Our Flag Means Death
HBO Max, March 3, 2022
Apr 26, 2022
By Mariel Fechik
Photography by Aaron Epstein/HBO Max
(Note: Spoilers ahead for Season 1 of Our Flag Means Death.)
Since David Jenkins’ new series Our Flag Means Death premiered on HBO Max on March 3rd, it’s been referred to by well-meaning reviewers and casual fans as a buddy comedy, a bromance, a workplace comedy, and other benign descriptors. If you don’t know much about the show going in, it feels ready-made to be a buddy comedy, with longtime friends and collaborators Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi starring as fictional versions of historical pirates Stede Bonnet, aka the Gentleman Pirate, and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. But the show’s creators and stars have been quick to correct that the show is not only a romantic comedy, but rooted in romance that is nuanced and proudly queer.
Because yes, after nearly eight episodes of slow-burn flirtation between Stede and Ed, their relationship is canonically sealed with a kiss. The series’ creator, David Jenkins, has expounded on the show’s explicit queerness in every interview, crediting his diverse writers’ room (Adam Stein, Eliza Jiménez Cossio, John Mahone, Simone Nathan, Zayre Ferrer, Alex Sherman, Alyssa Lane, and Yvonne Zima) and the openness of the cast and crew. After years of subtext and queerbaiting from the entertainment industry, Our Flag feels starkly different, and fans have responded in kind. (At the time of writing, the show is still number one on the list of most in-demand new series in the US, a month after its finale, and #RenewOurFlagMeansDeath has been repeatedly trending on Twitter.)
On the surface level, Our Flag Means Death offers the kind of goofy, delightful comedy that’s made shows like Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do In the Shadows so beloved. From Waititi and Darby’s use of their own heavy New Zealand accents to other intentionally absurd anachronisms, it’s a show that becomes consistently funnier and tighter as the season progresses. But it’s the show’s intentionality and attention to detail that separates it from other comedies of a similar tone. Clever deconstructions of gender roles, queerness, and finding yourself give the show a foundation of sensitivity and depth—some of the show’s best bits are later revealed to have been artful foreshadowing or historically refrential. It’s also a treat to see Rhys Darby play a role that is layered and serious in addition to being laugh-out-loud funny, and the chemistry between him and Waititi, as well as the rest of the crew, is enchanting to watch.
In a media landscape full of Jack Sparrows and Captain Hooks, the multifaceted diversity of Our Flag makes Jenkins’ take on the genre feel genuinely fresh. Historical realities that are frequently removed from pirate fiction (i.e. Black and mixed-race crew members and a form of same-sex “marriage” called matelotage) are reintroduced and taken several steps further. In a recent interview with The Verge, Jenkins pointed out that the real Ed and Stede were vile criminals, and their fictional counterparts are a fantasy. But within that fantasy was the opportunity to create “a shared sociological imagination.”
Rather than retrace a violent and traumatic history note for note, Darby and Waititi’s portrayals are able to stand in as symbols of a larger metaphor that asks its viewers, “What is the function of an alternate history?” In other words, if details of a history are tweaked, what larger societal changes follow? If that sounds pretentious, don’t worry—Jenkins and crew, above all else, understand balance. Where there is profound sentiment, there is also joyful laughter; where there is desperate sadness, there is also love. Season 1 of Our Flag Means Death is absurd and beautiful—and really, isn’t that just life? (www.hbomax.com/our-flag-means-death)
Author rating: 9/10
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Average reader rating: 10/10