I’m personally a big fan of the very specific brand of “middle-aged men falling in love with each other” brand of TV that’s been happening for the last two years. Granted, it’s about three ongoing TV shows but nevertheless after years of (mainstream) television queerbaiting, it’s just nice to get some nice queer romantic comedy.
That’s why I love Our Flag Means Death – flaws and all.
A pirate romantic comedy ostensibly following the adventures of (real life) pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, whose real life counterparts are documented to have worked together for a while. Little is known about their actual lives, which the show merrily uses to its advantage by dreaming up an adorable romance between two men on the high seas, accompanied by a rag-tag ensemble of a crew who also spend a considerable amount of time falling in (and out of) love with each other.
Little is known about their actual lives, which the show merrily uses to its advantage by dreaming up an adorable romance between two men on the high seas, accompanied by a rag-tag ensemble of a crew who also spend a considerable amount of time falling in (and out of) love with each other.
The heart of the show is, of course, Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) and Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard (played by Taika Waiti). While both are well-known comedic actors, Waititi hardly has to be introduced at this point (Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do In the Shadows, anyone?), but Darby was personally a revelation to me. His role as Stede in Our Flag Means Death is his first leading role after years of being cast in comedy bit roles, and it felt like he truly gave it his all. Personally speaking, I felt a tiny bit robbed — I could have been watching romantic lead Rhys Darby for years on my screen and he’s only been given the opportunity now.
But better late than never and I’m glad I watched Our Flag Means Death when I did. The first season was a delightful little comedy show which (to the surprise and delight of many of its fans!) dived straight into romance once the two main leads became embroiled (pun fully intended) in each other. Darby and Waititi deliver fantastic performances, playing off of years of collaborations and a deeply lovely and natural tension between them; meanwhile, the rest of the cast is not far behind.
Fan favourite Izzy Hands, the first mate of Blackbeard is a standout role — grumpy, angry and a solid ball of issues, delivered to perfection by Con O’Neil. It’s a delight to watch him struggling with his feelings over Blackbeard while not bothering to hide an iota of his disgust from Stede Bonnet. There are several different flavours of background romances — from the best friends turned lovers Jim and Oluwande in Season 1 to the violent and sexually-charged Anne Bonny and Mary Read in Season 2.
The well-written queer romances and the inclusive representation in the cast are the big pluses which aid in the gentle ebb and flow of the story — which is good because overall plot is where Our Flag Means Death can falter a bit.
The well-written queer romances and the inclusive representation in the cast are the big pluses which aid in the gentle ebb and flow of the story — which is good because overall plot is where Our Flag Means Death can falter a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very clear from the outset that the show is a comedy first and a historical drama second… or maybe fifth. People who, in real life, operated decades or perhaps centuries after each other show up; the pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao shows up in Season 2, rubbing shoulders with pirates a good century before she was born. Famous pirates hobnob with other famous pirates who probably barely knew each other; at the same time, the show is liable to drop the oddest facts: when Stede makes a pirate walk the plank in Season 2, it’s a direct reference to the fact that the historical Stede Bonnet was also one of the very few pirates who actually did make their prisoners walk the plank.
The creators did do their research, they’re just choosing to ignore most of it to make their oddball little show.
Season 2 suffers the most from this, perhaps by choosing to balance precariously between plot (unimportant until it is) and characters in a reduced number of episodes, an unfortunate by-product of a slashed budget. It does it’s best but one can sense an uneven pacing – slow and relaxed in the beginning, and then oddly breakneck towards the end. The ending of the latest season has proved controversial, though not enough to hurt the overall popularity of the show.
The reason for this is perhaps, above all, Our Flag Means Death wears its heart on its sleeve and it’s terribly easy to be charmed by it even during its most faltering moments. No amount of plot holes or uneven pacing can put a dent into my personal highlight of the show: the central romance, which has all the awkward tumbles and pits and stops of two people falling in love for the first time.
No amount of plot holes or uneven pacing can put a dent into my personal highlight of the show: the central romance, which has all the awkward tumbles and pits and stops of two people falling in love for the first time.
It has all the hallmarks of a classic romance — moonlight kisses and all that — delivered with a depth of sincerity that few people watching queer stories in mainstream media have come to expect in the last few years. When Waititi’s Blackbeard and Darby’s Bonnet first kissed, I held my breath in surprise… here comes the rug to be swept out under my feet. But I was wrong. There are no laugh tracks, no gentle ribbing, no breakaways to declare it all a joke after. There were two men smiling in a sunset at each other. In another world, it could have just been another ‘buddy comedy’, but thank god it was not.