'We knew we wanted to bring these two guys as close together as they've ever been and have it end tragically,' says Jonathan Steinberg
WARNING: The following contains spoilers from “XXXVIII.,” Sunday’s series finale of Black Sails.
Oh, Black Sails, what a high note to go out on! That pirate flag, “Mark Read,” Rackham’s final poetic send-off? Sigh. “What’s it all for if it goes unremembered?” Rackham says to Read. “It’s the art that leaves the mark but to leave it, it must transcend, it must speak for itself, it must be true.”
And that it was, particularly in the fitting way the series came to a close and honored the spirit and narrative of four seasons of bloody good pirate drama. EW caught up with co-showrunner and executive producer Jonathan Steinberg to discuss how the finale came together, those perfect pirate Easter eggs, and what he thinks happens next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Does it feel odd for you guys right now, in the sense that you’ve already said goodbye to the series since filming wrapped so long ago?
JONATHAN STEINBERG: Yeah, the show has been weird from the beginning, with the schedule because we’re always eight to 12 months and sometimes more ahead of the rest of the world. We wrapped production on the show almost a year ago and that’s about how long it takes for this thing to fully work its way through the system, but it is reliving it a bit now that it’s airing and people are experiencing it.
How did you celebrate the last season? Were there death dinners when people got killed off?
Did we do death dinners? Towards the end there were so many of them, the bodies were piling quickly, but I think towards the end, because we all vaguely had a sense, without it having ever been said while we were shooting, that this was probably the end, so I think everyone knew the curtain was coming down with or without them but it’s hard. It was definitely hard in the earlier seasons when you’d get attached to people and you liked working with them and all of a sudden they’re not around anymore so we tried not to [kill people off] unless it was absolutely critical for story.
Got it. I still haven’t forgiven you guys for killing off Vane (Zach McGowan), even if I understand why you did.
[Laughs] That was a tough one, Zach and Louise Barnes (Miranda Barlow). Every time [a major death] happened, we tried to apply a rigorous amount of scrutiny to those decisions in the [writer’s] room and really look for other ways around it. It was only when you get to a point and you reach that conclusion that there’s just no other way to tell as good of a story without it and your hands are tied.
How long ago was this ending in your minds? Did you have a sense of how you wanted to end it all along?
Yeah, I think so. I think we knew how we wanted it to feel. We knew we wanted to bring these two guys as close together as they’ve maybe ever been with anybody in their lives, and have it end tragically. We knew we wanted a specific feeling about the way that Silver chose to end it, that in that last moment he was in control, and I think you start with something like that, with a feeling, and as you get deeper into the story, it starts to acquire details and it acquires things it needs to set itself up. I think when we looked at it, it didn’t look unfamiliar; it looked like the thing we had been looking for from the beginning.
When you started writing season 4, was there any story breaking with the final scenes ahead of time or did you wait until you were ready to do episode 10?
It happens both ways. I think at the beginning, we don’t like to start writing anything until we have a good sense of what the end of the season was. That didn’t mean knowing it exactly, but having that sense and that feel and the gestalt you want at the end. You’re always zooming in and zooming out and those scenes at the end of the finale, in a way, they were broken over the whole course of the season and it was those scenes in some ways that were governing what happened before it. So every episode you make, you’re looking at the end of the road to make sure you’re leading in the right direction and when you get there, the bridge is going to line up. It’s a little more holistic than there being a moment.
How long did the finale take to shoot?
It was a long time. Our premieres and finales since season 2 really, have been really intensive in terms of production schedule and in terms of the amount of visual effects we’re putting into it. It isn’t just what we’re shooting, it’s these massive post tails — that’s how long it takes to finish all those visual effects — which can be six months per episode for some of them. Within the shooting, it was complicated but it was also all hands on deck. It was the end and we had everybody there and one of the things we’ll all miss about the show is that everybody loves it and wants to help and make it great and be involved, so it was a really nice moment at the end. It was the first episode I directed and I had a tremendous amount of support from the producers and the crew and the department heads, other directors who were able to weigh in and handle pieces of it that were incredibly complicated.
Is there one moment or one scene you’re especially proud of in terms of how it was shot and now looks in the finished episode?
That last scene between Flint and Silver. While the intent is always to layout this roadmap to a scene you hope you get to, it doesn’t always work that way and the fact that we’re able to see the beginnings of it a long time ago, seasons ago, and somehow steer this thing to meet it and have it feel emotional, have built it in a way where Toby and Luke were able to do what they do, which is to make it compelling and interesting and unexpected and really impactful, that scene felt like something we weren’t entitled to at the beginning and I think we were all hoping we’d get to a version that worked, so we’re all really proud of that scene. That’s definitely up there.
Did you always know you were going to have the Flint-Thomas reunion? Or did that happen organically?
Yeah, something like it. I think there was a deliberate choice in season 2 not to show the body which, if I’m an audience member watching a show, I’m always at best suspect and I assume they’re not dead [if there’s no body], no matter how many people tell me otherwise. So we had a vague sense that that was a thing that was going to come back in some shape or another. I think it was sometime during season 3 when this version of it started to materialize and to have an ending that would marry us to the book [Treasure Island]. At the end of the book, it’s recounted by other people that Captain Flint died in Savannah alone, which begs a lot of questions: How did he get there? What was there that was worth retiring from his career? It seemed like that was starting to tick off a lot of boxes, in terms of how to make the transition from show to book make sense.
What a crazy last season Billy [Tom Hopper] had! What do you think happens to him next?
It is clear we are suggesting he is on Treasure Island, which I think has a number of implications if you go back and read the book, in terms of how he knows where that treasure is, which may contradict some of the official record within the book and maybe for good reason. But Tom’s arc through this season was also something you know at the beginning has to happen. You know what he is in the book and there’s this massive conflict between him and Silver to get him to that point. Tom did a great job with it and sold everyone on it.
What Easter eggs are you most proud of? There are a bunch in this last episode: “Mark Read,” the iconic pirate flag…
I think those two things are definitely things we hoped would end up making sense. Things that sounded like fun when they first came up and quickly became a little more than fun and then became “Jeez, I hope we figure out a way to put this in there and not have it feel like we were throwing stuff at the wall at the end.” That flag, specifically at the beginning of the show, the idea was that we didn’t want there to be anything familiar in it; we didn’t want to suggest that you knew this world and these people as well as you thought you did. To have the last image of the series be what would have started as the only familiar thing you knew, that flag any kid knows means pirates, it felt right. It felt like we had finished the argument a little bit, in terms of connecting it not just to Treasure Island, but to our contemporary understanding of what piracy was, about what Caribbean piracy was.
How did you guys decide on having Rackham narrating a bit at the end? I don’t suppose your wonderful actor Toby Schmitz ever campaigned for that?
No. On the long list of things we were incredibly fortunate to have with this cast, their buy-in and investment led to not a lot of campaigning at all. They trusted from an early point in the story that if they bought in and let us steer the ship that we were going to get someplace good. I think him having the last word and being able to walk off the stage just felt right. There was something about he and Bonny (Clara Paget) that always occupied a bit of a course function, and just the fact that in the last moment, it’s all about legacy and the history of how these people are going to be remembered, and the one character who from the beginning had been the most consumed by how he’d be seen and this need for immortality, he’s the only one to see his immortality in the future and the moment he sees it, you realize that’s not a thing you can ever see, there’s no way to see it going forward, it’s only something you can see looking backwards. And there’s an irony and a tragedy and something fun about that, that he finally got what he wanted and it wasn’t quite good enough.
How did you celebrate the wrap of production and coming home to your normal lives?
Wrap of production was a thing we survived more than celebrated. Everybody was very happy to go home and sleep for awhile after that but we’ve had rolling theories that it’s the summer camp that just won’t end because we had wrap of production, then wrap of post, then we had wrap on the finale episode, and now when we air, so we seem to be having a lot of goodbye parties, we just don’t want to let it end. We had another one [today], we all watched the finale together. It’s good, it’s a good group.
I was surprised that there is a happy-ish ending here. I thought you would kill everyone, no matter the book or history or what have you.
We ruled out the last act of Hamlet. I wouldn’t want to sit through that at this point. There’s a way to have tragedy without it being oppressively awful: that was the line we were trying to walk.