defining your identity, the rules start to break down and your assumptions start to break down,” Steinberg says. “We want to indulge that, and we want to show characters that are powerful and influential in ways that they couldn’t be in London.” This includes the strong female roles in the show. “Guthrie, and Max, and Bonny, they’re women who’ve seized control of their own destiny in a way that it would be a lot harder to do in civilization," he says.

In Season 3, the British Empire will have a face in the form of Governor Woodes Rogers, an English captain determined to end piracy in Nassau. Eleanor Guthrie, chief fence and supplier to the pirates of New Providence Island, who was captured by the Royal Navy at the end of last season, will return as part of the invasion force.

For returning viewers, Steinberg promises new and exciting twists in Season 3. “We’re constantly challenging ourselves to make sure we’re not doing the same things we’ve done before,” Steinberg says, “to find pieces of this world and elements of these relationships that are constantly challenging both the audience and us as writers, to make the show feel new and risky and exciting.”

In addition, this season has an even more epic scope than its predecessors, which is no easy feat when filming something set in the 1700s. “None of it exists,” Steinberg says. “There’s no town you can go to, or a location where there are structures from this time period, so you’re forced to build and create everything, but at the same time it can’t look created, it has to feel lived-in and real and grounded, and so it takes a tremendous amount of effort to make artifice invisible.”

Just as the intense action and awe-inspiring visual effects escalate, the relationships between the characters will develop in interesting ways in Season 3, particularly between main characters Captain Flint and Quartermaster John Silver—especially when they’re put to the test together to face down the infamous Blackbeard.

“What is a tense partnership in Season 2 starts to become a friendship, and there are some big emotional moments in that journey that are really gratifying,” Steinberg says. “You start to realize that this show has been these two guys circling each other for all this time and as they start to understand that this person might be the thing that saves their lives, it becomes emotionally compelling in a way you didn’t quite see coming.”

Don’t miss the season premiere Saturday, January 23rd at 9PM only on STARZ. For more highlights from Season 3, check out the trailer below