Seeing a debate about the Kenway family on an Assassin’s Creed video recently, has made me sit down and really think about why I think the protagonist of Black Flag is the best one since Ezio and, perhaps, comes dangerously close to toppling the Italian as the series defining character.
The most reluctant protagonist in the Assassin’s Creed franchise to date, Edward Kenway (father of turncoat Haytham and grandfather of Connor, both from ACIII) was a mighty pirate in the tradition of
Guybrush Threepwood. Blackbeard. Indeed, he was a friend or acquaintance to some of the famous names at the time including Mary Read (who famously posed as a young boy, taking the name James Kidd), the other famous female pirate Anne Bonney, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Stede Bonnet, Bartholomew Roberts, Jack Rackham and many others.
A deeply flawed character unlike most of the previous protagonists, for most of the game he is a selfish and opportunistic man, a typical pirate, who thinks very little of the potential consequences of his actions. This we see at the very beginning when following a failed attempt at raiding a ship, he is washed ashore with, and kills an Assassin who was defecting to the Templars. Later, he decides to pose as the dead Assassin at a meeting discussing the arrest and incarceration of a man known only as “The Sage”. Assassins attempt to take The Sage, but Kenway aids in their defeat. Through actions like these, he puts the Assassin Brotherhood under threat, particularly later on for those based in Yucatan and the Mayan ruins. At various points, he fights against both Templar and Assassin. His loyalty is only to himself, and sometimes his crew.
Mary Read: We’re Assassins and we follow a creed, aye. But it does not command us to act or submit – only to be wise.
Edward Kenway: Oh, do tell. I’d love to hear it.
Mary Read: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. This is the world’s only certainty.
Edward Kenway: Everything is permitted? I like the sound of that. Thinking what I like and acting how I please.
Mary Read: You parrot the words, but you do not understand them.
Even when his friends die, his cause celebre becomes locating the Observatory and thinking he can make a shit load of money from it. He hasn’t learnt his lesson, or has he?
He Sounds Like a Right Git! So Why Root For Him?
It may sound like a cliché, but deep down you feel there is a good man waiting to break out of the uncaring pirate persona. He believes in the Pirate Republic of Nassau and is the level head against the others who think it will be an easy task to hold off and compete against Spain and Britain colonising the New World. He wants Nassau to work and eventually sees how the Templars are exploiting the Caribbean through both their Spanish and British allies. He cares about his friends, undoubtedly, even if he never shows it.
Check your head, Vane! We had here a rare opportunity; a chance to take something base and shape it into a government, made and maintained by men of vision. But in two years we pissed it away. I won’t make that mistake again.
You root for him because he could have been almost anyone. A great seaman had he made different choices in life, a naval officer or great merchant. He has sabotaged his life, including of the only woman he loved who would eventually give birth to his daughter Jennifer Scott. You get the distinct impression he would take it all back yet pride (perhaps even arrogance?) drives him ever forward and we get frustrated with the path he remains on as though he no longer has a choice.
The frustration of the player, this annoyance with a man who could have had it all is compounded by those around him trying to get him onto the right path and his outright refusal to see the sense of their words. His Quartermaster Adewale, who eventually leaves the crew of The Jackdaw to join the Assassins, and Mary Read who sees the potential Assassin he could become and tries to encourage him to be a better man, at various times encourage him to give up pirating and look for a far nobler cause. This does come, of course, when he sides with the Assassins after going into near meltdown following the loss of his friends.
Edward Kenway: What the hell happened here?
Adéwalé: You happened here, Edward. The damage you caused six years ago has not been undone.
Edward Kenway: I’m not an easy man to call a friend, am I?
“Change Your Bloody Course Before It’s Too Late!”
In few games do we truly feel the character’s pain as he loses friend after friend, love, and almost everything he had. This is a man on the edge, who has lived a self-destructive life in danger and it’s come back to bite him on the arse. Around 2/3 of the way through the game and he has lost nearly everything. His friends Edward Thatch (Blackbeard), Mary Read (James Kidd) and many others are dead or imprisoned. This is where we see him change and start to side with the Assassins, even if it is not always willingly. Finally, it seems, people like Adewale are getting through to him. Blackbeard is dead. Read is dead. Does Kenway want to be next?
In a world without gold, we might have been heroes! – Blackbeard
This is where he has to do or die and the video above is a hallucination in which Mary Read appears to him and pleads with him to “change his course”. It’s important to note at this point that he is still not an Assassin. Oh sure, he has the weapons and the skills but he swears allegiance to nobody. As a perfect complement to his hallucination, it becomes clear that his Quartermaster and freed slave friend Adewale is already looking to his own future. He seeks a life far nobler than piracy on the high seas. He wants to join the Assassin Brotherhood and even suggests, more than once, that Kenway should do the same. Though he refuses, we can see that there is a sea change developing in the character and this is where we can finally get behind Kenway 100%.
Ah Tabai: What will you do now?
Edward: Nothing sensible.
Ah Tabai: You haven’t earned these, but they suit you.
(Gives Walpole’s Assassin Robe to Kenway
Incredibly, he spends the entire game not an assassin. His journey begins at the end of the narrative of the story. In the final scene we see a man at peace with himself and finally discovering his noble cause even though he still isn’t fully invested into the Assassin’s Brotherhood. That lump in the throat we feel is not just about feeling Kenway’s losses, but the triumph of one man who made the conscious effort to change his ways.