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Transmutation: A Character Study - John Silver (Black Sails)

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"Long John Silver's story is a hard one to know."

There are a few different approaches to take when discussing the story of John Silver, played brilliantly throughout Black Sails' four season run by Luke Arnold. You can talk about the man himself, and how he evolved. You can talk about the myth; the story other men tell about him, to either incite fear or hope, depending on what side you're on. And then you can talk about the discomforting void at the center of it all: when you give Silver a moment's extra thought, you'll realize that there's still so very little you truly know about him, now a few months removed from Black Sails' series finale.

When we first meet Silver in the opening minutes of the series premiere, he is a fast-talking opportunist who is at once charming and irritating, and who cares for no one but himself. No doubt a far cry from the fearsome and renowned fictional pirate we know he will become. Given that Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island, Silver's drastic transformation was set in stone.

We first meet him on a merchant's ship about to be boarded by the notorious Captain Flint, and no information is given as to how and why Silver was on the ship in the first place. Everything we initially learn about him is through his actions: he stumbles upon Flint's plot to steal some Spanish gold, and worms his way onto Flint's crew by making himself the sole person who knows how to find said gold. With no information given as to where Silver comes from and how he came to this part of the world, initially he functions less as a character and more as a representation for humanity's need for self-preservation and enrichment.

But in his time spent in the pirate haven town of Nassau and on the crew of Flint's ship the Walrus, Silver seems to undergo a sot of internal transformation. While so little is known of where he comes from, it's clear from his educated speech that he is from a place very different to where piracy thrives. From this we can reason that he found himself on a merchant's ship in the Bahamas because he was born and raised in a society in which he didn't belong. And over the first couple of seasons of Black Sails, he seems to grow increasingly accustomed to the pirate way of life, slowly but surely earning the affection of his fellow crew members. Though his reasons for being on the Walrus crew in the first place were selfish and dishonest, ironically he seems to have now found a place in the world where he is not an outsider.

His position in the crew is strengthened by his sacrifice in the season two finale, which saw him lose his leg to protect the men. And where Flint once looked at him with only disdain, Silver, partly out of self-preservation, stays loyal to the captain even as everyone begins to turn on him, leading to a tentative friendship blossoming between the two. As the series progresses into its back half, and as Silver, walking now with one leg, and Flint become increasingly inseparable, a myth begins to form around the former, made easier by his vague or non-existent backstory. Silver is an anomaly on the show: whereas most characters are defined by their history - most notably Flint himself - Silver has no history to speak of, or at least not one that is explored on the show. Silver's quality as a relative blank slate makes it easier for other men to create stories about him, helping to craft a myth around him.

And so when Silver walks into a tavern and crushes a man's head with his metal leg, he is soon made the face of the pirate resistance to British rule on New Providence Island. Billy Bones, Silver's friend and a long-serving Walrus crew member, creates the legend of "Long John Silver", a hero for pirates to rally around and a villain for the British to fear. And what's most ironic is that Silver doesn't have a personal stake in the pirate resistance, unlike Flint or Charles Vane or most other notable figures. Silver is only fighting this war because he has found a friend in Flint, and an environment and culture where he feels like he belongs. Whereas Flint started the war for deeply personal reasons, Silver goes along for ride in large part because he has nowhere else to go.

Of course, another major reason Silver stays to fight in Flint's war is that he improbably found love in it through Madi, a woman who is a member of a secret slave community who has an obvious motivation to resist British rule. While Silver himself has no stakes in the war, the woman he loves does, and as long as that is the case and as long as his love for Madi and his continued involvement in the war are not at odds, he would continue fighting it.

Over the show's fourth and final season, the persona of "Long John Silver" that Silver must portray to others begins to bleed into his personal life, with his love for Madi and his friendship with Flint at odds with the man others expect him to be. He fears that he is sinking deeper into darkness, a darkness that engulfed Flint long ago. As Silver grows accustomed to a life where he is respected and loved, he must also contend with the man he fears he must become for that life to continue, and it terrifies him. It's here that Silver as a character grows increasingly murky, as truth and myth begin to merge. This eventually leads to Billy, the man who created the myth and believed in it most strongly, getting destroyed by it.

But then in the series' final stretch of episodes, two things happen. The pirate resistance suffers a significant defeat at the hands of the Spanish (still pissed about the theft of their gold), leading Silver's faith in the success of the movement to wane, and Madi is captured, forcing the resistance to choose between her and its survival. For Silver that's an obvious choice, even though he knows that the war is what Madi cares most about, but for Flint, the war must come first. All this leads to the series' stunning climax on Skeleton Island, where Silver plots behind Flint's back to hand over the gold to Nassau governor Woodes Rogers in exchange for Madi. We all know what happens next: Flint catches wind of the plot, and runs into the jungle with the gold in order to bury it, Silver and a group of men chasing after him.

The show's final two episodes are as much Silver's story as they are Flint's, and what's so remarkable about them is that the version of Silver they present is a contradiction. On the one hand, the demonstrate how much he has evolved since we first met him, now standing on equal footing with the world's most feared pirate, who he also become close friends with. But on the other hand, they also suggest that perhaps Silver is still the the same men who wormed his way onto Flint's crew in season 1. In a sense, these episodes spotlight the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps we don't really know Silver as well as we think we do.

The penultimate episode is inter-cut with flashbacks to Silver and Flint sparring, and on the one hand these flashbacks are touching, a reminder of how such a strong friendship has so quickly disintegrated. But on the other hand, they also play up the fact that, like us, Flint knows absolutely nothing about who Silver was before all this, while Silver, like us, knows practically everything there is to know about Flint. Silver insists that there's nothing to know, and maybe there isn't, but it creates a feeling of unease nonetheless, which is amplified by the decision in these two episodes to often shoot Luke Arnold from behind, his face unreachable to the camera.

The story of Flint and Silver ends on a note of ambiguity. After a long, heartbreaking conversation in which Flint pleads with Silver to see the evils of the British Empire and that they twist the truth to fit their narrative, only for Silver to reply, "I don't care", it's left unclear whether or not Silver killed the man he considered his closest friend. Whatever he did, he did to end a war he knew was destined to fail, thereby maintaining some sort of pirate sovereignty in the Bahamas, at least for a little while longer.

After Rogers is defeated and Silver is telling an upset Madi of what "really" happened to Flint; that he was sent away to work on a farm and there was reunited with the love of his life, Thomas Hamilton, we, like Madi, want to believe him. But while Flint's final scenes are beautiful, there's a feeling that perhaps they're too good to be true, and Madi can't trust what Silver is saying. While there's no doubt that Silver loved Flint, is he just telling Madi this so that the woman he loves can forgive him? We'll never know. Much was made over the course of the series of Silver's talent for storytelling: it's what helped integrate him into the Walrus crew. Ultimately, it didn't matter whether these stories were true or not. What mattered was that other men believed them.

And so we can choose to believe whatever story we want about Silver, and if he really did kill Flint. We, like many of the show's other characters, see in Silver what we want to see. To some he was a villain, to others, a man to die for. Over the course of four seasons we spent a lot of time with Silver the man; we saw him grow and change, we saw him fall in love and find acceptance and friendship. But ultimately, history will remember the myth rather than the man underneath it, and we can choose to see in him what we want to see. Did he kill Flint? The answer to that is what you want it to be, and nothing more.

"A story is true, a story is untrue. As time extends, it matters less and less. The stories we want to believe; those are the ones that survive."

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