Television

The genre-busting pirate romance Our Flag Means Death is straight up hilarious – and artistically and emotionally gorgeous. By Sarah Krasnostein.

Our Flag Means Death

The crew of The Revenge.
The crew of The Revenge.
Credit: Foxtel

“Good night, Westley,” said the Dread Pirate Roberts each night for years to the hero of the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. “Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” Instead of murdering him, however, Roberts eventually chooses Westley as his successor, explaining that the Dread Pirate Roberts is not a person but rather a serviceably terrifying persona assumed by successive seaworthy Everymen. “The man I inherited it from is not the real Dread Pirate Roberts either. His name was Cummerbund. The real Roberts has been retired 15 years and living like a king in Patagonia.”

Identity – assumed, hidden and bravely inhabited – is the leitmotif of David Jenkins’ sublime HBO Max swashbuckling series Our Flag Means Death. Set in the early 1700s, the show is loosely based on the exploits of the 18th-century “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet (played by the magnificently measured Rhys Darby).

Darby’s Stede seems to stride directly out of a gold-framed Fragonard and onto the planks of his expensive, but not yet entirely cohesive, ship, The Revenge. Despite being exquisitely unsuited for piracy, Stede swaps his arranged marriage to Mary (Claudia O’Doherty) and their comfortably aristocratic family life for theft on the high seas. He is not merely brazenly overconfident: he is propelled by something he cannot yet accurately name. High jinks ensue as Stede – with his pacificist preferences, floating library and ancillary wardrobe – struggles to gain authority over his nonplussed motley crew, performed by actors such as the deeply funny Nathan Foad as well as the great Kristian Nairn, whom I have missed since Game of Thrones.

Eventually they get on with the pirating while dodging threats from naval warships and more competently murderous pirates. Stede is achingly earnest and inefficiently compassionate (“Remember the rhyme? If someone returns from the raid mentally devastated, we talk it through as a crew…”). But when he crosses paths with the dastardly Mad Max-esque Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard (Taika Waititi, who also executive produces and directed episode one), an unexpected friendship leads to romance.

Ed instructs Stede how to wield a blade and Stede initiates Ed into the mysteries of high society, which include proper usage of a snail fork and how to use passive aggression to burn the house down. “Pirates, they attack with force,” Stede explains. “The upper crust, they strike with cutting remarks disguised as politeness.” After seeing it in action, Ed, genuinely impressed, remarks, “That’s fucking diabolical.”

“It all stems from this mutual interest and fascination with one another,” Waititi explained to Entertainment Weekly. “Blackbeard’s seen it all, and he sees this guy who’s given up everything to be a pirate, when he knows nothing about the ocean life. It’s a pretty courageous thing to do, to give your life away … and instead go out into these very perilous situations. Blackbeard would see that as a very crazy and adventurous thing to do … I think you’re always fascinated by the thing that is different to yourself.”

The supporting cast glitters like so many gold coins. Leslie Jones appears in nearly half the episodes as the fearsome Spanish Jackie, who collects the noses of her enemies. Fred Armisen plays one of her 19 husbands. Kristen Schaal and Nick Kroll make an appearance as a pair of preposterous French aristocrats. And Boris McGiver is Stede’s emotionally abusive father – the man our empathetic captain has no wish to be. Is it possible, however, to maintain a commitment to nonviolent communication in a role where brutality is part of the job description?

Aside from being straight-up hilarious, Our Flag is a gorgeous show both emotionally and artistically. The first hint of this comes from the strolling musical interludes of the multitalented Joel Fry who, between scenes as crewmate Frenchie, breaks the fourth wall to sing directly to us of the crew’s exploits.

The soundtrack across the season is transcendentally pleasing and includes Lou Reed, Heart, Fleetwood Mac, The Beach Boys, Caetano Veloso and Leonard Cohen, to name a few. Gorgeousness is layered into the accumulation of closely considered details that have gone into the production design (by Ra Vincent) – notably so in the impracticality of Stede’s chambers. Gorgeous too is the use of colour, which consistently saturates scenes by virtue of the costumes (by the talented Christine Wada).

And gorgeous is also how I would describe each of the subtly drawn, majestically paced romances – not just between Stede and Ed but others such as crewmates Oluwande Boodhari (Samson Kayo) and Jim Jimenez (the glorious Vico Ortiz playing a nonbinary pirate searching to avenge their murdered family), and ultimately between Stede and his own true self.

This is not to say there’s an absence of the requisite bloodletting. Violence is frequent and it is ghastly. There is flaying, fire and at least one sword through an eye. There are scenes that have the densely populated pandemonium of a Bosch composition. But there is also a stillness built into the script and masterfully embodied by the actors. Sometimes this is the stillness of being becalmed, immobilised by the lack of a driving wind. At other times it is the stillness required to accurately navigate by the stars. This is the space in which the most moving beats – more rom than com – can land to greatest effect because we get a sense of character depth and relational complexity.

Our Flag has been described as a “period romantic comedy” but that doesn’t do justice to its use of current emotional, workplace and comedic idioms to locate the “now” squarely in the “then”. This old/new quality is something it shares with Monty Python generally and The Life of Brian specifically – they are different children of the same comedic parents. The serious/silly sensibility is what allows Our Flag to do something very important, and all within the ostensible confines of the Golden Age of Piracy.

It’s not quite that Our Flag refuses the traditionally gendered themes and archetypes of our myths and legends – the feminised repression of justified aggression and the toxically masculine imperative to “engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation”, as American author and social activist bell hooks put it, so “that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves”. It’s more that the writers have rightfully restored both of those themes within the same characters so that, regardless of gender or sexuality, they can claim their birthright to the full register of the human emotional experience.

This is the other reason why “period rom-com” – like the application of any oversimplified genre label to highly original works of art – isn’t quite on the money. Because Our Flag regards nothing human as alien to it, it can only really be described as period-queer-modern-romance-pirate-workplace-comedy-drama with a touch of horror. Stede’s work, and the show’s work, is the work of human life itself: the need to discerningly balance what Carl Jung referred to as “the tension of the opposites”.

Conscious or not, there is a pirate inside every people-pleasing, domesticated adult. And vice versa. Because we contain multitudes – as poets and depth psychologists have spent lifetimes telling us – for each impulse and emotion we choose to express, its opposite will be repressed. If we hold one socially assigned identity too tightly for too long, we will either betray our dreams completely or end up becoming “a pirate two hundred years too late”, in the immortal words of Jimmy Buffett. Then the world becomes life-constrictingly small, the wind drops out of our sails, and we end up double-crossing everyone, including ourselves. As Jung put it: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

The hero’s journey necessarily begins in reluctance and uncertainty, the protagonist feeling not very heroic at all. However, like the scaffolding provided by the persona of Dread Pirate Roberts, a large part of bravery is faking it until you make it. So, while Stede has come far, the contents of the finale hint that he has only just begun that long voyage towards inhabiting his fullest self. Plus, we are not yet sure whether we can trust the treacherous Blackbeard not to break his bones – and our hearts.

While a second season has not yet been announced, one does not simply refuse to renew Waititi. Hopefully we will have confirmation soon because – like the rest of Our Flag’s ever-expanding fandom – I am already on board. 

Our Flag Means Death is streaming on Binge.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Fully human".

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Sarah Krasnostein is The Saturday Paper’s television critic.

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