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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

The romantic pirates in ‘Our Flag Means Death’


HBO’s newest comedy “Our Flag Means Death” parodies the absurd life of gentleman pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and his antics that impress the terrifying legend of the seven seas, Blackbeard (Taika Waititi). With a merry crew of comedians in front and behind the camera, the show’s comedy is packed tighter than a powder keg set to blow. What starts as a few 30-minute episodes of fun and jokes slowly reveals a deep emotional core rising up from the horizon.

Using the lure of pirates in romantic fiction, the show looks at the crippling regret of the dreadful midlife crisis in unique ways. Sick of his landlocked home and wife, Stede heads out to the sea to find his freedom. Just in time, too, as he crosses paths with Blackbeard, who is bored of the terror his notoriety inflicts. They bond over their desires for a different life, with episodes of one showing the other how to exist on their opposite side of society — involving great gags of Francophilia and treasure hunting. Their dynamic grows into an unexpected twist on sailor fiction that I think is really clever and adorable, but how the rest of the show tries to connect to the audience muddies its final product.

“Our Flag Means Death” expertly recreates every aspect of piracy with a pinch of modern seasoning. From women secretly dressed as men to orange shortages leading to a scurvy fright, the golden age of pirates never felt so fun. But what becomes the central core of the show is where I think the modern interpretation of history crosses the line. What Walt Whitman would call a “romantic friendship,” best expressed between Ishmael and Queequeg in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” is most likely not equivalent to our modern version of homosexual relationships. Waititi approaches this problem with two different couples: a cute, giggly pairing between Black Pete and Lucius, and the gradual, more sensitive relationship between Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard. The former is where I think the show fails in authenticity, whereas the latter shines.

The hiccup of Black Pete, a self-declared cold-blooded killer, saying “babe” to Lucius does not clash with the modern retrospective of the show’s craft, as Fleetwood Mac and other classic rock songs sprinkle throughout the score. Most of these modern additions, though, are non-diegetic — as in a source external to the context of the story, only seen by the audience and not the characters — whereas this relationship is squarely in the story world clashing against the reality surrounding it. I’m not saying it’s wrong or should be cut out. I just want it to have a deeper purpose in future seasons rather than acting like fan-favorite characters being shipped together.

In contrast, Stede and Blackbeard’s connection grows organically. It is a surprise to both the characters and the audience. So much so that Stede and Blackbeard retreat to their past selves in fear of misreading the other’s affections (a heartbreaking conflict that will be the driving force of season two). Watching the opening episodes, you might find it lighthearted and simple, but I see the potential hidden under the floorboards. This show’s future looks bright on emotionally turbulent tides, and I can’t wait to sail with it.

Like all Taika Waititi productions, the quick humor hides a wholesome aftertaste. In the lawless world of piracy, slavery and rigid sexuality are the enemies. An escaped black servant can spend his days singing shanties in the sun while his fellow sailors choose their partners over love instead of land. This romanticized image of piracy is what Waititi encapsulates in its truest form. The jokes and bad CGI waves may not present the themes realistically, but the soul and characters are far more authentic than Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “Our Flag Means Death” revives the endless search for freedom and proves that love and happiness are life’s greatest treasures.


Title: “Our Flag Means Death”

Starring: Rhys Darby, Taika Waititi

Director: David Jenkins

If you like: “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Avenue 5”

Where to watch: HBO Max

Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5