What started as an offbeat historical comedy starring Rhys Darby has grown into a worldwide TV sensation. Stewart Sowman-Lund explains why.
*Contains spoilers for Season One of Our Flag Means Death*
It’s described as a comedy about a real-life aristocrat turned ‘gentleman pirate’, and starring Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi, so you might understand my surprise when Our flag means death turned out to be a full-fledged romance. Now the internet is blowing up.
While the first handful of episodes are a quirky workplace comedy set aboard an 18th-century pirate ship, the HBO Max show (screening on Prime and available on Neon in New Zealand) has turned around — and has thereby won a legion of new fans and becomes an online sensation.
Darby plays Stede Bonnet, a largely unknown but actually real person who started a life of piracy thinking he’d had enough of his cozy home with a wife and kids. He assembles a ragtag crew who generally dislike their incompetent pirate boss, but, surprise surprise, grow into a family as the series progresses.
For a while, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a show where Rhys Darby plays a pirate. And then suddenly it isn’t anymore – when Waititi shows four episodes as Blackbeard.
His reputation precedes him, of course, for he is Blackbeard! But as he is introduced to the show as a ferocious and infamous figure, it soon becomes apparent that Darby’s Stede and Waititi’s Blackbeard are not destined to become deadly foes. Instead, they quickly become friends – and then things turn again. The last few episodes turn into a won’t-she-won’t-they-rom com with Stede and Blackbeard as romantic protagonists. In the final episode, the couple even kisses.
It’s a surprising shift on the show, and one that wasn’t announced early on, sparking applause from fans who feared it would end up being just another example of “queerbaiting” — an unfortunate trope a show refers to, but then it doesn’t really represent same-sex romance or LGBTQ+ representation. Think Rachel and Quinn in Glee, or Finn and Poe in Star Wars, or Holmes and Watson in Sherlock. Or practically any of the same-sex characters in the garbage dump that is Riverdale.
In a post on Instagram, Waititi explained that this show was explicitly intended to be more than just the “bromance” it initially appeared to be. “It’s ROMANTIC,” he wrote on Instagram. “If you hate this show don’t worry, I still love you. And I hope you start to understand the many layers that love can encompass. Love is love baby.”
In an interview with Weekly entertainment, Waititi jokingly said the creative decision was simply to anger “homophobic historians.” But, he explains: “It all comes from this mutual interest and fascination for each other. Blackbeard has seen it all, and he sees this man who gave up everything to become a pirate, knowing nothing about ocean life.”
The show’s creator, David Jenkins, said Darby and Waititi, who have known each other and have worked together for over a decade, were always on board with the show’s premise and the “opposites attract energy” that is everywhere. “I first started reading about Stede and how he became friends with Blackbeard and we don’t know why. Pretty soon I was like, ‘Oh, it’s a romance,’ said Jenkins.
And it’s not just the relationship between Stede and Blackbeard that sets Our Flag Means Death apart from many a program before it. The comedy features a prominent non-binary character, examples of other gay couples, and exists in a much more diverse universe than the real-life Stede probably would have inhabited. It also avoids any conversations or even explicit acknowledgments that these relationships are “abnormal” in the show’s setting. Jenkins told Decision maker he wanted to “dodge” the coming-out subplot. “I just want a romance. I want a Titanic romance between these two people. We don’t have to do the coming out story and then the non-binary story… We don’t have to do the pronouns ‘I am whatever’, however they would. I thought it was just really good to skip it because we’ve seen it.
Instead of, Waititi described our flag means death as a love letter “from minorities to minorities” and hoped it would speak to those who feel, or have felt, that they are outcasts.
The response online was immediate and huge. Our Flag Means Death is trending daily on Twitter (well, before the Oscars imploded anyway), with the requisite mix of fan art, unbridled praise and calls for a second season. “Our flag means death has a hold on me and these two mean the world to me,” one person tweeted, along with a drawing of de Stede and Blackbeard cuddling. “The performance on this show means as much to me as someone who is trans and queer,” said another† “I see myself represented without being a joke or to ‘come out’, thank you for this great show.”
While HBO has officially yet to order another season, Jenkins told polygon things looked good. Everything is going according to plan, a second sail on the seven seas will not be far away.
Read more: Rhys Darby Takes Murray To Sea In Our Flag Means Death
This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and believe in the importance of independent and open-ended journalism – tautoko mai, donate today.