Out of all the shows I binge-watched during Spring Break, I found myself the most surprised by the HBO Max pirate series “Our Flag Means Death.” Since I myself hadn’t seen too much promotion for the show at the time, I went in thinking it was a low-stakes, light-hearted pirate comedy, especially since executive producer Taika Waititi’s other projects have generally a more upbeat tone. Little did I know that I would stumble upon a show so honest, unique and heartwarming in its approach to pirates, emotions and unexpected romance.
“Our Flag Means Death” follows the foppish, eccentric aristocrat Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) in his journey to prove himself as a pirate. Often called the “Gentleman Pirate,” Stede navigates many challenges with his diverse crew, whether dealing with the English Royal Navy, the Spanish navy or other pirates. More importantly, Stede meets and gets to know the legendary Blackbeard (played by Taika Waititi), as they share both of their different experiences with each other. Despite having a slower-than-usual pilot, the show sets itself apart from other pirate-depicting media by cleverly pivoting from a light-hearted pirate comedy to a slow-burn, historical romantic comedy.
In real life, Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard did have actual interactions, but “Our Flag Means Death” takes it a step further to explore a blossoming yet complex romantic relationship between the two men from different worlds. Other characters are also loosely inspired by real historical figures, and in general, the series’ exploration of different types of queer love also attests to the reality of pirates being basically free from social stigmas regarding sexuality and gender.
On that note, it’s great to see this project fully embrace diversity in many ways, especially since most media about pirates is so Euro- and heterocentric. I appreciate the inclusion of pirates of color in positions of power, whether that’s steady-headed crewmember Oluwande or Spanish Jackie — a Black woman revered in the Republic of Pirates. In addition, other queer relationships are included, with crewmembers Lucius & Black Pete as a couple, in addition to Oluwande & Jim. Furthermore, the nonbinary character Jim (played by nonbinary Latine actor Vico Ortiz), exemplifies diverse representation in its fullest, having their own captivating storyline unrelated to their nonbinary identity. This is especially aided by the show’s three nonbinary writers — another testament to how ahead this show is in representation.
More notably, “Our Flag Means Death” directly tackles toxic masculinity, having characters question the importance of violence in their lives and acknowledge the unabashed love they have for each other. Similarly, the men in this show are able to genuinely cry and express their emotions, while having that not be the joke — contrasting the pressures typically put upon men to repress their emotions as often as they can. Blackbeard’s own emotional journey is a nice example of ridding this toxic masculinity, as he is seen openly expressing his emotions as his relationship with Stede progresses. Hence, the show in essence highlights the lasting importance of embracing one’s emotions and love, even in the overtly masculine world of piracy.
Altogether, “Our Flag Means Death” is a masterful mix of comedy, sorrow, romance and overall acceptance. This is also why I find the more seriously-toned finale so painful, given the uncertainty of the show being renewed for further seasons. Nevertheless, “Our Flag Means Death” is an insightful and wonderful look at piracy, masculinity and the love one can find even in the most unexpected of places.