My personal barometer for how beloved a show is by the LGBTQIA+ community is the amount of fan art it inspires. Most gay fan art is a response to heteronormativity, straightwashing, and queerbaiting.
So I was surprised to find out that fan art of Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby kissing as their pirate characters on “Our Flag Means Death” isn’t just fantasy. These middle-aged men really did find true love at sea. It’s reclaiming those lost narratives in history about “really good friends” who were probably really lovers.
Showrunner David Jenkins made a historical rom-com loosely based on the real-life adventures of Stede Bonnet (Darby), a nobleman who left his loveless marriage and kids to become the “Gentleman Pirate.” Stede isn’t exactly a saint, but his kindness has turned his ship named Revenge into a safe space for his dysfunctional crew. Although he’d been ridiculed for his tenderhearted nature all his life, Stede’s determined to stand by it in his chosen path.
So why did the feared pirate captain Ed Teach (Waititi), a.k.a. Blackbeard, fall for this guy of all people?
The unlikely pairing is just the tip of the iceberg on how the show subverts expectations: It questions toxic masculinity and other societal norms by showing us diverse relationships.
Here, Stede and Ed are two guys experiencing midlife crises and feel seen by each other. Their relationship reminds us that dichotomies aren’t real and that we’re not defined by our past (which are two things that the LGBTQIA+ struggle with). You can be both gentle and fierce. You can have a rough childhood and grow up to be a good person. They’re not polar opposites; they’re two sides of the same childlike and adventurous coin.
Three supporting characters in particular help drive the show’s message. Knife-wielding pirate Jim (based on the notorious Mary Read) is canonically nonbinary and played by nonbinary Latine actor Vico Ortiz. When Jim gets rid of their fake nose and beard disguise, it’s symbolic of them rejecting the notion of “passing.” They tell the crew, “You all know me as Jim, si? So, just… keep calling me Jim.” The crew accepts it as the only explanation needed and they never misgender Jim. And delightfully, Jim gets romantic and spicy scenes with crewmate Oluwande (Samson Kayo). Let nonbinary characters have sex!
Then, there’s the flirty and sassy scribe Lucius Spriggs (Nathan Foad). Early in the series, we already know that he’s dating Black Pete (Matthew Maher) and he asserts himself as the crew’s girl boss equivalent. He’s the one who talks sense into Stede and Ed when they’re being disaster gays. And Ed’s second in command, Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), is the only person onboard who gets riled up by how unapologetic Lucius is.
In one scene, Izzy tries to stir drama when he tells Black Pete that Lucius is doing a nude drawing of another crewmember. But it’s to no avail. Lucius tells the astounded Izzy, “We don’t own each other.” As critic Gavia Baker-Whitelaw observes, Izzy embodies internalized homophobia and believes that dominance or control are natural to relationships.
And finally, the perspective of Stede’s ex-wife Mary (Claudia O’Doherty) was also super important: She was forced into their unhappy arranged marriage yet she didn’t abandon her family. Her story shows how a lot of women back then only gained freedom to pursue their dreams and romance when they became widows. It’s also refreshing and mature how she wasn’t vilified.
In most series, these are the types of characters who would be pushed to the side. But on “Our Flag Means Death,” any character can be attractive and fun. It’s no wonder that so many have deeply identified with the show, making up for its dismal marketing by recommending it to their circles, and demanding for it to be renewed. (HBO, what are you waiting for? You don’t want to fumble this bag.)
Was the comedy ever in danger of being another queerbait? No. It’s the real deal and the show’s crew have expressed how they’ve become more cognizant of what the show means for its fans.
“Looking at how people were kind of afraid to let themselves believe that we were doing that was a surprise to me, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Jenkins in an interview with The Verge.
“I understand it much better now, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you were made to feel stupid by a bunch of shows’—unintentionally, by and large, I think—but made to feel like, ‘Maybe I’m going to be up there. Maybe that’ll be me in this story.’ And then at the end of it feeling like, ‘Aw. No, it’s not me. I’m not in this one.’ That f*cks with you at any age, I think, but especially when you’re young and impressionable.”
The show proves that representation matters, but that caring for the real people being represented goes an even longer way.