OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH: Actually, It Means Everything

I watched David Jenkins‘ new pirate show with tentatively high expectations. I grew up loving pirates and I even dressed as Anne Bonny for a 7th-grade history assignment (David Jenkins, my casting agent is me and I am available), but perhaps fatigue over the nth Pirates of the Caribbean film cast me adrift, so to speak. Recently taking seemingly the entire internet by storm while being executive-produced by and starring Taika Waititi (one of my favourite directors), I set myself up for disappointment when my husband Gregg and I sat down to watch Our Flag Means Death. I was an idiot.

I watched all ten episodes of the show with my husband in two evenings and have since then been left in a state of devastated ecstasy. How can I explain this adequately and do both the show and the feelings of so many that it spoke to justice? Quite simply, I had never seen myself reflected on screen before. More than that – I didn’t even realise I hadn’t until I watched this show.

But let’s back it up a bit.

The Show in a Nutshell: High Sea Hijinks  

Our Flag Means Death is a new show on HBO Max starring Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi as Stede Bonnet and Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, respectively. Stede leaves his family behind to pursue a life of piracy on the high seas, hiring a crew and building himself a ship. This, we assume, comes easily as it is the Golden Age of Piracy. A lifelong “lily-livered rich boy”, Stede is not immediately suited to life as a pirate captain and struggles to gain the respect of his crew and his ‘victims’ alike. His complete lack of skill as a cutthroat and utter obliviousness to the very real danger he puts himself and his crew in draws the attention of a bored and discontented Blackbeard. The two strike up an intense relationship, much to the ire of Blackbeard’s first mate, Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill). Meanwhile, the entire ensemble finds themselves entangled in various degrees of fuckery. And while we’re on the subject of the ensemble…

OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH: Actually, It Means Everything
source: HBO Max

There are amazing performances, relationships, and side quests from the supporting cast. From the mystical Buttons (Ewen Bremner) and his familiar Karl to Jim (Vico Ortiz) and Oluwande (Samson Kayo) to Lucious (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher), just to name a few, the emotional journey of these characters is just as strong as the central journey between Stede and Ed (Blackbeard). As powerful as the performances from Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi are, and as much as that dynamic and its importance should be discussed, the performances of the supporting cast should not go forgotten. Each character is given charisma and uniqueness in their own way, brought exquisitely and distinctly to life by the incredible strand of actors. Jenkins‘ disregard for following traditional Hollywood casting allows for diversity out the wazoo and opened the door to beautiful performances from actors such as Vico Ortiz, Samson Kayo, Leslie Jones, Fred Armisen, Guz Khan, Joel Fry, David Fane, and Samba Schutte.

Long gone should be the days when pirates on screen all had vaguely English accents, were all white, all men, and all cis-het. Stede’s crew is joyfully made up of a group much like one might have found on a real pirate ship. They are from just about everywhere in the world and the distinct choice to cast in such a diverse and representative way is not just setting the bar for what casual TV viewing should be like anyway – it’s historically accurate.

Horrible Histories? Yes and No

One of the most interesting things about this show to me is its whimsical blend of the modern and the historical. There are pages and pages of the internet dedicated to spotting and delighting in the amusing anachronisms such as Oluwande’s crocs, the Crown Royal bag, the Hot Topic Belt, and so much more. Sure, you find the occasional History Buff™ who feels the need to grumpily point these out and complain, without knowledge, about the budget of the show, but for the most part, the fans love it. I love it too, but I also think it’s a very interesting choice to take material that is traditionally steeped in prestige and drama and self-seriousness and approach it with an entirely different technique.

We can all imagine the conversations that might have happened on set:

“We need a bag for Stede’s shovel.”

“Ummm… I’ve got this Crown Royal bag. Can we do that?”

“I don’t know…That would be really funny…”

It’s absurdity layered over absurdity – a shovel does not require a bag in the first place – but it reveals something about the nature of Stede that he thinks it might and Jenkins has clearly opted to communicate character and story over history (though there’s a fair amount about the show that is historically accurate). Indeed, there’s a large contingent (let’s face it, probably all of us) who really do not want to see the show follow history too closely when it comes to the lives of Stede Bonnet and Ed Teach. Jenkins‘ loose interpretation allows both for moments of comedy gold and for a quiet probing commentary on things like racial and gender politics in our world today. The bleed of the world we see all around us into the screen helps those moments hit home just a little bit better.

Don’t Call It A Bromance (Here Be Spoilers!)

As I said above, the strength of the show largely lies in the power of the central relationship between Darby‘s Stede Bonnet and Waititi‘s Ed. It’s also not a platonic relationship and the people behind the show really want to be clear about that. The show delicately builds the sexual tension between them (okay, maybe not so delicately as the first thing they seem to do is swap clothes) and while the show was premiering week to week, fans were not sure if they were going to be led down a familiar, queerbaited rabbit hole. When the couple finally reveals their feelings to each other and share an extremely tender kiss, the moment is simply quite beautiful.

OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH: Actually, It Means Everything
source: HBO Max

This beauty comes from the fact that the show framed this love story as just that – a love story. It’s not a “gay love story” and it’s not a “gay pirate” show though it is very much both of those things. Our Flag Means Death approaches queer content with all of the confidence and normality found in a heteronormative culture, and in that way, it opens the viewer to experience the romance with the characters rather than, say, their struggle. It’s not a journey of finding their sexuality, or of an illicit affair. It’s a journey of love, plain and simple.

Why This Show Matters

But it’s more than just a great love story. It’s more than just the wacky adventures of a misfit crew. It’s more than just side-splittingly funny. If it was just these things, it wouldn’t be striking this resounding chord with so many people so loudly. The Our Flag Means Death fandom formed quickly and vocally and is largely made up of people who have been made to feel part of “the other” throughout their lives in some way, shape, or form. I gently invite you to scroll through this Facebook group or browse this lovely Tumblr feed compiled by Sara Campbell-Szymanski. Tasha Robinson interviewed David Jenkins for Polygon and addressed the tumultuous time in US politics during which the show came out and there’s no need for me to retread that ground, but the timing is important and this show has found and in many ways created a community for people on the fringes.

That community includes me, though it’s not something I have been particularly open about before. Seeing the character of Jim (Vico Ortiz) was powerful to the point of bringing me to tears as I write this. Approximately one year ago I realised after years of inner struggle that I am, in fact, non-binary. It was healing to know this but that sense of otherness wasn’t gone and my own feelings about my gender identity didn’t seem to be validated anywhere I looked. Then my husband and I watched Our Flag Means Death. Seeing a non-binary character so effortlessly existing as themselves and moreover, so effortlessly accepted by their compatriots was something I didn’t realise I hadn’t witnessed before. The profound effect seeing this has had on me is, quite frankly, indescribable in words.

OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH: Actually, It Means Everything
source: HBO Max

And this is “the thing of it”, this is what is reaching into the core of this show’s connection with its audience. It’s not just about representation, it’s about effortless representation. The heroes are gay, bi, straight, fat, thin, black, brown, white, poor, rich, non-binary, cis, neurotypical, neurodivergent – and this isn’t questioned. Let me repeat that, because it bears repeating – it isn’t questioned. They all exist as who they are, with complete unconditional acceptance and without question. Issues they might have with each other stem from other things like jealousy, arrogance, or even their own inner demons, but it has nothing to do with their identities. It’s a wonderful and refreshing break from the barrage of toxic masculinity that seems to dominate our culture (don’t worry all you “but what about…” people out there, toxic masculinity is still on full display but it does stab itself in the face).

This show sets the bar for what casual viewing should be. There have been countless articles now that hold this show up as the exemplar against the myriad of other shows which succumb to queerbaiting and heteronormativity. The rather specious arguments these shows and films make always seem to fall along the lines of ‘we didn’t want to force it’ or ‘we don’t need it to be in our faces’. Well, I am here to tell you that, no, we don’t need to force anything (Our Flag Means Death proves that) and we absolutely need it to be in our faces. Because for those of us who live in the state of otherness at all times, the only escape from that feeling is towards a more accepting and unquestioning society. And ignorance is not acceptance. Maybe we all just need to be pirates.

How has Our Flag Means Death resonated with you? Tell me in the comments!

Our Flag Means Death is currently available in the US on HBO Max. As of writing, there is no current release date for the UK.

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