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While the pillaging-filled life of your everyday high seas pirate doesn’t seem like the easiest subject matter for a television series to take on, Starz’ Black Sails has proven the small screen a fine medium for weekly adventures. This Friday, the drama Crossbones will wash ashore on NBC, anchored by a truly stellar performance from the Emmy-winning thesp John Malkovich as the legendary Blackbeard. Chance are you’ll spend the entirety of the show like I did, wishing that either the entire story was dedicated to Blackbeard talking to himself in a mirror, or that Malkovich was playing all the various roles. Alas, we’ll just have to make do with the swashbuckling adventure that we have, and having seen three of Crossbones’ ten episodes, I can say it’s quite a treasure indeed.
Developed by Luther creator Neil Cross, along with James V. Hart and Amanda Welles, Crossbones centers on Blackbeard’s time on the island of Santa Compana in 1729, but it isn’t really about Blackbeard proper. It’s about the brilliantly ruthless man behind the legend, Edward Teach, who is wont to leaving his nickname behind while on the island. (That’s also why he doesn’t actually, you know, have a big black beard in this series.) While it may just look like he’s content to rule a squad of outcasts and criminals, part of Teach’s master plan is stealing and understanding the Longitude Chronometer, a revolutionary invention that would allow sailors to figure out their exact location while in the middle of the ocean.
As you can imagine, only one man can possibly stop the nefarious mastermind. Enter Thomas Lowe (Richard Coyle), an English spy posing as a ship physician/surgeon, who is at first taken hostage along with the Chronometer, but uses his knowledge of the device’s cypher to earn himself some freedoms on Santa Compana. His sole purpose is keeping the chronometer safe, with a secondary mission of assassinating Teach if need be. We also meet the fetching Kate (Claire Foy) and Lowe’s new acquaintance Fletch (Chris Perfetti). Other characters include Teach’s lover and confidante Selima (Yasmine Al Massri), who soon gets a little too close to comfort with the murderous pirate ship captain Rider (David Hoflin).
While I’m not quite sure what the endgame for this series will be – which is obviously a good thing – it certainly doesn’t take long to set its vicious, bloodthirsty tone. The first episode begins with Blackbeard’s crew bombarding Lowe’s ship in order to gain possession of the Chronometer, and they are just as quick to stab someone through the heart as they are to punch them in the face. And though not all the action sequences are as all-encompassing in scale, the fights remain rousing, and the violence is more widespread than I would have expected. Why wouldn’t I assume a deadly pirate’s saga is extremely violent? I have no idea.
“I am not the devil, Mr. Lowe. I have cast out the devil, that depraved distinction between rich and poor, great and small, master and valet, governor and governed.”
This whole series may have all been for naught, however, if not for Malkovich’s steely performance at the center. I’m pretty biased, as he’s one of my favorite actors of all time, but he’s spot on as the domineering Teach, whose leadership potential is just a slit throat away from being perfect. His ulterior motives for the Chronometer are kept hidden, and his calm demeanor suggests that he is not worried about his plans not coming to fruition; this isn't a guy who sees failure that often. Though it’s one of Malkovich’s more esoteric roles, he plays it with a wry detachment, rather than abundant zaniness. Add to that a series of unexplainable visions, and we’ve got what just might be one of the most interesting Summer Season television characters of the year. With battle-ready bells on, even.
Not for the seasick or faint at heart, Crossbones is a solid historical tale sprinkled with mystery and intrigue. Though the non-pirate characters could be more colorful, there is more than enough here to fill any viewer’s treasure chest with Malkovich booty. Pull out your telescope and see for yourself when Crossbones debuts Friday, May 30 at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBC.