Our Flag Means Death
Written by David Jenkins
SET in the Golden Age of piracy, Season 1 of the hit HBO series Our Flag Means Death introduces us to the lily-livered but endearing aristocrat-turned-pirate Captain Stede Bonnet (1688–1718). Stede has spent most of his life on land, living off an inheritance, and isn’t quite cut out for a life of piracy on the high seas. But with the help of his newfound “family” of crewmates, he will try to be the best pirate that he can be nonetheless.
After its first season, Our Flag Means Death has amassed a dedicated fan base, particularly among the LGBT community. While it falls squarely under the rubric of British farce, complete with sight gags and even slapstick, the layered characters and timely themes take it beyond the “fun, frolicky, whimsical show” promised in the initial marketing campaign. The show may also appeal to one’s inner literary nerd, as it’s laced with metaphorical imagery and motifs that are open to interpretation. But I was not expecting heart-melting scenes featuring the historical pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet sharing full-blown moments of brooding chemistry and homoeroticism under the moonlight!
In the first episodes, we meet Stede’s decidedly motley crew, but they seem to be on a collision course with Edward Teach, the notorious Blackbeard. As historical figures, the two captains did become partners in plunder for a time in 1717. In the series, Stede has a close shave with death and “Ed” nurses him back to health. The captains take a liking to each other, forging an emotional connection via shared traumatic experiences (both were tormented by aggressive school bullies and by physically and verbally abusive fathers). Ed’s jealous and cynical first mate Izzy Hands disapproves of the flourishing relationship between this diabolical duo, finding it “uncouth and grating on the nerves.”
Stede continues to provide Ed with a loving, nurturing hand and all the luxuries that Ed was denied as a child due to his underprivileged upbringing. In return, Blackbeard promises to teach the cowardly Stede the art of overcoming his fears and the basics of piracy, such as sword duels and looting. What follows is a farcical yet touching and also violently depressing exploration of repressed homosexuality, toxic masculinity, trauma, and the turbulence of a romance that breaks all the rules.
The writing plays around with many of the classic, cheesy, and feel-good romance novel tropes, such as those of the “found family” and the misunderstood protagonist. A memorable instance is when the crew gathers ’round when their captain, who becomes a fatherly figure when he reads bedtime stories aloud. To its credit, the series includes an inclusive mix of nonbinary and multi-ethnic characters, as well as an indigenous lead role. It’s also refreshing to watch a same-sex romance involving a middle-aged couple who appear to be in their forties (though the real Stede Bonnet died at age thirty). It also manages to smuggle in conversations about male mental health, issues of colonialism and class, and the like. For example, in one scene Ed faces discrimination from the posh gentry after gate-crashing a grand party, leading the high-born Stede to fight for Ed’s dignity. Watching Bonnet and his crew grow into more open-minded human beings while overcoming personal challenges is another affirmative facet of the series.
Rhys Darby, who is beloved for his work in stand-up comedy, brings an immaculate, matronly quality to the lead role of the incompetent but charismatic Stede. This performance is reminiscent of his celebrated role as the equally incompetent band manager Murray Hewitt in the HBO musical comedy series Flight of the Conchords. Darby also steers clear of reducing Bonnet to a simpleton or a purely comical caricature by infusing him with just enough sympathetic energy to make us care about his fate and hope that things will turn out okay. Taika Waititi (who also directed the pilot episode) is captivating in the role of Blackbeard/Ed with his signature brand of eccentricity and charm while also capturing the humane side of the dreaded, emotionally troubled pirate.
The contribution of the series’ ensemble cast is tremendous. Included are nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz (they play Jim Jimenez, who is on the run and moonlighting as a mustachioed member of Stede’s crew); SNL veterans Fred Armisen and Leslie Jones; and comic heavyweights like Samson Kayo, Ewen Bremner, Nat Faxon, Nathan Foad, Claudia Doherty, and many others. Will Arnett features briefly in the perfectly cast role of Ed’s chaotic, psychotic ex, Calico Jack (who almost sabotages Ed’s blossoming romance with Stede).
It’s not surprising that the wardrobe department and production design have swept a lot of the accolades this year. The costumes are a mix of accurate period clothing and nods to modern pop culture, with Blackbeard’s Mad Max-esque leather outfit particularly outstanding.
Our Flag Means Death is unlike any other show out there, although I must warn viewers beforehand not to expect a clichéd fairy-tale ending. And yet, if Season 1 comes to an end, can Season 2 be far behind?
Vidal D’Costa is a film critic, journalist, and indie filmmaker based in Goa, India.