Crossbones (2014)

There is something scary and romantic about the notion of pirates sailing on the high seas. This miniseries features a talented cast, a compelling narrative, episodes that seem to fly by, and doesn't downplay the awfulness of depraved behavior, but is so violent, some viewers might find it difficult to stomach.

   

Years after his death, the legends of Blackbeard continue to haunt the high seas. Convinced he is still alive, a naval admiral (Julian Sands) sees the chance to follow this theory when the king orders the first Longitude Chronometer to be invented. Pirates attack the ship carrying it, and in the fray, the admiral's spy, Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), destroys the chronometer, cuts the throat of its designer, and then is captured by the pirates and taken ashore, where he claims to be a doctor. His true mission is to identify Blackbeard, known as Edward Teach (John Malcovich) on the island, assassinate him, and take his head back to the admiral. Teach commissions him with keeping the inventor alive, but when this fails, Tom memorizes the secret code word to break the cipher in his journal and promises to help them create another chronometer.

    

Though skeptical of his intentions, Teach allows him to continue living on the island -- warning him that if he fails, he will flay him alive. Tom gradually gets to know others in the small community, including the feisty and opinionated Kate (Claire Foy), the wife of an exiled Scottish traitor, James Balfour (Peter Stebbings). After he was arrested for treason, torture has left him without the use of his legs and in almost constant pain. Tom tries to figure out how to help him, while harboring a dark secret about their past. He also tries to keep his sights on Blackbeard, still intending to kill him, while trying to figure out the nefarious plan the pirate seems to have set in motion, that could end in mass destruction. Meanwhile, he runs afoul of a dangerous woman named Nenna and comes perilously close to discovery.

   

I wasn't aware of when this ran on NBC and purchased it on a whim, since I happen to like Claire Foy and Richard Coyle. They had terrific chemistry in Going Postal, and seeing them reunited here is a lot of fun. I wasn't sure what to expect, or what kind of content might slap me across the face -- so I was pleasantly surprised that although the series is gritty, dark, and sometimes too violent for its own good, it has a really good plot. It powers through each episode, accomplishing so much in 50 minutes that you are surprised to reach the end. I marathoned the entire series in the course of one long afternoon and then felt sad to reach the final episode. I would have enjoyed more. It does have its limitations -- most of it takes place indoors or on the beach, betraying its smaller budget, but the few scenes that take place on board ship, or involve sea battles, are epic. The costumes are not remotely realistic for the time period, but I did like them bringing in historical events, such as the failed attempt to put a Protestant on the throne of England. There is intrigue aplenty, a pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty throughout... and these are actual pirates. Jack Sparrow, love him, would never flay a man alive or betray an old friend to death, but these people do. You can trust none of them, and all of them are in some way depraved, including Tom. Though likable, he winds up in an adulterous affair, something I didn't like. But ... everyone is amoral here. Most of the characters would stab you in the back without thinking twice about it.

   

The violence is at times uncomfortably explicit -- slit throats and public hangings, torture scenes, etc. But the plot twists are good. I didn't see some of them coming, while others, such as Blackbeard's tragic past, are more of a slow burn reveal that bloom in the final episode. It's darker and less fun than Pirates of the Caribbean, but also more palatable than the MA-rated series Black Sails. It has a bunch of excellent performances, but Richard Coyle is exceptionally good, in playing a man you cannot trust, but that you like, nonetheless. Even if he does pull off some of the most reckless stunts in the history of piracy. There's never a moment when he might not wind up dead, and that's part of the appeal.

   

Sexual Content
Two brief sex scenes (movement and kissing); a few scenes of a man on top of a woman in bed, kissing her; a woman swims naked in the ocean each morning (we see nothing; the water obscures her body); a pirate is found kissing and caressing a bunch of half-dressed women; prostitutes want sea sponges to prevent pregnancy; a prostitute comes on to another woman she is blackmailing, speaking suggestively to her about pleasing her, almost kissing her, and unbuttoning her own top; references to whether a man can have sex with his wife or not due to his injuries. 
 
Language:
Bloody, bastard, damn, hell, etc., but no f-words.
 
Violence:
Frequent and cruel/inhumane/gruesome. Beheadings, decapitations, people get stabbed and spew blood; dead bodies strewn places, sometimes their head separate from the rest of them; people have their throats graphically cut on-screen and then gurgle and choke and slowly die. Men are hanged, but their necks aren't broken, so eyes bulging and face turning blue, they suffocate while being interrogated; a man is shot through the heart. People are poisoned. A woman cuts off her own finger to frame someone for her murder (off-screen, but we see the severed digit). Blackbeard has a wax flayed man in his office, which shows all the muscles and sinew. People are tortured (they have their fingertips burned, are punched, slapped around, kicked, etc). A man takes many lashes for another man, until he is a bloody pulp (they stop before he dies).

   

Other:
Drinking, deceitful actions, and an adulterous love affair take center stage.

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