Who said you can’t be a gentleman and a pirate?
David Jenkins’s new comedy series Our Flag Means Death premiered on HBO Max early March. The show follows Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and his ragtag crew aboard The Revenge as they embark on a series of adventures during the Golden Age of Piracy.
Our Flag Means Death (Season 1)
Creator: David Jenkins
Season Premiere: March 3rd (HBO Max)
I grew up in coastal North Carolina which is home to the Outer Banks. The waters outside of the Outer Banks have a long history with pirates, so naturally I found them fascinating. Ruthless people killing and plundering, a life on the ocean, and fabulous outfits are enough to hook any kid in to their wild tales. Our Flag Means Death takes inspiration from some of these legendary pirates, including perhaps the most famous of them all: Blackbeard.
I knew Blackbeard as he’s depicted by the history books. A massive, wild beard and a cruel face with danger ingrained upon it. He was executed in the very state I called my home. The life of a pirate is treacherous, and I can’t imagine that spending your whole life on a boat was all that fun. Still, Our Flag Means Death captures the dream of adventure and a life with no bounds that drew Stede Bonnet aboard The Revenge, while also showing that a lot of the life of pirates was simply… waiting for something to do.
Although the show is inspired by real pirates Edward Teach and Stede Bonnet and their time together as pirates, Jenkins takes some liberties with the encounters and adventures they shared. The outcome is a campy romantic-comedy fit for sea.
There are some noteworthy elements that make Our Flag Means Death one of the most original shows available to stream right now.
Probably my favorite thing about the show is the sheer amount of LGBT+ representation! And not the borderline bad representation that some shows offer. There are multiple on-screen romances (including actual kisses and the intent to pursue relationships) between the pirates, most notably between Ed (Taika Waititi) and Stede. The show also contains a canon non-binary character, Jim (Vico Ortiz), who is respected in their identity by their crew-mates (after some initial misunderstandings, because the crew isn’t always the brightest).
Our Flag Means Death differs from so many shows because it doesn’t queerbait. For those unfamiliar, queerbaiting is described by Ricky Hill, PhD as “a marketing ploy that nods at queerness but never actually delivers queerness”. I’m sure everyone can think of some shows that hinted at a queer couple getting together and used that to keep audiences watching. Our Flag Means Death explicitly shows audiences that these relationships are possible and real on the show and not merely a scheme to attract queer audiences.
Following along the lines of representation, Our Flag Means Death gives all its characters value, regardless of position on the ship and background. There are conversations about race, something that was certainly relevant in the 1700s and is even more so today. The women on the show hold their ground by being both tough and self-willed. The show also makes fun of the colonial powers of 1717, namely the British and Spanish empires.
My biggest critique of the show is it’s lack of dialogue revolving around the concepts of colonialism and slavery. There are some quips said in reference, but I think the show’s approach to retelling the story of the Gentleman Pirate in an not-historically-accurate manner tries to absolve itself of having to approach these topics deeply. The show bases itself on taking the ideas of Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard as real historical figures and places them within both a modern comedic and queer context. This takes some of the realism out of the show, but I think it still leaves room for more development around the context of the show’s setting.
Throughout the ten episodes of Our Flag Means Death I began to resonate heavily with both Stede and Ed. These two men are looking for some hidden meaning of life, some way to make it all feel worthwhile. Stede fled his life as a moderately wealthy landowner and husband for a life of freedom on the sea. Ed is looking to break away from the monotony of his violent lifestyle. They find what they’re looking for in each other. It’s deeply poetic, and hilarious, watching them struggle to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies while working to understand their own selves.
Stede and Ed’s relationship and attraction towards one another stuck with me as a queer viewer. Their almost accidental journey to each other is thrown against the constraints of their previous lives, meaning they have to find the strength to live as their authentic selves. Some of my favorite parts of the show are Ed and Stede getting the chance to explore this new love, even if they have to be guided a bit by the other characters (especially Lucius, played by Nathan Foad, who essentially becomes Stede’s wingman).
Shockingly, some of the most iconic moments between Ed and Stede were actually improvised according to Rhys Darby himself. My favorite is the scene where Ed reassures Stede by touching their feet together as they’re being apprehended by the British, all while “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac plays in the background. The dedication from the cast and crew to make the queerness of the show real and visible has brought a new hoard of fans who are desperate for representation that is explicitly shown on-screen. Even the heartbreak of the season finale feels authentic, and I’m comforted by the knowledge that no one died (except Lucius, who isn’t dead for certain).
Our Flag Means Death uses tried-and-true methods to come to life. There’s an air of D.I.Y. about the show and it feels like just a bunch of filmmaking friends got together to tell this story. While the visuals and costumes are solid and fit the characters and time period they never detract from the heart of the show. Everything looks and feels a little bit campy, making it the perfect scene for a pirate show that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The show was filmed partially on a soundstage and each episode features a title card within the mise-en-scène. The cast has been very open about the process of making the show. Vico Ortiz pops on my FYP on TikTok every once in a while, usually with a story about their time working on the show and their experience as a non-binary actor.
Our Flag Means Death is not a long show. There’s only ten episodes in Season 1 and each episode around 30 minutes long. Thanks to it’s comedic flair and queer representation I watched the entire thing within 24 hours! Fans are hopeful that HBO Max will renew the show for a second season. I hope so too. We can certainly hope the show isn’t over just yet with favorable reviews and a growing fanbase.
All ten episodes are available to stream on HBO Max.