Why ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Is Fandom’s New Obsession

If you need a distraction from doomscrolling, there is no more worthy and effervescent escape than HBO Max’s Our Flag Means Death. The series defies any easy categorization—it’s a historical drama, a slapstick comedy, a fantastically diverse dive into representation, and it’s queer as all get-out. There’s never been anything quite like Our Flag Means Death before, and it’s setting a new standard as it sails on toward the season one finale.

The show is centered around brilliant lead performances by Rhys Darby as the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet and Taika Waititi as the fearsome yet conflicted Blackbeard—two infamous marauding men whose paths crossed in the historical record and who appear to be falling in love on Our Flag Means Death. While Darby and Waititi anchor the action, a vibrant and hilarious supporting cast makes it sing. In record time, Our Flag Means Death has become a fandom sensation and lit up social media with fan art, fanfiction, commentary, memes, and key-smashingly enthusiastic reactions.

Fandom sensations are born from word-of-mouth, and right now, it’s nearly impossible in those online circles to avoid seeing mention of Our Flag Means Death. The excitement is well-earned, and it is infectious. Cheerleading this development is showrunner and creator David Jenkins (People of Earth), who calls the series a love story and happily retweets fannish creations. Priority to Our Flag Means Death’s debut, Jenkins was already trumpeting the queer positivity of the universe he’d created—and for all of the show’s modern sensibilities, this was gleaned from his research into the past. Same-sex relationships and non-conforming identities were the reality of many pirates’ lives.

ace Mashable noted in an interview, “One of Jenkins’s favorite pirate facts that he learned while working on Our Flag Means Death was the term seamanship, which was a civil union between same-sex pirates. ‘The more you look at it,’ [Jenkins] explained, ‘the more you write to the fact that this is a queer-positive world.’”

While the rapport and opposites-attract energy of Blackbeard and Bonnet is at the forefront (fandom has dubbed the pair ‘Blackbonnet’), queer relationships and representation abound throughout the ship revenge. A love match springs up between Bonnet’s droll right-hand man Lucius (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Mayer), who carves a wooden finger for his sweetheart after an unfortunate maiming mishap. Our Flag Means Death has perfected the art of having a lot of fun with homoeroticism while also taking it seriously and sweetly. Even when scenes are played for laughs—as many here are—they are done so with warmth and care.

Nonbinary actor and activist Vico Ortiz plays the nonbinary pirate Jim, aboard at first in mustachioed disguise (a nod to historical pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were said to be fiercer than any of their crewmates). When Jim’s disguise is exposed and they shrug off gender labels, the ease with which the entire crew—and Jim’s very Catholic Nana—address and discuss Jim using “they/them” pronouns is exquisite. And Jim’s unfolding romance with their loyal friend Oluwande (Samson Kayo) had me cheering.

“This is amazing because oftentimes throughout history, our stories are overlooked or the way that they’re rejected or told it’s in a way that’s very binary or not honoring or acknowledging the person’s queerness,” Ortiz told Out in discussing Jim’s portrayal. “So having this character exist and so beautifully be accepted by the rest of the crew was so, so huge.”

“They don’t talk about it, but when you start really digging, [pirates] were getting gay married, they were having polyamorous relationships,” Orti went on. “They were just living their best life outside of all the politics in the world.”

Our Flag Means Death is setting a new standard for representation and showing how frightfully silly it is for other properties to prevaricate over the sort of stories it tells with such affectionate ease. This is a show for every conceivable audience to enjoy, and its inclusiveness feels like a watershed moment. Many see themselves represented in the show’s characters, while people of all stripes will be drawn in by scenes of over-the-top humor. Add in guest star power from comedy royalty like Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen, and those scenes play out as a masterclass in the art of the absurd.

Yet Our Flag Means Death manages another coup: it’s a comedy that can also be deadly serious. One moment we’re slicing off limbs and laughing about bodily fluids, the next moment we’re contemplating abandonment and abuse. It’s a miraculous balancing act that feels effortless but is the product of unwavering and thoughtful commitment from the actors, crew, and creatives. The production is gorgeous from its cast on down to the eye candy of costumes by the exceptional costume designer Christine Wada, who once told me the secret of Tom Hiddleston’s magic Loki pants.

Now the effort behind Our Flag Means Death is being rightfully hailed and appreciated. “All around me I see people that are used to being ignored, not being seen, not being acknowledged as existing part of this world, celebrate and feel so heartwarmingly overjoyed because of this show,” wrote @vilbbit on Twitter. “By me and my friends that are part of the LGBTQ+ community, my friends of color, and even my neurodivergent friends who feel represented: thank you. Thank you for making this show. For making us feel like we belong. This isn’t only a love story between characters, this is a love story about all people. This is a love letter for those who are often forgotten.”

It’s impossible to discuss this show without heaping abundant praise onto stars Darby and Waititi, who bring fussy and smoldering energy to their respective pirates. Bonnet and Blackbeard are drawn in stark dichotomy—so of course, they fit together in perfect compliment. The two actors have collaborated for years on projects like Flight of the Conchords, Hunt for the Wilderpeopleand What We Do in the Shadows, and their winning chemistry is palpable. Darby’s Bonnet is the lynchpin around which everything else revolves, and he’s able to make a foppish and sometimes cowardly rich-boy adventurer into a man who’s also a sympathetic hero with a good heart. In today’s world, that’s a magician-level feat of comedic genius.

Waititi, the Marvel Thorverse and film director, Oscar-winning screenwriter, accomplished actor, and mastermind behind What We Do in the Shadows, is such an eightfold threat I’ve stopped counting the number of jobs he appears to have. (For good measure, he also produces Our Flag Means Death and directs the pilot.) Here Waititi radiates arch swagger, pure chaos, and wounded vulnerability, all while sporting a wild beard with a life of its own and clad head to toe in buckled leather. If this isn’t a universal advertisement for the show, I’m not sure what else will entice one into watching.

All this and Our Flag Means Death isn’t even finished with its first season yet. The final two episodes drop March 24th, 2022 on HBO Max; when last we saw them, the whole crew were captured by the dastardly British Navy, while Stede and Ed gazed into each other’s eyes, their feet touching for comfort.

Wherever we’re headed, we know enough to trust this series to get us there, even if our treasure map burns up and we have to take a haphazard way around. We await with bated breath.

(pictures: HBO Max)

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