Crossbones was a pirate series about Blackbeard that aired on NBC but was cancelled before its season ended. Those who suffered through it, like myself, understand why it was cancelled. It is less clear why it was greenlit, although John Malkovich’s involvement was probably a key factor.
The opening narration explains that navigation was largely guesswork in the early 18th century, therefore, in 1712, the British crown offered a fortune to whoever could invent a device that would allow the navy to navigate with greater precision.
Set in 1729, the series starts when a pirate ship attacks a ship in the Royal Navy. Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), a doctor on the the ship, destroys the working model of a prototype chronometer, which can measure longitude, and then murders the inventor to prevent him from being tortured to explain how it works. It’s a nice beginning. Sadly, the series quickly goes downhill.
Lowe is neither a serial killer nor an early Luddite, instead he is an agent of the British crown, who had been assigned to travel undercover on the ship transporting the prototype chronometer to London. However, his real mission is to eliminate Blackbeard AKA Edward Teach, who is believed to be dead, but will emerge from hiding capture the chronometer. The plan worked since Lowe along with the pieces of the chronometer are taken by the pirates to a secret island base.
Marine navigation requires the calculation of both the latitude and the longitude to determine a ship’s location. However, sailors could determine their latitude, which is the north-south direction, but not their longitude, which is the east-west direction. Instead, captains navigated by a mix of latitude and dead reckoning, which was a record of the distance sailed in a day and the compass course, to make a rough estimate of the longitude, but it was a poor substitute for an accurate calculation of longitude.
The longitude chronometer was invented by John Harrison, hoping to win the prize established by the Longitude Act in 1714. Harrison submitted his first model in 1730 and spent the next thirty years refining it until he finally he qualified for the prize in 1761. Since he lived in England, it is impossible that a prototype chronometer could have been employed as bait. By the way, the chronometer in the show, while shiny and impressively complicated, looks nothing like the real thing, which is basically a big watch.
Pretty much everything is made up.
William Jagger (Julian Sands), the man who had killed Blackbeard, is the governor of Jamaica. Jagger admits that he had suspected that he had killed someone who looked like Blackbeard but had accepted the fame. However, he has recently become convinced that Blackbeard had survived and is operating from a secret base, so he hopes that the chronometer will lure his enemy out of hiding.
Actually, the real Blackbeard was killed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who had a successful career in the Royal Navy, rising to captain, but he did not become governor of Jamaica, so Jagger is made up as well.
So, who was Blackbeard anyway?
Little is known of the life of Blackbeard AKA Edward Teach (or Thatch) before he became a pirate. He was an Englishman, and his nickname Blackbeard was due to his long beard. The first record of him is when he was given command of a captured sloop in 1716 by Captain Benjamin Hornigold, an early pirate leader during the wave of piracy that exploded after the end of The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). A year later, Teach became an independent pirate captain. As his fleet grew, he had begun to refer to himself as Commodore by May 1718. Learning that several British warships had reached the Caribbean in order to clean up piracy, Teach accepted a pardon from the governor of Carolina and settled there. However, he had returned to piracy within a few months, and the governor of Virginia sent two sloops commanded by Maynard, who found Blackbeard with a small crew on November 22, 1718. After a fierce battle, Teach was killed, and Maynard returned to Virginia with Teach’s head to claim a reward.
Surprise, Blackbeard is alive.
Calling himself the commodore of the island, Blackbeard (John Malkovich) informs Lowe that he is “no longer an Englishman because I no longer wish to be governed, inspected, indoctrinated, preached at, taxed, stamped, measured, judged, condemned, hanged. I am not the devil, I have cast out the devil.” That speech gave me hope that the series might examine the economic conditions that drove men into piracy but that hope was soon crushed. Crossbones has even less background than Black Sails, which also deals with pirates.
I think that Blackbeard’s little speech is modelled on the opening speech in The Prisoner. “I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed, or numbered! My life is my own.” Great, now I want to watch The Prisoner again and see if I can figure out the ending. Instead, I have to fight my way through this mess.
Lowe’s precarious position as a prisoner of the pirates improves when he learns that Blackbeard suffers from headaches which are accompanied by visions. It would have made more sense if his violent mood swings were caused by migraines, instead of literally having visions. Apparently, the nightmarish visions have been sent by his ex-wife Antoinette, who is Jagger’s prisoner.
Teach had lived with Antoinette for 26 months in Charleston until he was captured by Jagger. When his wife learned that she was married to an infamous pirate she murdered their two children to hurt him. Driven insane by her captivity and/or the knowledge that she murdered her children, she sends Blackbeard nightmarish visions, although her ability to inflict visions on him is not explained. Also, would it not make more sense for her to torment Jagger, since he is the one keeping her in a dark, dank cell?
Blackbeard’s followers go to great lengths to keep secret the location of their island. It seems a little unlikely that an island base inhabited by hundreds of people that does not produce its own food would remain secret for long, since it needed regular traffic to survive, and that traffic would eventually be noticed. However, that is a minor quibble compared to the many other problems and dangling plot-lines in the show.
After gaining Blackbeard’s confidence, Lowe poisons him and is about to escape. However, he observes a midnight meeting between one of Blackbeard’s minions and the right-hand man to the viceroy of New Spain, sworn enemy of England, so he goes back and saves Blackbeard in order to find out why the pirates are conspiring with Spain. Sadly, he never finds out, nor do we. Dangling plot-line number one.
The lack of logic continues.
Soon after Lowe is captured, Blackbeard’s old friend Sam Valentine (Stuart Wilson) and his crew are brought to the hidden island. Blackbeard tells Valentine that he has a chronometer that can calculate longitude, which he will trade for a couple of hellburners, if Valentine agrees to sell it to Jagger. However, Valentine refuses to sell it, regardless of the price, claiming that if the English have the chronometer they will not need to use the shipping lanes and will not be targets for pirates anymore.
Ooooh, there are so many things wrong with just that single sentence. First, while the pirate crews elected their captains, there was no union, no International Brotherhood of Pirates, Buccaneers and Corsairs. Men became pirates to become rich, so any pirate would happily sell a chronometer. Second, I realize that the writers have issues with historical accuracy and logic, but I think the phrase “shipping lanes” is misused. Ships travelled the same routes because the prevailing winds were steady along those routes, and reliable winds were essential for wind-powered ships crossing an ocean. Third, piracy had long been stamped out by then.
Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that a hellburner is a ship filled with powder, rocks and metal with a timer to explode. Hoping to aid her allies, Dutch rebels, against the Spanish, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned Federigo Giambelli, an Italian engineer, to turn two ships into floating time-bombs, which destroyed a bridge that had been blockading the rebels in Antwerp in 1585. Since hellburners had only been used on one occasion, it seems unlikely that Valentine would be able to gets his hands on them. Anyway, it does not matter since Blackbeard never reveals why he wanted the hellburners or even if he did actually want them, or if they were just part of his plot against Valentine.
Needing an army to defend the island while his plots continue to develop, Blackbeard sails to Archangel Island, 200 miles southwest of Santa Campana, where he meets with a begum who is a broker for a mix of Scottish highlanders and Sikhs. Blackbeard sells the chronometer to the Spanish viceroy to get the money to pay the begum.
Archangel Island does exist, but it is located in the Gulf of California, near the northwest of Mexico, and since the Panama Canal had not been dug yet, it seems unlikely that Blackbeard sailed around the tip of South America, a journey that would take months.
Honestly, at this point, little details like geography do not matter. While the idea that an Indian noblewoman serves as a broker for hundreds of high-level mercenaries sounds cool, it does not make any sense. In case you are wondering, neither the begum nor her swords-for hire ever appear again, even though I had presumed that they would protect the island while Blackbeard sails off to sink the Spanish treasure fleet, making her dangling plot-line number two.
While I am happy that Crossbones was cancelled, sparing me the agony of reviewing a second season, I confess that I will miss finishing the subplot of Nenna (Tracy Ifeachor), who was stealing from her fellow pirates to set up a sanctuary, presumably for escaped slaves. She is a former slave, but well-educated. I did like how she handled the madame who was blackmailing her. Dangling plot-line number three, but perhaps her story would have been resolved in the second season. Given the writers’ track record, probably not.
There are a few other minor problems
Suffering from severe agoraphobia, Selima El Sharad (Yasmine Al Masri) has not left the house she shares with Teach for years, but a brief conversation with Teach convinces her to go outside in order to become leader when he dies, since she is only one who can lead. So she simply goes outside and starts walking around. Wow, I did not know that agoraphobia could be solved so easily. Psychologists should watch this show and learn.
Whew, there are a lot of love triangles.
Lady Balfour (Claire Foy) loves Lord James Balfour (Peter Stebbings), but also loves Lowe. Charlie Rider (David Hoflin), Blackbeard’s right-hand man, and Nenna have a thing but he also loves Selima, who loves Blackbeard, who loves her, although he often makes love to several prostitutes at the same time, but that is just to cope with the stress of ruling the island. No one loves Jagger, who deals with his loneliness by torturing people.
The series reveals that Lowe has performed many dark deeds in the service of his empire. It turns out that Lowe and Balfour had opposed each other during the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, and Lowe had given the order to torture Lord Balfour, who was crippled by the rack, but refused to name any conspirators. However, Lowe becomes disillusioned while living among the free-spirited pirate community. At one point, Lowe comments that Teach is basically the king of his area, but has as much right to be king as the English king, and both men have caused enough blood to be spilled. This radical observation was one of the few interesting parts of the show. Lowe’s moral transformation would be more interesting if the actor had infused any life into his character. Instead, he simply recites dialogue while looking grim and determined. Since the show is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between Blackbeard and Lowe, Coyle’s lifeless portrayal further weakens the show.
After arranging for the Spanish to acquire the chronometer, in order to ensure that the Spanish treasure fleet will avoid the usual shipping lanes, Blackbeard intends to place mines in its path, sink the ships, and the fleet will simply disappear. The treasure will be recovered by a submersible he has invented. However, Jagger has figured out Blackbeard’s plan and is following the Spanish fleet in order to find Blackbeard. The Spanish do not seem to be bothered by two warships pursuing them, which seems like a strange reaction for someone who is escorting a treasure fleet that would attract unsavory types who would want to rob you.
Anyway, the plan does not matter, since Blackbeard abandons the work of years the second that he discovers Jagger’s presence. Ignoring the Spanish fleet, he attacks the British warship, after ensuring that Jagger captures Charlie Rider, who will lead Jagger to the secret island so the two sociopaths can settle matters.
I will admit that the climatic battle for the island was entertaining, aside from the overdone, stagy final confrontation between Blackbeard and Lowe.
Go Steampunk or go home.
A secret island base. Bombs in glass containers that explode like mines. A submersible ship. A longitude chronometer built a generation early. A woman who send nightmares into her ex-husband’s mind from another island. If Crossbones had gone full force and done a steampunk version of the pirates, a hidden history with scientific advances and magic, something like The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, that would have been interesting. But the writers did not commit, so it is unbelievably silly. And the acting is atrocious. Able to turn on the malevolence with astonishing ease, John Malkovich is having fun, but everyone else is way out of their league. It is not bad enough to be fun or camp.
Neil Cross, the creator of Crossbones, was the lead writer on Spooks and the creator of Luther, which starred Idris Elba. I watched Luther before I started Crossbones, and I refuse to believe that Neil Cross was involved in this disaster.
There may have been a more messed-up historical show, but I have not seen it. The many conflicting plot-lines that either disappeared or were never resolved is one problem, but it was even more boring than The Borgias, which at least had a coherent narrative. Yay, we have a new champion.