Hi guys! I recently marathoned Black Sails and i loved it! the only thing I'm sad about is that i didn't watch it in real time... I don't care if my ship is cannon, but I found that seeing it all at once means i know what happened to everyone, and I'm having a hard time shutting it off. I want to be into it, bc there are so many characters and ships i like in BS, but i don't know how to make the story feel open for exploration. any ideas or thoughts on how to incept myself into BS fandom?
Hello! Of course Elizabeth is answering this. This is a GREAT ASK, thank you, and not just because the entry point to this question is Black Sails ⚓⚓⚓.
(I’ll have you know this is one of, like, three gifs of Flint smiling in the entire series. I also googled “Black Sails happy” and…no one looked happy.)
OK so it seems like there are a few things going on here. Apologies for taking what’s ostensibly about one show and turning it into something broader, but I think it gets at fundamental questions of fannish engagement, so I’M GOING IN.
1) Watching/reading a series all at once
Flourish and I talk about this one a lot, because we (and many others) have observed that younger/newer Harry Potter fans approach characters and plot elements VERY differently than we do, and we chalk a lot of this up to reading the books as a complete text versus reading it with miserable long gaps in which to turn over every freakin detail only to have 75% of it jossed when the next book came out. In 2002 I legit read this one page of Dumbledore dialogue in GoF 100 times thinking there was a clue that was just…under…the surface.
I think that with some texts and with some fans, the serialized nature of TV and book series are the way in—we climb into those gaps and lingering there, waiting and obsessively turning things over and imagining all the branching possibilities, all the future reveals, all the resolutions, is part of the pleasure. I sure as hell wouldn’t have fallen for Sherlock if I hadn’t shown up to poke at the gaping emotional wound between s2 and s3. (Frankly if you showed me all four seasons at once I’m not sure I’d even like the show—my lingering emotional loyalty was the only thing that kept me saying anything nice about s4.)
If I had not watched Black Sails all in one go it would have been LITERAL TORTURE FOR ME. I had to pause for a week while traveling and I started to read fic that actually spoiled parts of the fourth season WHOOPS. :-/// But I can also understand how watching it all in one go wouldn’t give you enough space. But then, we watched the same way and I am deep in it, plotting out fic and everything. So maybe…
2) A complete text can stay with you but might not give you a way in
This happens to me with books *all the time*. I’ll read something that shakes me—I’ve often used the metaphor “knocks your world off its axis” when describing a really great book, like it can be the subtlest tilt and you’ll feel like everything’s changed. I think it’s pretty normal for texts to stay with you? If they’re good or if they touch you in some specific way? Especially if you’re fannish and really feel the media you’re consuming.
But one thing I often find about books is they’re more…complete. Even when television shows end properly, rather than being cancelled, they might stretch for longer than what was initially planned, for example, so it doesn’t feel like the arc of the plot was as carefully constructed—often it can’t be, especially with long-running American shows (and of course with classic episodic television, say, a monster-of-the-week show, it’s not even structurally designed to have the same sort of ~ABCDE structure as a novel might).
Black Sails is not one of those shows—they knew they were bringing the story to a close, and the entire show rests on carefully-plotted narrative arcs. (Not to mention there was an actual ~canonical endpoint for all the Treasure Island characters, ie where the book begins (like, sort of). I mean, there were also canonical endpoints for Jack, Anne, Vane, Blackbeard, Hornigold, and every other historical figure, but…)
Over the years I’ve joined fandoms for WIPs as well as finished products, and often for me fandom’s been a way of trying to mend the wounds of a media property I found incomplete, either narratively (with bad writing) or literally (like, when a show ends abruptly). I think for some fans, this is a crucial piece—they say that when they find something too complete, there’s nothing to mend.
3) Different modes of fannish engagement
So here’s another thing I’ve observed—different friends have different definitions of “fandom.” So people are like, “Oh yeah, I’m in the fandom, I love that show!” And I find out that means they enjoy the show and livetweet it and look at some gifs and that’s that. Which is totally fandom! And then there’s me, nodding nervously as I debate mentioning that, “Oh yeah, I’m in the fandom, I love that show!” for me means “THIS IS THE ONLY THING I WANT TO THINK ABOUT, HELP ME, I AM DROWNING.” It’s funny, sometimes I think about archetypal nerdboy fandom and its dick-measuring fact recitation, and then I think about all the times I tried to read the room to see if it was safe to let another person know how much I thought about something I loved, how much I felt about it. Even in totally fannish spaces, I still hesitate. :-/
There have been some things in the past few years that I’ve really enjoyed and toyed with checking out fandoms for, but what I’ve come to realize over the years is for me, it needs to be like falling in love. I think for some people, interest and obsession grows, and for others, you fall in head-first. And for others still, it depends on the thing.
I understand this ask might have been specifically looking for resources or suggestions and while I’d just say if you’re not feeling it in this way, that’s cool, there are lots of different ways to fan, and you can keep thinking about something even if you aren’t drawn to, say, create transformative works about it? But maybe I should say something about Black Sails in particular…
4) Black Sails-specific: unreliable narrators and transformative works
If anyone hasn’t finished Black Sails, stop reading here, I’ll keep it vague but there’s only so much I can do. This is one thing that’s especially interesting to me about this ask: while I’m going on about how final and precisely plotted it all was, it’s not…that final. Because the entire point of the show is about narrative, right? Who gets to write them, who gets to own them, how they can be manipulated, how they shape “civilization.” Characters constantly talk—and constantly show—how both Flint and Silver (and, like, most of the characters, from Max to Thomas to Vane to Woodes Rogers) are these masterful shapers of narrative. Flint is the victim of clashing narratives: what’s actually happened to him, what he tells the world he’s doing, what he’s actually doing (note that explosive scene when Miranda calls him on this, ahhh I love Miranda). But the show’s choice to shift to Silver’s narration to wrap up events is a really fascinating one: the man who works so hard to obscure his past, laying out the narratives of the future. Should we believe him?
I recommend this interview with creators Johnathan Steinberg and Robert Levine—the Flint section at the start is really delightful if you’re into artists being super into open-interpretation of their work. “Do we have a sense of what we imagine is happening?” Steinberg says when asked if we should believe Silver’s speech to Madi. “Yes, but if I was someone else, I wouldn’t want to watch it with my interpretation coloring it.” They talk about how this is essentially a transformative work (they don’t use that term)—a certain decision “made sense as a way to both acknowledge the book and spin it.”
So this is like the literal opposite of, say, JK Rowling, who seems intent on letting us know every freakin detail of canon and post-canon and seems genuinely unhappy at the idea that people will interpret things in ways that “aren’t true.” (At least in interviews I’ve seen/read of hers in the past few years.) Steinberg and Levine seem to be the ultimate “open to interpretation” guys, which really is like this big blank slate for fandom building on and playing with this world they’ve created. That being said, if oppositional fandom is your cup of tea—if you love fic and fandom as a corrective, as a way of wrestling a creator over the text—then the, “Go for it, interpret however you want” thing is probably not super appealing.
This is the first time in my entire fandom life, going on two decades now, that I have simultaneously been really satisfied with a show’s ending and still wanted to write and read fic. And that seems…weird to me? So I don’t think it’s that weird that it wouldn’t work for someone. TL;DR: I’d just say if it happens, it happens. But it’s OK to love something and not find a way into the fandom. But if that changes for you, I’ll be there. :-)