I had heard rumblings about a gay pirate TV show — my biggest mistake was that I didn’t act immediately. But you’ll have to forgive me: I didn’t know that “Our Flag Means Death” would be a show like nothing I had ever seen before.
I suppose, too, that I was wary of plunging headfirst into the show because, well, I’ve been burned before. Unfortunately, when a TV show is described as “gay,” that usually means that it has a few moments that a Queer audience could read as gay, that a single Queer relationship is involved — usually a short-lived one — or that it Queer-baits with no actual satisfaction at the end of the road. For the first few episodes of the 10-episode first season, I held my breath, wondering if that would be the case with “Our Flag Means Death.” It wasn’t.
Executive-produced by Taika Waititi, “Our Flag Means Death” — loosely based on real-life pirates Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby, “Guns Akimbo”), who left regular life behind to try his hand at this completely new profession, and Blackbeard (Taika Waititi, “Jojo Rabbit”) — watches the duo fall for one another in a slow burn. For the first three episodes, the camera refuses to give the audience a glimpse of Blackbeard, offering instead angled and fuzzy shots that leave him to the imagination of the viewer. When Blackbeard emerges in all his glory at the end of episode three, finally becoming an active presence in the plot rather than a mirage, it’s clear that sparks are flying between the two captains and that Queer love might be born.
As the tension builds, audiences are treated to picnic scenes, lingering touches and longing gazes in the moonlight until the unlikely couple seals it with a kiss at the end of episode nine. Blackbeard, referring to himself in the third person, gazes off into the horizon before proclaiming, “You make Ed happy,” and gently pulls Stede toward him. When their lips part, Stede responds with a smile, “You make Stede happy.” I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
In an interview, Waititi was asked about bringing what’s often left to be Queer subtext into the forefront, and he reemphasized the importance of committing fully. The relationship between Stede and Blackbeard isn’t a bromance, “This is romantic. It’s a romance,” said Waititi.
I already feel spoiled enough, but Stede and Blackbeard aren’t the only Queer relationship in “Our Flag Means Death”. Kind-hearted crew member and big teddy bear Oluwande (Samson Kayo, “Bloods”) pines after his fellow crew member Jim (Vico Ortiz, “The Syed Family Xmas Eve Game Night”), a non-binary pirate thirsty for revenge, from the very beginning. Oluwunde initially protects Jim from having their identity discovered and is unable to sleep in the room they shared when they’re gone. Stede’s patient scribe Lucius (Nathan Foad, “Newark, Newark”) also has a sweet committed relationship with crew member Black Pete (Matthew Maher, “The Outside Story”) that the show just wouldn’t be the same without. The relationship between Stede and Blackbeard might be central, but Queer love isn’t an exception in this story. It’s the norm.
The series has spawned endless fan art, specifically Queer fan art. It’s not the first show to inspire artists online to create their own illustrations, but something is notably different here. The moments of Queer love that artists depict are often a fantasy, something they wish they could see on television but are left to imagine for themselves, but this time we actually got to see them on screen.
“Our Flag Means Death” is satisfaction after years of Queer-baiting, funny in ways you often don’t see coming and relentlessly sweet. We can only hope with all our hearts for a second season, and that other series’ are paying close attention.
TV Beat Editor Emmy Snyder can be reached at email@example.com.