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'Crossbones' recap: A most(ly) civilized pirate

Season1 | Episode 1 | “The Devil’s Dominion” | Aired May 30, 2014

A lesson in the British Empire’s early 1700s military might kicks off Crossbones, the story of Edward Teach, also known as the feared pirate Blackbeard. Teach is played by famed American actor John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich, Dangerous Liaisons and, more recently, RED and its sequel). Blackbeard undertakes a quest to find a navigation invention, the longitude chronometer, which would give the British Navy even greater dominance by allowing ships to gauge almost their precise location in the world’s vast and previously unknowable oceans.

Blackbeard lounges languidly amidst ticking timepieces before the scene changes to a desperate high-seas chase.

The captain of the HMS Petrel, bound for England, abandons his attempt to outrun a pirate vessel and vows to show force instead. Belowdecks, a chronometer clicks away at its task, while elsewhere, the ship’s doctor, Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), performs a crude amputation, asking permission before proceeding to “dismember the image of God.” Canon fire rocks the ship and Lowe hands over the task of sewing up the patient to terrified Mr. Fletch (Chris Perfetti), gleefully assuring his assistant that they are indeed “dead.” On deck, Lowe shows great proficiency with weapons, as seemingly more experienced sailors fall at the hands of the invading pirates. While throats are being slashed and men being run through, deadly female pirate Nenna Ajanlekoko (Tracy Ifeachor) notes Lowe’s disappearance into the captain’s quarters. Lowe beseeches Frederick Nightingale (Henry Hereford) to open the door. “Are we lost?” Nightingale whimpers. Lowe assures him they are, as he grabs Nightingale’s gun and destroys the chronometer, then burns Nightingale’s notebook. Lowe then apologizes before poisoning Nightingale, explaining that he can’t allow the invention — or the inventor — to fall into the pirates’ clutches.

Nenna and her associate, Charles Rider (David Hoflin), bust through the door in time to rescue half of the burnt book. Lowe introduces himself as “physician,” which sets up some expectations for him to save Nightingale. “I’ll do what I can,” says Lowe, staring down the hard steel blades pointed at his face.

Later, Lowe pauses to consider his circumstances as he ministers to the wounded on what appears to be the pirate ship.

In flashback, Lowe arrives at a Caribbean-based British fort to meet with William Jagger (Julian Sands), who explains the chronometer and Lowe’s mission to pose as the ship’s surgeon. Lowe asks if his assignment is to protect the chronometer. “No,” replies Jagger. “Your assignment is to eliminate the pirate Blackbeard.” Lowe thought that Jagger killed Blackbeard himself — and so did Jagger. But Lowe is now convinced the pirate is alive and, while hunting the slippery villain among these islands and inlets would “take 100 years,” Jagger is certain Blackbeard will pursue the chronometer. Lowe must execute him. “It would be my honor, sir,” Lowe replies. Papers in hand, Lowe’s “ship leaves on the first tide,” of course. (Do ships leave on any other tide in pirate stories?)

Back on the pirate ship, Lowe looks perplexed. Fletch wants to know where they are. Lowe: “The Devil’s Dominion.” An island comes into view. At the dock, Kate (Claire Foy) directs distribution of the booty, then engages in some flirty banter with Lowe, who later identifies her to Fletch as Lady Katherine Balfour, a “fugitive from justice” and guilty of high treason.

Nenna and Charles turn over the broken chronometer and the singed cipher to Selima El Sharad (Yasmine Al Massri). Meanwhile, Lowe has an appointment with Blackbeard, who introduces himself by slicing an artery in the neck of the Petrel’s first mate. Lowe cauterizes the wound with gunpowder and a candle. Blackbeard compliments his abilities. “I am the Commodore of this island,” Blackbeard says. Lowe: “Blackbeard.” Blackbeard: “We don’t use that name here.” “Forgive my gaucheness, Commodore,” Lowe replies. “It’s just that you appear to be more robust than many would have led me to believe.”

The conversation turns to God, the devil, and Blackbeard’s stance on each of them. God is a clockmaker, who winds his creation and sits back to watch it unwind, the Commodore says. In his opinion, the devil is the English government and its representatives; as Commodore, he’s cast the devil out of this island. Blackbeard comes to his point: He wants Lowe to save Nightingale. And if Lowe refuses, “I should be obliged to see hell visited upon you,” Blackbeard calmly imparts. When Lowe says he’s not afraid of death, Blackbeard states more plainly, with a touch of the savagery he’s infamous for, that Lowe will beg for death if Nightingale dies.

While hanging a man, Jagger receives word that the ship has been taken.

Standing over Nightingale, Lowe reveals to Fletch that he’s not just a physician.

Blackbeard asks Selima if the cipher can be broken. She thinks so, but she also thinks they’re in imminent danger of being hunted and annihilated by the British military. He tells her to do it anyway, but she threatens to refuse. He tells her that her beauty, which is considerable, “pales in comparison” to her genius, and that he knows she won’t be able to resist solving this riddle.

Later, as he studies a globe, Blackbeard’s vision of a ghostly female causes a nosebleed. (We haven’t seen the last of her, surely.)

From his window, Lowe sees Lady Kate having a skinny-dip, and when she returns to her own accommodations (clothed), she kisses wheelchair-bound James Balfour (Peter Stebbings) in familiar, intimate greeting.

Charles oversees Lowe’s care for Nightingale. Lowe believes he can be saved, but needs supplies. A quick trip to the pirate market leads to a battle of wits with Lady Kate, who will provide him the supplies he needs in exchange for a year’s wage. She sees it as charity because she doesn’t expect Lowe to live a year. Lowe now has an open tab in the pirate market. When they return to the hut, Nightingale is dead. Charles immediately tries to kill the doctor, but Lowe succeeds in pushing him out, giving Lowe the chance to search Nightingale. He finds the cipher code on the clockmaker and, when the pirates have chopped through the door, threatens to set it on fire if they don’t get the Commodore, who steps up. After a debate about what course of action would result in Lowe keeping his head a while longer, Lowe burns the code and informs the Commodore that he had memorized it. Commodore: That only buys you a little time. Lowe: I’ll take it. Commodore: “Whether you’ll allow it or not, Mr. Lowe, you have something of the pirate about you.”

The Commodore shows him to a room — a nice room, in fact, for a pirate hut. Selima promises Lowe that she’ll know if he falsifies the translation. No doubt.

In a bit of unnecessary exposition-pimping — if viewers haven’t gotten it by now, they’re as simple as Fletch and probably not watching this show — Lowe explains to Fletch why the chronometer device is so important, and that they’re dead if he doesn’t decode the cipher. Fletch wants off this crazy island. Lowe has another job: “I’m to kill Blackbeard and return his head to the governor of Jamaica.” Fletch: “Why don’t we just kill Blackbeard and go home?” Fletch’s simplemindedness is getting a bit tedious. Lowe appears to think so too.

A handful of pirates busts in, with Charles in charge. They restrain Lowe after smacking him and Fletch around a bit; then Selima appears and notes that the key to the cipher is a single word or phrase, and she wants Lowe to tell it to her. He won’t, though, because he thinks “mutton and unicorns” will rain from the sky before the Commodore rewards him after turning over that information. Charles goes about burning Lowe’s fingertips.

Monkey-boy Fletch stumbles into the Commodore’s quarters, where he’s entertaining several naked female guests, and tattles on Charles and his compatriots. (I fear this action will not be rewarded.)

Selima wants the key. The Commodore wants to know why she’s torturing Lowe. After the Commodore asks Lowe to take a walk and compliments Fletch’s loyalty, Charles and crew beat the crap out of Fletch. (Not quite how I saw Fletch’s punishment happening, but it happened just the same.)

On the beach, Commodore and Lowe flirt with each other — this is obviously one of those “I respect your mind” relationships, and they’ll be playing chess any moment now — and then the Commodore stands by as Lowe flirts with Lady Kate, who’s out for her naked morning swim. When asked how the plunder of the Petrel fared, Kate describes the bounty as “rich pickings.”

James thinks the same about the Commodore and Lowe: They seem “fast friends.” Kate: “Don’t be deceived; they’re two sharks circling one another.” Kate then expresses concern for his condition and wants to know if it’s worsening.

Lowe and the Commodore continue their beach chat. The Commodore says Selima got the torture all wrong — that Lowe’s weakness isn’t his own flesh, but that of young Fletch. This brings about the most terrifying speech from Blackbeard so far, when he describes how he will torture young Fletch: “You’ll do as I command, or I’ll string up young Master Fletch in the town square, and I will visit upon him such enormities as to make Christ weep. I’ll starve him, slit his skin and scourge him, and see him violated again and again and again. For if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to spread a legend. And I’ll ensure that the world knows that the cause of his suffering is the loyalty of one ship’s surgeon, Thomas Lowe, and that’s how I’ll torture you — with your own vanity.”

Thrown back in the room with whimpering Fletch, Lowe examines his new patient and divulges that he has to kill Blackbeard that night. After dinner arrives, Lowe and Fletch (quite recovered) pick the window lock and escape. Plan: Steal “killing materials” from the quartermaster’s warehouse.

Lowe sneaks past Blackbeard’s room, kills a French pirate guard, takes his jacket and throws him over the cliff. A quick cut to Blackbeard shows him practicing some acupuncture on himself. Lowe encounters James Balfour, who’s just taken a hit of what’s likely to be opium and knocked himself out. Lowe then becomes entranced with sleeping Kate — oh, wait, he’s stealing her keys. In the warehouse, he finds his own box, opens its secret compartment and — is totally busted by Kate. She’s got the portrait of Lowe’s “wife” that was hidden in the box and wants to know why he had to break in to get it. He returns Kate’s keys, and she returns his cameo and bids him goodnight — and looks perhaps disappointed about the “wife” thing.

Back in Blackbeard’s compound, Lowe takes a swig of some courage, and opens the cameo to expose a small vial of something or other that he calls “Commodore Blackbeard’s death.” He has no wife, by the way.

Crossbones: John Malkovich as Blackbeard (NBC)Lowe makes an unannounced visit to the Commodore, who now has a halo of needles erupting from his scalp, Lowe can’t help but note. “I get headaches,” the Commodore says. Lowe asks about the nature of the headaches, including visions, but the Commodore will not describe the vision he has. He does, however, explain that this remedy is Chinese in origin.

Salima sends a note to a Spaniard via Nenna-post.

Lowe admits that he has the key to cipher, jostles some metal goblets as he sits down, and offers the key in exchange for Fletch being set free. As for him, he’ll throw himself on the Commodore’s mercy. The key reads, “Blackbeard must die.” Let’s drink to it, says Lowe. Sure, says Blackbeard, and takes the goblet closest to Lowe. Lowe’s face says, “Mergh,” but he doesn’t actually say anything. They toast: “Blackbeard must die.” Blackbeard’s going to check out the key and will get back to him.

Lowe looks slightly ill, but then flashes back to putting the poison on the corners of the cipher’s pages, so that it will poison anyone who licks his fingertips to turn the page, which, of course, is exactly what Blackbeard is doing.

Back in his comfy cell with Fletch, Lowe informs him that Blackbeard will “sicken within the hour and die by daybreak.” Fletch: “Can we go now?” We should, Lowe replies, but when they get to the cliffs, Lowe sees Alonzo de Alverado, right-hand man to the viceroy of New Spain — sworn enemy of the crown — meeting with Nenna. Lowe deduces that if they leave now because they’ve killed Blackbeard, they’ll never find out what the Spanish-pirate plot is and English blood will be spilled. His solution: He has to save Blackbeard. “Damn his eyes!” (Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein instantly pop into my brain — surely not what the writers were going for.)

Blackbeard writhes on the ground muttering, “Lowe.” Charles wants to know if he should kill Lowe or go get him. Selima says to kill him. Lowe busts heads in the corridor, but then encounters Selima’s guns pointed at him in Blackbeard’s quarters. He swears he didn’t poison Blackbeard, that Blackbeard has “the falling sickness” (whatever that is — this is terribly transparent). She shoots him anyway (see, transparent). Bleeding from the shoulder, Lowe wrests a gun from her, and administers the antidote while holding the gun to the Commodore’s head to keep his band of not-currently-merry pirates at bay. The Commodore recovers and calls Lowe “a fine fellow.”

On the beach the next day, Lowe wades out to where Kate is swimming and dives in. (Saltwater in a gunshot wound has got to hurt.)

Blackbeard promises James “every resource” to rebuild the chronometer. James stands and moves to the table. But what of Lowe? Blackbeard says he fought like hell to save him — whether he tried to kill him in the first place or no — while those he loved were content to avenge him. And? Blackbeard hasn’t decided. They look down on Kate splashing playfully at Lowe, who apparently lives to see another day.

A more sober pirate experience than, say, Black Sails on Starz — naturally, considering the vast cable-vs.-broadcast content divide — Crossbones seems aimed at those whose constitutions perhaps can’t abide the brutality or rollicking debauchery of the cable show, but who still want a pirate fix. Malkovich’s Blackbeard should sate them, but how many viewers will want their piracy served with such civility? (And, yes, the British accent needs work.) I predict that Blackbeard is going to have to get his hands dirty — up to the elbows, at least. Perhaps next week …

Crossbones airs Fridays at 10/9 C on NBC.


TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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