The Internet’s uncanny ability to psychoanalyze us is definitely disturbing if you think about it any real way, but credit where credit is due when it comes to recommending good TV shows. All of a sudden I started getting inundated with Our Flag Means Death content. It appeared in suggested instagram posts. YouTubers I follow started doing deep dives on it. I started seeing memes (including some from SparkNotes, who is the meme master). Weirdly, I didn’t see a single official advertisement. Tragically HBO has not done much to promote Our Flag Means Death—which is ludicrous considering how good a show it is, many big name comedians appear, albeit in small roles, and how expensive it must have been to produce—but the fans have been doing their due diligence to get the show noticed. In any case, I went from never having heard of the show to seeing it everywhere (and with some really promising commentary). Additionally, I was going through a bit of a pirate phase (there are a couple of badass privateers in YA right now), so when I had a day off from work and the house to myself I decided I’d give it a shot.
I’m really glad that I did. I meant to try a couple of episodes and then get on with my life, but I ended up binging the whole thing in a single day. That’s not my usual style. Our Flag Means Death, on the other hand, totally is. It’s a hilarious ensemble comedy with a heartfelt emotional core. It’s also incredibly queer, which is the main thing that I knew about going into the show and honestly the thing that sold me on it. There were three things I knew about Our Flag Means Death going in: it’s funny, there’s a nonbinary pirate, and it’s not queerbaity. After the debacle that was Supernatural, “it’s not queerbait” is a heck of a pitch. Is it a spoiler? Eeeh. I guess, technically, but honestly who cares?
What’s it about?
Based very loosely on the story of the real-life “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet, Our Flag Means Death follows a wealthy, middle-aged man who abandons his comfortable life of leisure to take to the seas. Despite his intentions, Stede doesn’t have much in the way of pirate instincts: his ship has a full library and secret passages, he pays his men a standard wage instead of a loot percentage, encourages them to talk through their mental anguish, and reads bedtime stories. The men aren’t sure about this kinder, gentler way of pirating, but an encounter with the British navy and, later, a partnership with the infamous Blackbeard promises to change them all.
What’d I think?
There is a lot to like about Our Flag Means Death. It’s a comedy and in many ways it feels like a workplace sitcom (albeit a workplace that is a pirate ship, with all that entails), but it has a very defined season-long storyline that you don’t generally find in that traditional comedy. Yes, the best half-hour comedies develop their characters over their series runs, but as a general rule you don’t have to see all the episodes. You can more or less catch on even if you’ve missed a few episodes or even a few seasons. Parks and Recreation is one of the best sitcoms out there, and the first episode I saw was from the back end of season six. You couldn’t just drop into Our Flag Means Death halfway through, because while the surface level is immensely funny, the larger parts of the story—the overarching plot, the emotional development of both individual characters and their relationships as a whole—play out more like a drama, with the events of episode one driving the development that comes back throughout the rest of the season. A lot of the jokes also tie into the larger emotion and storylines, so a lot of the best ones require context from previous episodes to get the whole laugh.
A good example of this is the scene towards the end of the season with Stede and Chauncey Badminton (if you’ve seen the show you 100% know what scene I’m talking about; if you haven’t, it’s way too big a spoiler and would require way too much context to explain). If you have all the context about Stede’s personal journey and opinion of himself, paired with his past with Badminton’s twin brother, the scene is both heartbreaking and ludicrously funny. If you’d just jumped in, you might get a surprised chuckle out of it, but it absolutely would not land.
The marriage of comedy and drama makes for the best kind of entertainment. The laughs make it an actively good time, but the dramatic and emotional high stakes are really what keep you engaged. It gives you that I have to know what happens next drive but never gets so bogged down in misery that it stops being fun.
I’m also a big fan of the ensemble cast, especially when they’re all well-developed and well-balanced. Of course there’s always going to be a couple of central characters—Stede is clearly our hero, with Blackbeard a close second, then Jim, Izzy, and Lucius, and the others falling somewhere beneath them, but having a large group of characters gives lots of opportunities for the audience to find someone who really speaks to them. For instance, my favorite characters are Lucius and Stede but when scrolling Tumblr I’ve found that all the other significant characters are just as represented there, if not more so. I’m a bit bewildered by the amount of love for the brutish and cruel Izzy Hands, but for a lot of people he’s a top tier character. When you have a deep bench, there’s someone for everyone.
It also allows for a wide variety of storylines to be told. By providing multiple, well-developed characters, the show can go in any number of surprising directions. In Jim we get the most traditionally piratey storyline, that of someone bent on revenge and with a host of enemies out for blood. Stede’s story is a fish-out-of-water mid-life crisis that turns into a romantic comedy. Blackbeard has grown tired of being a legend and wants the opposite of what everyone around him craves; they are excited to leave ‘civilized’ life behind and go plundering, but he’s bored of the life everyone else sees as such a romantic adventure. The stories all tangle and intertwine in ways that develop everyone involved. No character is the same in episode one as they are in episode ten, having all developed in interesting and compelling and even tragic ways. It’s the mark of a good show that you can take almost any character (maaaybe with the exception of, like, the Swede), watch a short clip of them, and know roughly where in sequence that scene came from because the arcs are done so well. Is Black Pete the bigoted braggart that no one believes or likes, or is he the sweetheart who carves his boyfriend a wooden finger? Is Wee John someone threatening to set someone on fire or debating the hosting responsibilities of having his own room? Some of the development is obviously more dramatic than others (shoutout to Blackbeard for that wild ride!), but it’s there for everyone, including the characters you wouldn’t necessarily expect to get any, like Mary Bonnet, the wife Stede leaves to begin his piratical career.
It almost goes without saying, but in case it doesn’t… the cast is fantastic. It’s a good mix of actors you’d recognize—most notably Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnorak, Jojo Rabbit), but Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords), Kristian Nairn (Game of Thrones), and Joel Fry (Cruella, Game of Thrones) as well—and new faces. Almost all the guest stars are big names (most notably: Leslie Jones, Fred Armisen, Will Arnett, Kristen Schaal, and Nick Kroll), but they don’t pull focus from the main cast. You can tell that everyone really threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm, both from interviews and from the show itself. Everyone is great, but I have to give a special shoutout to leading man Rhys Darby, who plays Stede, because he is particularly delightful.
The pacing is great. I may have mentioned that I accidentally binged this in one day. The reason for this is that every time I decided that it was time to get up and do something with my day, something would immediately change my mind. Sometimes it was a straightforward cliffhanger. Sometimes I was just so charmed and delighted that I convinced myself that the episodes are short and one more wouldn’t hurt. Sometimes I was slightly confused in the best way, like surely that didn’t just happen! It makes for a very addictive, bingeable show but not in an empty way. I’m confident that it would be just as rewarding watched more slowly and carefully, and in fact I’ve watched enough YouTube videos (both silly crackvids and studious deep-dives) and read enough articles and analyses of Our Flag Means Death that I can attest that the jokes stand up to repeat viewings and there’s enough going on that you can think about it more complexly than har har funny pirates.
The diversity of the show is also a major strength. Not everything is central or even mentioned, but it’s there. Blackbeard wears a knee brace throughout the show, but no one ever mentions it and it’s not something that prevents him from being terrifying and legendary. Black Pete has a cleft palate and a lisp. No one says anything and not even the most villainous characters characters mock or imitate it, which is basically unheard of. There’s also no ageism here; most of the leads are older than you’d traditionally get for either an adventure or a romance. Middle-aged people, disabled people, overweight people, people who are not traditionally attractive… they all get to exist as full, round people. It’s bizarre how weird it is to watch a show where everyone looks like a real person instead of an underwear model. But it’s also really refreshing. See? People don’t have to be hot, ripped twenty-somethings to be interesting or lovable or attractive.
The cast is also racially diverse, and the characters of color—despite being in a period piece—aren’t reduced to just being slaves or oppressed people. Blackbeard, the show’s second lead, is Maori. Spanish Jackie (who is Black but, hilariously, not Spanish) is a formidable foe. Jim is Hispanic, but that’s secondary to their revenge plot. Oluwande, Frenchie, and Roach are members of the crew on equal footing with any of their white counterparts. Race is not entirely ignored—in one of the show’s more delightful sequences, Frenchie and Oluwande exploit a bunch of horrible white aristocrats’ racism by pretending to be African royalty and cheating them out of tons of money—but their skin color, while it might affect their backstory, has little to do with the people they are onboard the Revenge.
I mentioned before that I only started watching it when I saw the internet collectively losing its mind about a nonbinary pirate and the season-long buildup to a gay kiss, and I’ll reiterate that here. I’m a person who actively seeks out LGBTQ+ content, especially in my reading. YA fiction is one place where being loudly and proudly out is becoming more and more common. At this point, it’s harder for me to list YA books I’ve read recently that don’t have a significant queer character than those that do. That’s different with TV. Maybe part of that is that I read alone but watch TV and movies with my family, for whom queer content is not necessarily a priority. Whatever the reason, the TV that I see is much more heteronormative than the books I read.
It’s not uncommon to find gay characters in certain genres. Contemporary teen stories, for instance, almost always have at least one. Genre content is a different story, especially popular and big-budget genre content. Supernatural seriously scarred me. How long has it been since that spit-in-the-face of a finale ended? I invested a lot of time and emotion into that show, and because I’m as deeply into queer media as I am, I tricked myself into thinking that they were going to actually give us the representation instead of committing to arguably the most egregious and long-running queerbait in history. But Supernatural isn’t alone in that. Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an even more recent and more widely-known example, although it had a different taste to it; I inexplicably expected the best with Supernatural, but I had no such hopes for Marvel, which meant that the most blatant queerbaity scenes felt gross in the moment and not just in retrospect. Sherlock did a similar thing, playing into gay jokes intentionally when it could easily have avoided them. Then there’s Star Wars, which looked like it might have been implying a gay relationship and then not only didn’t go through with it, actively went out of its way to keep the characters apart and give one of them a gross, unnecessary and overtly heterosexual relationship with a throwaway female character who seemed to exist purely to straighten him out. For the record: queerbaiting is sucky and painful whether you actually ship the characters or not. It’s not just gay people wanting characters to be gay. Yes, I very much shipped Dean/Cas and Finn/Poe, but I was actively anti-John/Sherlock and entirely ambivalent about both Steve/Bucky and Sam/Bucky. Queerbaiting feels gross in every situation, regardless.
So watching a show, a big-budget period piece with pirates no less, that prioritizes its queer characters and actively says “queerbaiting? I don’t know her.”? It feels really, really good. It’s almost impossible to explain the feeling. No, we’re not reading into things. No, we’re not seeing things that aren’t there. No, we’re not crazy. It’s very balming. This hysterically funny pirate adventure story is not just that but is also sweetly gentle romance between two middle-aged men who find in each other exactly what they have been unknowingly looking for.
And it’s not just them. Stede and Blackbeard’s romance is a long slow-burn that, to lots of people watching in real time, was assumed to be a queerbait because those kinds of things so often are. They kiss towards the end, but before you get to that you get Lucius (who’s pretty obviously gay even before saying as much in episode two), Black Pete (whose relationship with Lucius is very sweet and drama-free), and Jim (Jim at first appears to be the woman-disguised-as-a-man who is in every pirate story, but ultimately comes out as nonbinary with little fanfare; it takes more to convince the other pirates that they are not a mermaid than it does to get everyone, including a literal nun, to use they/them pronouns). Even before the final confirmation that both Stede and Blackbeard (who, again, are the MAIN characters of this show) are queer, Our Flag Means Death already feels like a very LGBTQ+ friendly place. No, Our Flag Means Death is not good only because it’s so queer. It’s a great show, but it’s also impossible to divorce the show from its queerness; you can’t de-gay it by cutting six seconds.
As the show stands now (spoiler for the end of season one), things look very bleak. It doesn’t have a happily-run-into-the-sunset-together ending. In another show, a show that queerbaited, I might be turned off by the ending, which has Blackbeard returning to his villainous ways, having potentially murdered Lucius. But because of the loving, open-hearted way that the show has approached everything so far, I—and the rest of the Internet, apparently—trust season two to do right by its characters. When critics say that things like #buryyourgays make it impossible to tell compelling stories about LGBTQ+ characters, this is the sort of thing I’d like to point them to. No one is angry about the plot twist, because it is a compelling, well-written twist. We don’t want gay characters to have plot armor; we just want them treated with the same amount of care and craft as their heterosexual counterparts. If Lucius had been the only gay character and had been callously killed off, leaving lots of open but immediately forgotten plotlines, sure, people would be mad. When people talk about burying your gays, they’re talking about characters like Castiel from Supernatural who comes out and is permanently murdered mere seconds later, or Loras Tyrell from Game of Thrones, who was killed unexpectedly after a whole season of being on trial for sexual deviancy (because, yeah, in a universe with rampant incest, prostitution, rape, and illegitimacy the gay character is the one who gets tortured for it). But we trust this show and its creatives because of the story they’ve told thus far. Also, no one really believes that Lucius is dead. We all love him too much and, drama and violence notwithstanding, Our Flag Means Death is still a comedy).
So far this review might make Our Flag Means Death sound like a cuddly, toothless show (especially if you skipped that paragraph with spoilers!). It’s not. No, it’s not as dark as something like Black Sails (which was previously known as the gay pirate show; I watched several episodes of it, and sort of liked it, but there was ultimately too much rape and murder for me. I may try it again sometime, though, because I still like the idea of it, and I loved Toby Stephens in both Jane Eyre and And Then There Were None). It does still have its moments. Stede may be a bad pirate, but he is still in the pirate world, and that’s a violent world. Wisely, though, the show sits on its most extreme moments. I have never understand the trend of putting the most graphic scenes right at the start of a show. Even some of my favorites have put an intensely violent or shockingly sexual scene in the first few minutes (Sex Education and GLOW come to mind; they’re both brilliant, but I nearly bailed on both of them because of those first moments), only to back down and have nothing nearly as bad for the rest of their runtime. Our Flag Means Death waits on its most violent moments until they mean something. It doesn’t have violence for the sake of violence, using it only to propel major character development (or in one memorable instance, for gross-out humor). I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it until people listen to me: action sequences and violence aren’t fun to watch for their own sake. I have to care about the characters to care what happens to them, and Our Flag Means Death understands that, escalating the violence only when doing so escalates the story.
In short, this is just a really, really good show. It is laugh-out-loud funny but doesn’t get so wrapped up in its laughs that it can’t also tell a very poignant story about a group of misfits who find safe harbor in each other while sailing pirate-infested waters. Every part of the story is well-crafted; it is not every show that can make you laugh aloud one moment, gasp the next, and cry a moment later. From the outside looking in, it looks like a dumb pirate comedy. Honestly, it still would have been fun if that’s all it was, but it it also has a ton of heart and is easily one of the best shows I’ve seen in quite some time, like to the point that I keep clicking on articles about dream Emmy nominees and being offended Our Flag Means Death isn’t on the (and I don’t even know what makes a show eligible! For all I know, it isn’t). If HBO doesn’t renew it for season two, it is absolutely insane.
Available on: HBO
# seasons/episodes available: As of the writing of this in May 2022, there is only one season with ten episodes
Created by David Jenkins
Starring: Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet), Taika Waititi (Blackbeard/Ed Teach), Nathan Foad (Lucius), Vico Ortiz (Jim), Samson Kayo (Oluwande), Con O’Neill (Izzy Hands), Rory Kinnear (Nigel/Chauncey Badminton), Joel Fry (Frenchie), Matthew Maher (Black Pete), Kristian Nairn (Wee John), Samba Schutte (Roach), Ewen Bremner (Buttons), Nat Faxon (The Swede), Leslie Jones (Spanish Jackie), and Claudia O’Doherty (Mary Bonnet)