This article contains spoilers for “Our Flag Means Death.”
In the 18th century’s Golden Age of Piracy, an eccentric pirate captain heads a queer romantic comedy in HBO Max’s “Our Flag Means Death.” Created by David Jenkins, the first season of the period show follows Captain Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and the crew aboard his ship, the Revenge. Stede, who hopes to become known as the “Gentleman Pirate,” has abandoned his aristocratic position in high society for a life of piracy on the high seas. The course of the show changes when the infamous, legendary pirate Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), whom Stede comes to know by his given name, Edward Teach, saves Stede and his crew as they are just about to be overwhelmed by the Spanish navy.
The show is loosely based on the real-life historical figure of Stede Bonnet, who really did turn to piracy and work with Blackbeard. Jenkins’ envisioning of the relationship between the two, however, likely goes far beyond how historians have conventionally viewed the two pirates. In “Our Flag Means Death,” Waititi’s Blackbeard is a leather-clad, tattooed captain with long, flowing locks of graying hair tied back from a luscious beard. His all-black ensemble serves as a direct contrast to the bright colors and multitude of fabrics flaunted by Darby as Stede, who even had a secret closet constructed on the Revenge to hold his favorite summer linens.
Despite starting off as seeming opposites, the two grow to learn from one another over the course of the season. Stede gives Blackbeard a chance to shed the persona of the feared, cruel pirate he is known as. With Stede, Blackbeard goes by Edward, or Ed, not only learning the intricacies of high society but also finding, for the first time, someone he can openly be “Ed” around.
On the other hand, Ed offers Stede the chance to find what he had been missing in the life he stepped away from to become a pirate: love. Stede’s arranged and largely loveless marriage to his wife, Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), left him clearly unhappy and unsatisfied. His relationship with Ed, moreover, allows him to experience a depth of feeling that was absent in his past.
Throughout the season, Darby plays Stede with just the right balance of comedy and heart. Stede never comes off as foolish in his endeavor to adapt to a life of piracy, but rather, the viewers and his crew come to love him for how wholesome, well-intentioned, and caring he is as he tries to find his sea legs aboard the Revenge. In his turn as Blackbeard, Waititi meets Darby at every emotional moment, perfectly portraying the two opposing sides to the pirate. Waititi, who also serves as an executive producer for the show, is always delightful to watch when he is acting on screen instead of behind the camera as a director, but he is particularly remarkable in the life that he brings to this version of Blackbeard.
What is perhaps most gripping about the developing relationship between Stede and Ed, which serves as the core of the show, is how true it feels to the characters themselves. In spending time with Stede, Ed slowly begins to let down his emotional walls, and the pacing of the season fits well with this gradual change. Both Darby and Waititi infuse the relationship with a wonderful balance of romantic interest and the fear of unrequited feelings. In one such scene at the end of episode five, the show almost gives the two their first kiss under the moonlight, until Ed hesitates from leaning in further.
Another particularly touching scene comes at the end of episode 8 when Stede’s ship comes under attack by the British navy, who seek retribution against Stede for his part in the accidental death of a British naval admiral. Though Ed has left Stede and the Revenge, the realization that Stede is in imminent danger drives Ed back to the ship. Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” plays as the Revenge is boarded by British sailors and Stede and Ed are captured, and an overhead shot of the two lying facedown on the deck of the ship catches Ed’s foot moving to touch Stede’s in a silently shared moment.
All of these romantically-painted interactions between the two build a steady sense of anticipation, and in the ninth and penultimate episode of the season, “Act of Grace,” Jenkins permits the slow burn to finally come to a head. Ed and Stede, now in service to the British navy, have stolen away to the beach for a moment alone. When Stede asks Ed how he can be so okay with their situation, Ed explains that he has realized he wants to do what makes Ed—not Blackbeard—happy.
“And what makes Ed happy?” Stede asks, to which Ed slowly responds, “I reckon what makes Ed happy…is you.” The confession leaves Stede briefly struck for words before Ed moves in to kiss him. “You make Stede happy,” Stede whispers to Ed after they pull apart.
This is easily one of the most well-timed moments in the show, with Jenkins managing to find the perfect moment for Ed’s confession and their first kiss to happen. The vulnerability of the moment between the two men is just one highlight of how “Our Flag Means Death” does not shy away from depicting the true depth of the relationship between the two, making it clear that the feelings that emerge between them are not to be played off as a joke or queerbaiting. Instead, it is made crystal clear that Ed and Stede have come to genuinely love each other.
This freedom in portraying queer characters and relationships extends beyond the two main characters to the members of Stede’s crew. With Blackbeard not truly entering the story until the fourth episode of the show, the focus on Stede’s crew in the first few episodes allows viewers to get to know them as individual characters as well. Viewers soon learn that Lucius (Nathan Foad), who Stede relies on to transcribe his grand adventures aboard the Revenge, is openly gay. Lucius eventually becomes romantically involved with Black Pete (Matthew Maher), another member of Stede’s crew.
Another standout character is Jim (Vico Ortiz), who is initially introduced as a mute crew member with a talent for knife throwing. The show quickly reveals, however, that the name “Jim” is part of their disguise as a male pirate to help them hide from a bounty on their head. After their real identity is exposed to the rest of the crew, however, Jim tells the crew that they want to keep going by their adopted name, and the crew continues to refer to them by the name “Jim” and switches to using they/them pronouns without asking any questions.
To have such a character played by Ortiz, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, speaks to the care that Jenkins and the creative team behind “Our Flag Means Death” put into the show. It is also particularly striking that even with the diversity of identity among the characters, there are no coming-out moments or plotlines based on homophobic or transphobic reactions. Refreshingly, every character in “Our Flag Means Death” is accepted by all the others for who they are. At its core, the show allows the characters to freely choose whom they love and does not shy away from depicting that love on screen.
Not only is this representation provided freely, but even as the show remains comedic, the jokes are never about the characters’ identities. Ed and Stede’s relationship, like the other LGBTQ+ characters and relationships that are developed in the show, is taken seriously by the show. Even the show’s antagonists, like Blackbeard’s first mate and right-hand man Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), who despises Stede for bringing out the “Edward” side of Blackbeard, never take issue with the fact they are in love and instead acknowledge how obvious their feelings are for one another.
However, the season does not end with a happy ending for any of the couples, particularly Ed and Stede. After their first kiss in episode 9, Ed devises a plan for them to leave together on a boat and escape to China: Stede is to wait for him at the docks that night, when they will sail away and start a new life together. However, before Stede can slip away at night, the twin brother of the admiral that Stede had inadvertently killed (both played by Rory Kinnear) confronts Stede. The twin brother then also accidentally dies, leaving Stede in shock to re-evaluate his past. Stede returns home to his wife and children, and Ed is left waiting for Stede all night until he eventually sails off alone, realizing that Stede will not come to join him.
The season finale, “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” makes Blackbeard’s heartbreak unmistakable. The fearsome persona of Blackbeard returns to take control of the Revenge, leaving Stede’s crew stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean, tossing the books in Stede’s extensive, on-board library away, and re-adopting his all-black leather ensemble. In spite of this transformation back to Blackbeard, however, Jenkins makes it clear that Ed has not forgotten his love: Ed continues to wear Stede’s cravat around his neck, and his final scene in the first season shows him crying inside Stede’s cabin.
On Stede’s part, the “Gentleman Pirate” also finds himself unhappy again. Back at home, Mary has adjusted well to her life as a widow, taking up painting and finding real love with her painting instructor. Stede soon realizes that he no longer fits into his former upper-class lifestyle, and also comes to finally understand that he is in love with Ed after a conversation with Mary. When he asks her to explain what it is like to be in love, she describes her feelings for her painting instructor over a poignantly constructed montage of Stede and Ed’s time on the ship and tells him that she hopes he will find love someday as well.
Touchingly, it is in this moment that Stede finally realizes he is in love with Ed, and he tells Mary so. When she asks what her name is, assuming that Stede’s unknown lover is a woman, Stede answers, “His name is Ed” with a smile. Instead of being shocked that Stede has fallen in love with a man, Mary is supportive, and Stede enlists her help in faking his death to truly leave his old life behind and make his way back over the ocean to Ed.
The show closes on Stede coming across his abandoned crew and waving to them from his boat, leaving the door wide open for the story to continue if HBO Max renews “Our Flag Means Death” for a second season. The final arc of the show’s first season is a wild ride of love and heartbreak, and it will be an absolute shame if Jenkins, Darby, and Waititi are not given the chance to continue exploring this story.
Jem Shin can be reached at email@example.com.