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Our Flag Means Death
Image Courtesy of HBO Max

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Our Flag Means Death is a Love Story in the Golden Age of Piracy

Our Flag Means Death introduces the world of pirates to a gentleman attempting to find a home in a violent landscape.

Our Flag Means Death Season 1 Review

There’s an initial shock to Our Flag Means Death that sets the tone for the adventure Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and his ragtag group of pirates are about to set upon. The initial shock being that Bonnet is not your typical pirate, nor is he really keen on the violence associated with the pirating life. He’s more of an adventurer and his civilian past and silver spoon-fed ideals bring a fresh perspective to a hazardous profession. Created by David Jenkins and executive produced by Taika Waititi, Our Flag Means Death adds to the current TV landscape of moral heroes bringing forth change to a world of cynicism, while also being surprisingly emotional and often hilarious.

Bonnet is not quite Ted Lasso, but he’s also not far enough removed for the parallels not to exist. He’s not wholly virtuous seeing as how his adventure into pirating begins with him leaving behind his wife Mary (Claudia O’Doherty) and their two children in the dead of night after investing in a pirate ship to follow his dream of sailing the seas and living a far more adventurous lifestyle. His crew – a group of pirates all looking forward to looting and killing – find themselves realizing that their captain may not be cut out for the lifestyle he’s chosen.

Our Flag Means Death
Image Courtesy of HBO Max

It’s mostly through flashbacks that Our Flag Means Death explores Bonnet’s past and motivations to escape a life of domesticity. His family seems to hate him, his upbringing is one of corporal punishment, and his life has been boring in comparison to the tales of pirates he has spent his life reading. Bonnet’s past brings a surprising amount of emotion to Darby’s performance – an actor who has always stood out as a comedic tour-de-force but rarely had the opportunity to deliver a character with this much weight on his shoulders.

His inability to commit to the life of pirating fully is challenged when he accidentally murders Captain Nigel Badminton (Rory Kinnear) and begins embracing the act as purposeful. His methods of pirating become the fascination of Blackbeard (played by Taika Waititi), whose legendary status as being brutal and ruthless has his name alone strike fear in others’ hearts. However, like Bonnet, he finds himself bored of his current lifestyle and yearns for something else.

This is where Our Flag Means Death becomes wholesome, avoiding lots of swashbuckling in exchange for a tender exploration of two men depending on one another to find their lot in life. To call the show a romantic comedy wouldn’t initially click with the first few episodes but eventually the central relationship between Bonnet and Blackbeard blossoms into a love that consumes the entire mood of the show. Any moment of piracy is only potent when it’s shared by the two captains, and any threat to their relationship is a significant roadblock that the two must face.

Our Flag Means Death
Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Again, Bonnet’s fresh perspective leads to a show that isn’t afraid to embrace the softer moments of a pirate’s life. Characters often find love on the high seas, and not strictly heterosexual love either which makes a lot of sense since many pirate crews in 1717 were predominantly men. In addition, the role of women is often highlighted specifically with Bonnet’s wife, Mary, who is given a significant amount of time to feel less like an anchor to Stede and treated with more respect. Our Flag Means Death often puts a modern spin on the material, but it rarely feels forced because Bonnet pries at the testosterone-fuelled world he’s sold himself on and tries readjusting it to be less cruel.

At his heels though are all sorts of characters who cannot abide Bonnet’s desecration of the pirate’s life. Blackbeard’s first mate, Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), cannot accept Blackbeard’s move away from his violent tendencies; Spanish Jackie (Leslie Jones) seeks vengeance for the death of one of her husbands by one of Bonnet’s crew, Jim (Vico Ortiz); and Admiral Chauncey Badminton (Kinnear again), the twin brother of the murdered Nigel Badminton, seeks revenge on Bonnet.

Where Our Flag Means Death tends to struggle is when it moves away from Bonnet and Blackbeard’s relationship and explores other characters. They’re not necessarily boring side stories, but the only one that truly feels fleshed out in any way is Jim’s. Disguised as a mute male pirate aboard Bonnet’s ship, Jim is actually a non-binary pirate seeking revenge on the men who killed their father. Played by Ortiz who themself is non-binary, there’s a deftness that the character is handled with and explored naturally along the course of the first season. An episode dedicated mostly to Jim’s character and the quest is one of the few times the show’s diversion into other plotlines works.

Our Flag Means Death
Image Courtesy of HBO Max

Their story is another example of what Our Flag Means Death realizes over its ten episodes: family is everything. What family means is not inherently being related by blood but who you depend on in tough situations. For Jim it’s the unconditional aid from crewmate Oluwande (Samson Kayo); for Blackbeard, it’s Bonnet’s support; and the rest of Bonnet’s crew find themselves relying on one another and becoming a tight-knit family. As with most sitcoms, the characters may not be related but their bond suggests a longstanding relationship that replaces blood relations. In the case of Our Flag Means Death, that relationship is not just assumed; it’s explored and nuanced throughout the show. 

The crew is initially seen as mere comedic relief to their captain’s journey, but they become a sturdy unit to support one another and their captain. Each one has its own unique quirk and the actors’ performances encompass a wide range of archetypes being skewered from Black Pete’s (Matthew Maher) tedious obsession with Blackbeard to Lucius’ (Nathan Foad) reluctant agreement to chronicle Stede’s adventures to Buttons (Ewen Bremner) and his unique relationship with the sea. There are so many fantastic comedic performances with a cast rounded out by Kristian Nairn, Joel Fry, Nat Faxon, and Samba Schutte. Their characters may not get enough time in the sun, but when they appear they bring about a jolly good time.

Even though it can occasionally feel like it’s taking unnecessary detours and doesn’t quite flesh out every character with the same nuance, Our Flag Means Death has the potential to be a rich, detailed look at a family unit in a violent period. The Golden Age of Piracy is a time rife with struggle and legends that leaves the show with an abundance of history to tap into, but what is most enjoyable is the relationship at its center: a love story about two men finding out who they are with the support of one another. The show leaves itself open for a second season in a way that’s a bit frustrating, but there’s an exciting wealth of possibilities to explore that proves Our Flag Means Death is a treasure hunt worth venturing out to discover.

  • Christopher Cross
Watch Our Flag Means Death Now Streaming
Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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