I wanted to examine the way Ed’s character is broken into several archetypes throughout the series and what these roles tell us about him. This will be talked about from a trauma-informed perspective, but I am not a psychologist so take anything I say with a grain of salt.
Throughout the show, we see Ed represented through several versions of himself, all of which have different names: Edward, Blackbeard, and The Kraken. All these identities are a part of who he is, they’re not performances or something he’s forced into doing by others, but serve a purpose to Ed of ensuring his survival. This unconscious splitting of self is a result of sustaining substantial trauma at a young age and acts as a coping mechanism that he carries well into adulthood.
Extent of Trauma and Impacts Now
It probably goes without saying, but Ed got issues. He grew up in an impoverished household where he was exposed to domestic violence at a young age. We only see one scene depicting the violence he was exposed to, but as an audience, we can infer that this wasn’t the only act of abuse he witnessed his mom suffer. It’s also likely, although not canon or confirmed, that Ed was also subjected to some form of abuse as well. With the way he behaves and what we’ve seen of his childhood, it’s more or less definite that Ed has c-PTSD, complex post-traumatic stress disorder. c-PTSD differs from PTSD by being a series of traumatic events sustained over a period of time and can have more extreme and long-lasting symptoms.
We can see the way that this shaped Ed the most clearly in episode 6, where Ed is triggered within the show and experiences a flashback. We get a glimpse into the severity of the impact of his trauma here by a few things. One of the most significant being his memory loss.
When Ed says that The Kraken killed his dad, he wasn’t lying. In the moment, that was what he believed, it wasn’t him telling stories for a laugh. When children suffer from highly traumatic events, their experiences can be too much for them to handle, and as a form of protection their minds will put up barriers to spare them the pain. This often carries well into adulthood until something comes along to trigger the memories and erodes the barrier. The combination of preparing to kill someone he knew personally, along with being exposed to the imagery of The Kraken, tore down that wall and forced Ed to re-experience his repressed memories.
Another indicator of the extent of his trauma is that when he goes into a panic state he hides, and we see that the flashback he’s experiencing isn’t a single moment, but is ongoing even as Stede talks to him. It’s common for flashbacks to distort the person’s reality, where it’s not just a memory they’re revisiting, but an event that they feel like is happening to them again in detail. Even when Stede knocks on the door and opens it we can see the way Ed flinches, and how this blurs into the moment of his father throwing dishes and striking his mom. There’s a blurring of reality occurring here.
His trauma leaves him immobilized, hypersensitive, and in a reactive fearful state. Basically, he got issues. Really big issues.
Compartmentalization of Self
Ed got issues, but also, Ed is an extremely successful and famous pirate. We see him blow up and isolate at times, but we also know that he’s renowned worldwide and has the skills to back it. The way he’s able to achieve this is through compartmentalizing his trauma and taking on different selves that suit his need.
Those selves are Ed, Blackbeard, The Kraken, and although not named in the show as such, his childhood self.
The way I like to think about them is through the lens of the Internal Family System, a model of psychotherapy that identifies several parts/sub-personalities as a way of addressing trauma. And I would like to reiterate again, that I am not a therapist and I don’t have training or anything. This is just how I chose to interpret Ed’s character. I’m playing fast and loose with this and wanna try to not go too far in-depth on the specifics.
Anyways, I’m leaning on Bessel van der Kock his book The Body Keeps the Score for how I’m defining terms in this.
So, a brief introduction
“The core of IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy) is the notion that the mind of each of us is like a family in which the members have different levels of maturity, excitability, wisdom and pain. The parts form a network or system in which change in any one part will affect all the others. In trauma parts of the self go to war with one another. Self-loathing coexists and fights with grandiosity; loving care with hatred; numbing and passivity with rage and aggression. These extreme parts bear the burden of the trauma. We all have parts that are childlike and fun. When we are abused, these are the parts that are hurt the most, and they become frozen, carrying the pain, terror and betrayal of abuse. This burden makes them toxic – parts of ourselves that we need to deny at all costs. Because they are locked away inside, IFS calls them the exiles.
At this point other parts organize to protect the internal family from the exiles. These protectors keep the toxic parts away, but in so doing they take on some of the energy of the abuser. Critical and perfectionistic managers can make sure we never get close to anyone or drive us to be relentlessly productive. Another group of protectors, which IFS calls firefighters, are emergency responders, acting impulsively whenever an experience triggers an exiled emotion.”
Parts of trauma, abuse, and pain is pushed onto the “exile” who carries that burden and is often locked away. Protectors exist to protect those exiles: Managers who handle the day to day life keeping things together often through perfectionism and criticism, and firefighters who respond in emergencies that act out in extreme and often damaging ways. It’s all one person, struggling to cope and putting on the necessary hat in the moment to do so.
Van der Kolk goes on to say:
“Each split off part holds different memories, beliefs, and physical sensations; some hold the shame, others the rage, some the pleasure and excitement, another the intense loneliness or the abject compliance. These are all aspects of the abuse experience. The critical insight is that all these parts have a function: to protect the self from feeling the full terror of annihilation.”
Seeing the way Blackbeard and The Kraken are treated in the show immediately reminded me of this since they fit so well into a manager and firefighter role, respectively. Ed’s clear throughout the show that he is Blackbeard and he is The Kraken. They’re not performances, they’re a part of himself and they serve a purpose: Protection.
Blackbeard, the Manager
The first iteration of Ed we meet is Blackbeard, the feared infamous pirate captain. As the manager, he’s built himself up from poverty and abuse to be in the high place he occupies now.
Blackbeard is cruel and violent, but he’s also calculating and brilliant. He applies a rigid control to his entire ship, using fear, violence, and manipulation to hold his crew to a set standard, and is even able to offload the worst of his actions onto them while still reaping the benefits of his reputation.
Ed wouldn’t have survived this long without Blackbeard. Blackbeard gets shit done. Blackbeard gives him power, he evokes fear and respect. Blackbeard has kept him going for as long as he has.
Edward, the Child Exile
One thing I love and find really interesting about Ed is how when he’s triggered or feels emotionally unsafe, he reverts to behavior that’s more childish in nature. We see this in a couple of places, whether it’s hiding in a bathtub clutching a soft fabric, or fleeing tearfully from mockery at the French dinner.
These moments come at high points of emotional insecurity and are ones that are coupled with flashbacks to his childhood trauma, tying it directly to his younger self. It’s an incredibly vulnerable place for him to be in, and for the majority of the ones we see on screen, Stede is present to reassure him and let him know he’s safe. He defends him from the French captain’s insults and does so again when he’s hurt at the party. More than that, he’s available to offer assurance that this part of him is okay to have. Whether that’s telling him he wears fine things well or affirming that he’s his friend and agreeing to pretend the whole murder plot never happened. These moments in the end are ones with positive outcomes and healthy developments for Ed.
That is, of course, until Stede himself is the cause of triggering his exiles. David Jenkins had said before that Ed hadn’t ever been hurt by rejection as badly until then. When he triggers his exile, it’s severe. Not just a few minutes of heightened sensitivity and fear, but days long of hurt and hiding. He builds a pillow fort for comfort! Which might seem silly, but is heartbreaking when you consider that survivors of child abuse often will try and physically hide even as adults as a learned behavior.
And this time, Stede isn’t there to pick up the pieces. Lucius and the crew try, and to some extent, it does help as they assure him that his feelings are valid and that he will be okay. That, of course, gets majorly fucked up when Izzy intervenes (which I have MANY thoughts on lol) and confirms all of Ed’s greatest fears that he is weak, vulnerable, and in danger. Another commonality with survivors of child abuse is viewing your childhood self with contempt, a weaker version who has to be isolated and ignored. Stede spent weeks making Ed think that was untrue, and when he left it showed Ed that he was right to want his childhood self gone.
It’s only natural for Ed to not want to confront this part of himself. It makes him feel weak and scared, and that’s a tragedy in and of itself.
“Keeping the exiles locked up stamps out not only memories and emotions but also the parts that hold them – the parts that were hurt the most by the trauma. Schwartz: “Usually those are your most sensitive, creative, intimacy-loving, lively, playful and innocent parts. By exiling them when they get hurt, they suffer a double whammy – the insult of your rejection is added to their original injury.””
And what happens when Ed is at his lowest, most vulnerable, hurt in a way he hasn’t felt in decades? The Kraken comes out.
The Kraken, the Firefighter
The most important thing to remember about The Kraken is that he’s there to keep Ed safe. He’s the last resort, the weapon hidden behind glass to break in case of emergencies. The Kraken isn’t there to hurt Ed, he’s there to protect him.
Bessel van der Kolk describes it like this:
“Firefighters will do anything to make emotional pain go away. Aside from sharing the task of keeping the exiles locked up, they are the opposite of managers. Managers are all about staying in control, while firefighters will destroy the house in order to extinguish the fire. I’ve met firefighters who shop, drink, play computer games addictively, have impulsive affairs, or exercise compulsively. These can blunt the abused child’s horror and shame, if only for a few hours.”
We first meet The Kraken when Ed is young through the murder of his father. And it’s easy to view The Kraken as defined by violence and violence alone, but The Kraken wasn’t born to hurt, he came from the desperation of a young boy trying to protect his mother.
When we see The Kraken commit acts of violence, they’re not explosive moments fueled by rage, but ones seemingly calculated to achieve the best effect. Lucius, the person other than Stede who saw him at his absolute lowest, was tossed overboard with a smile on Ed’s face. I’d argue we can see shades of this in other places too, often it follows moments where we see Edward, the child exile, touched upon.
Edward screams that he’s not a donkey and kicks the captain; The Kraken hands Fang a fork and says to skin him.
The Kraken was also something formulated by Ed at a young age, and you can tell with the way he acts. He’s cruel and violent, but there’s a childishness to it too. He’s committing these acts of violence, but at the same playing dress-up because it makes him feel safer this way. He switches between marooning Stede’s crew and sobbing at the windowsill alone.
Ed’s hurting and The Kraken is willing to sink the entire ship as long as he can make that pain stop. But just like the manager and the exile, this is still a part of him that’s just trying to survive. He can’t lock away the negative aspects of his person and call it a day, he tried that with Stede, and it ended in disaster. None of these are performances or false selves, they’re all him.
So, what now?
Ideally, he’d go to therapy, but I’ve heard that it may be hard to access in the 1700s or something.
What Ed needs is a safe place, where he can learn how to cope with his feelings without fear of exclusion or hurt. That doesn’t mean accepting everything about him no matter what! Stede should probably tell him that it wasn’t cool for him to try and murder his whole crew. Still, Ed needs a place where he can feel safe to express himself.
It’s not just that he feels embarrassed to do so, it’s that the totality of his emotions is too much for him to bear. When Ed said he wants to curl up and die, that’s not him being dramatic, that’s an expression of how hard it is for him to deal with this much emotion at once and the vulnerability that comes with it.
Like I said, it isn’t as simple as deciding that The Kraken and Blackbeard aren’t his true selves and that they need to be locked away. They’re here for a purpose: to protect Edward.
Although they may not always fulfill that in the most balanced way possible, they still serve a role, and in some ways, there’s some gratitude that needs to be expressed to them for keeping Ed alive. Because there’s no way that Ed would’ve survived all these years if it wasn’t for them.
In a season 2 (dear lord, am I manifesting) I’d really love to see Stede interact with all sides of Ed, especially The Kraken. He might not always make the best choices, but The Kraken is just trying to survive, and I’d love to see him treated softly and with kindness.
Ed is coping with an immeasurable loss, triggered, and scared. Survival and destruction can look shockingly similar when in a state like this, and mistakes are easy to make. Naturally, it doesn’t excuse his actions, but it’s a very human response based on coping in the only way he knows how.