Enlightened Pirates and Savage Civilizers in NBC’s ‘Crossbones’
On Friday, May 30, NBC launched the premiere of its new pirate drama Crossbones, produced and co-created by Luther scribe Neil Cross, along with Amanda Welles and James V. Hart. I have previously taken Hart to task for his screenplay to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), a film that is in many ways faithful to the details of Stoker’s novel while entirely subverting its moral framework. In Crossbones, however, Hart, with Cross and Welles, puts his talent for subversion to better use.
The series is centered on the semi-mythic pirate Blackbeard, played here with customary off-kilter menace by John Malkovich. In 1712, the British Navy finds itself prey to pirates and thus is seeking a better method of navigation so as to avoid detection and eventually wipe them out. Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle) is a physician-cum-spy who is given the double duty of protecting England’s newest navigation device and assassinating Blackbeard when the opportunity arises. Needless to say, it soon does, and Lowe finds himself a prisoner in the pirate’s bizarre republic.
Blackbeard’s realm, as a state of nature, hovers on the knife’s edge between Thomas Hobbes’s self-serving state of war and John Locke’s somewhat more optimistic “law of Nature.”Though piracy has been a perennial concern for seafarers across the centuries, the show’s eighteenth-century setting is hardly coincidental. It derives in part from the book that inspired the show, Colin Woodard’s The Republic of Pirates, and it no doubt seeks to capitalize on the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But in the pilot, “The Devil’s Dominion,” the writers put their setting to good philosophical use as well; for 1712 falls within the intellectual era known as the Enlightenment, and Crossbones both acknowledges and, to some degree, seems to call into question many Enlightenment tenets.
A characteristic of Enlightenment thought was a move in Western Europe away from Christian orthodoxy (Protestant or Catholic, depending on the country) toward a less doctrinal view. It became fashionable for the intellectual elite to adopt a position of deism, the perspective that God exists but that upon creating the earth, he left natural and historical forces to run their courses. For deists, then, any knowledge of God is to be sought neither through external revelation like Scripture nor through traditions (which are prone to error) but through Reason, which God made accessible to humanity. Evil in the human realm derives from error, from people failing to use their rational faculties; with proper education, people can become more rational, and human society can improve.
Cross, Welles, and Hart recognize this philosophical matrix. One of the popular analogies of eighteenth-century deism was that of the watchmaker; since watches and clocks were among the most complex mechanical instruments known at the time, they became emblematic for a God who designed the world, wound it up, and left it to run on its own. Crossbones is replete with clock imagery, most notably the navigational chronometer that Lowe must protect. Indeed, Blackbeard and Lowe even debate the existence and activity of God on just such terms, though their dialogue remains unresolved.
But underlying the watchmaker analogy in the eighteenth century was the belief that a return to the principles of Reason would improve the human condition. Since each person was born a “blank slate” (tabula rasa, in John Locke’s famous phrase), human evil derived from external forces acting on individuals, forces that might be counteracted with good influences and education.
Crossbones problematizes an easy application of these principles. Ironically, the opening episode presents the bloodthirsty pirates as best exemplifying Enlightenment principles, in contrast to the “civilized” English. The authoritarian British Empire’s Navy is identified as “the most brutal and efficient military force that has ever been.” It serves under a monarch, and Lowe works for a Machiavellian superior, William Jagger (Julian Sands). The opening exposition claims that with the new navigational tool, “the Empire would increase its dominion over the world.” And the episode’s title (not simply called “Pilot,” as most premieres these days) clearly identifies this empire with the devil.
Blackbeard, meanwhile, claims to have “cast out the devil.” Unlike Lowe, who professes to fear (but not love) God, the pirate contends, “Here’s my creed: I suspect God is a clockmaker; he wound creation up and now he sits back and watches it unwind—whether to his pleasure or otherwise is any man’s guess.” He claims the title “Commodore” for himself, but allows his islands denizens generally free reign. Women perform functions on the island from which they would be excluded in England—as soldiers, as record-keepers, as scholars. Thus, Blackbeard’s realm, the ostensible devil’s dominion, is actually a far more democratic republic than the one governed by the “brutal and efficient” British flag, which does not fly in his land, establishing it as a sort of precursor to another Enlightenment product, the United States of America.
Of course, in collapsing the binaries between the civilized and the savage, the enlightened and the irrational, the writers of Crossbones can hardly be said to bestow the moral high ground to the pirates. The opening battle gives ample testimony to their relish for violence, and the island’s freedom is marked by duplicity and tension in relationships, since no one can dare trust his neighbor. Blackbeard’s realm, as a state of nature, hovers on the knife’s edge between Thomas Hobbes’s self-serving state of war and John Locke’s somewhat more optimistic “law of Nature.”
How (or if) Cross, Welles, and Hart choose to resolve these tensions remains to be seen. Unsurprisingly, Crossbones is populated by characters hiding dark secrets in the dark dominion, plenty of fodder for future episodes. Enlightenment philosophy and swashbuckling action make for an odd mix to be sure, but John Malkovich as a deistic buccaneer? It is, if nothing else, an intriguing design.
Love the double entendre!!
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