Warning: this story contains spoilers.
My personal barometer of a show’s popularity in the LGBTQIA+ community is the amount of fan art it inspires. Most gay fan art is a reaction to heteronormativity, directness, and queerbaiting.
Which is why I was surprised to learn that the fan art of Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby embracing as pirate characters in Our Flag Means Death wasn’t just fantasy. These middle-aged men have truly found true love at sea. This likely picks up on the lost tales in history of “really good friends” who are truly lovers.
Showrunner David Jenkins has made a historical romantic comedy based on the real-life adventures of Stede Bonnet (Darby), a nobleman who leaves his loveless marriage and children to become the “Gentleman Pirate”. Stede isn’t exactly a saint, but her kindness has turned her ship, the Revenge, into a safe haven for her dysfunctional crew. Although she has been ridiculed all her life for her sweet nature, Stede is determined to help her out.
So why did the fearsome pirate captain Ed Teach (Waititi), also known as Blackbeard, fall in love with this man?
The unexpected pairing is just the tip of the iceberg for how the show deflects expectations: it challenges toxic masculinity and other societal norms by showing us different relationships.
Here, Stede and Ed are two men going through a midlife crisis and feeling like they see each other. Their relationship reminds us that dualities are not real and that we are not defined by our past (two things that LGBTQIA+ struggles with). You can be both sweet and wild. You can have a difficult childhood and become a good person. They are not opposite poles; they are two sides of the same childish and adventurous coin.
Three supporting characters in particular help get the show’s message across. Blade Hacker Jim (based on the infamous Mary Read) is canonically non-binary and is played by non-binary Latino actor Vico Ortiz. Jim’s disguise of fake nose and beard is symbolic of their rejection of the concept of “passage”. He said to the crew, “You all know me as Jim, don’t you? So…keep calling me Jim. The crew accepts this as the only explanation needed and they never confuse Jim. And luckily, Jim gets some romantic and sultry scenes with his teammate Oluwande (Samson Kayo). Let non-binary characters have sex!
Then there’s the mischievous and cheeky writer Lucius Spriggs (Nathan Foad). At the beginning of the series, it is already known that she is dating Black Pete (Matthew Maher) and that she claims to be the equivalent of the boss of the team. He’s the one who thinks of Stede and Ed when they have gay disasters. And Ed’s sidekick, Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), is the only person on the ship who’s upset with Lucius’ intransigence.
In one scene, Izzy tries to create drama when she tells Black Pete that Lucius is drawing another crew member’s nude. But it’s no use. “We don’t know each other,” Lucius said to a stunned Izzy. As reviewer Gavia Baker-Whitelaw points out, Izzy represents internalized homophobia and believes that dominance or control comes naturally from relationships.
Finally, the perspective of Stede’s ex-wife, Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), was crucial: she was forced into an unfortunately arranged marriage without leaving her family. Her story shows how many women of that era only gained the freedom to pursue their dreams and romance when they were widowed. It’s as refreshing and mature as it isn’t scrawled.
In most shows, these are the types of characters to discard. But in Our Flag is Death, any character can be charming and fun. No wonder so many people identify with the show and make up for its dark marketing by recommending it to those around them and calling for its renewal. (HBO, what are you waiting for? You don’t want to mess with that bag.)
Was comedy in danger of becoming another queerbait? No, it’s the real deal, and the show’s crew said they were more aware of the show’s meaning to their fans.
“It was a surprise to me how scared people were to believe that we did it, and it was heartbreaking,” Jenkins said in an interview with The Verge.
“I understand so much better now and I felt like, ‘Oh, you’ve made yourself feel stupid by a few shows’ – unintentionally, mostly I guess – but ‘maybe I’ll be there.’ maybe that’s me in this story.” And finally, ‘Aw. No I’m not. I’m not in this business. ‘ It fucks you at any age, but especially when you’re young and awesome.”
The show proves that representation matters, but for the real people portrayed, this concern goes even further.
Courtesy of HBO
This story was originally posted via preen.ph.