For many of us in the UK when we heard that there was a Rhys Darby-/Taika Waititi-led pirate romance show, we found by whatever means possible a way to watch it – pirate style, if you will. But, finally, almost a year after its first broadcast on US cable channel HBO, we could sail the high seas legally, with the UK debut last night on BBC Two.
‘Our Flag Means Death’ follows the adventures of real life gentleman pirate, Stede Bonnet, who upended his comfortable family life as a Barbadian plantation owner in an early midlife crisis, and commissioned the building of a pirate ship, ‘The Revenge’, setting out to sea despite being completely unsuitable for the job.
Bonnet brought with him unusual ideas and methods, most of which are covered in the show – such as paying his crew a wage (rather than the standard division of spoils), and having a library on board, from which he read stories to his men – yes that actually happened. Without spoilering too much, the real Stede Bonnet also formed an unlikely partnership with the altogether more infamous Blackbeard; this eventually forms the premise of the show.
Showrunner David Jenkins, who prior to OFMD was best known for the TBS show, ‘People Of Earth’, wrote the Stede Bonnet part with Darby in mind for the role. Likewise, he wrote the dialogue for Blackbeard in “Taika Waititi’s voice”. A better pairing couldn’t have been found. Not only do the duo seem born for the parts, they’ve also been besties for nearly 20 years, and long-term collaborators over that time. It very much became a family affair when the cast was joined by another of Waititi’s crew, fellow NZ actor David Fane, in the role of Fang, one of Blackbeard’s sidekicks.
‘Our Flag Means Death’ may well have you taking a deep dive into the true lives of Bonnet and Blackbeard, and while you’ll discover a lot of the darker parts have been ignored, and the fact that the real life pirates died in their mid-30s, viewers shouldn’t let that absence stand in the way of enjoying the story being told.
Speaking to Mashable about the Bonnet and Blackbeard relationship, Jenkins said,
“The central thing that makes the show interesting for me is that Blackbeard took Stede under his wing, for some reason, in real life”. Jenkins said, “And it really makes no sense – there’s all these holes in it. Filling those holes in with things of your own invention is one of the joys of doing a true story like this.”
OFMD is a period romance tale, and its location on the high seas is a secondary consideration. Likewise, while the main focus will inevitably be shone on the two leads, the ensemble cast are no less extraordinary.
Some will dismiss the show as “woke”, but in reality it’s a beautifully crafted set of what life could be like if we just accepted each other for who we are. On the good ship Revenge there is no discrimination based on race, gender, age, or size. All issues are discussed – “we talk it through as a crew”.
Much has been said of the queer storylines of OFMD, with many original viewers fearing the show would be the usual queer-baiting so sadly a feature in many shows of promise, where the characters are seen as plot devices, with stereotypical storylines, or presented as tragic. In ‘Our Flag Means Death’, the characters appear *naturally*. They come in all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, and race; just as in real life. And besides the core romance, there are at least two other queer relationships examined in the show. The on-off partnering of non-binary character Jim (played by non-binary actor Vico Ortiz) and their best friend Oluwande (Samson Kayo), is beautifully done, while Lucius (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher) reveal they have a matelotage – a civil union between same-sex pirates. There is also unrequited love, between Blackbeard’s offsider Izzy Hands – played by legendary actor Con O’Neill – and the dread pirate himself: when Hands feels his position usurped by Bonnet, he takes it out on all around him, making for a lot of very enjoyable, and sometimes slapstick, scenes.
I’ve briefly lighted on the incredible cast of ‘Our Flag Means Death’. Those I’ve not yet mentioned are no less crucial to the story and no less important. The wonderful Northern Irish actor, Kristian Nairn, best known as Hodor in Game Of Thrones, is stunning as the gentle pyromaniac man mountain, Wee John Feeney. Nat Faxon, seen most recently in ‘Loot’ and ‘The Way Way Back’, is almost unrecognisable as “The Swede”. We see more of Scottish actor Ewen Bremner in his role of Buttons than we ever thought we would, and viewers should look out for Buttons’ seagull friend, Carl. Joel Fry, known for his role in ‘Cruella’, plays a mean lute, which also serves as a means by which to propel the story, while UK comedian Guz Khan does a fine turn as Izzy Hands’ other sidekick, Ivan. Special mention must go to the supporting cast, namely Australian actress Claudia O’Doherty, who plays the long-suffering Mary Bonnet, as well as Rory Kinnear, Leslie Jones, and Fred Armisen.
While those who might have come across the show by chance might dismiss ‘Our Flag Means Death’ as a Pirates Of The Caribbean style romp, or worse, some sort of slapstick tomfoolery, with no substance – we ask that you give it another go. The first two to three episodes serve as the groundwork for the remaining 7 and establish plotlines that are examined further. It’s a slow-burner but you will be left wanting more by the end of episode 10. Fortunately, season 2 has just completed filming in New Zealand, and is set for release in the US later this year – hopefully we in the UK won’t have to wait another year for that.
‘Our Flag Means Death’ can be seen Wednesday nights at 10pm on BBC Two (check local guide for Northern Ireland). The entire first season is also available to stream right now on iPlayer.