After a torturously long time, HBO Max’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death is reaching British shores and broadcasting on BBC2 from 4th January (with all episodes on iPlayer). One of the few shows to survive HBO’s eager axe, Our Flag Means Death was an immediate cult hit on its US airing in the spring, with its chaotic pirate antics, queer revelry, and Taika Waititi in leather, appealing particularly to the online world.
On first glance, the show may appear to owe much to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, with its comedic focus on 18th-century inept pirates, but whereas Pirates concerns the fantastical, Our Flag is dealing largely in fact. It tells the story of real “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) – an aristocrat who gave up his wealthy family life to pursue a life on the high seas. Creator David Jenkins narrows in not just on Bonnet’s decision to become a pirate – in the face of all sense – but also on his seemingly baffling (and historically accurate) friendship with notorious pirate excellence, Edward Blackbeard (Taika Waititii)
Based around the facts that are known of Bonnet’s pirating life, the ten-part series follows the novice sailor Bonnet as he tries to captain his ship Revenge, and lead his motley crew in the only way he knows how – with kindness and consideration – an aberration in the pirating world.
Despite the regular meals and living-wage salary, his crew of misfits and miscreants are unimpressed by their well-to-do, high-thinking captain with his full library, chandeliers, and cooperative management style. Mutiny is on their minds until an encounter with a British naval ship, and Bonnet’s childhood school bully Nigel Badminton (Rory Kinnear) leads them to see Bonnet in a different light. When disguising his crew as English Lords fails to distract the navy from the Revenge’s true pirating nature, Bonnet attempts to knock Badminton unconscious, only to find his school nemesis literally falls on his sword. Bonnet’s right-hand man Oluwande (Samson Kayo) encourages his captain to use this fortuitous turn to his advantage, and make the rest of his crew-mates believe he violently killed the English naval captain, thus earning the respect of his blood-thirsty pirate crew.
Rhys Darby is outstanding as The Gentleman Pirate, a man utterly sure in where he belongs, but completely out of his depth when he gets there. Darby is just as charming as Stede the cluelessly adamant aristocrat, as he is as the swashbuckling hero he becomes, without ever losing the “little boy looking for love” inside.
His crew is peopled by a fantastic array of characters and character actors, including Trainspotting’s Ewan Bremner as psychotic, friend-to-seagulls Buttons, and Game of Thrones’ Hodor (Kristian Nairn) as cuddly, arsonist Wee John. Though the stand outs are writer comedian Nathan Froud as the eye-rolling, deliciously camp biographer Lucious, along with his Blood’s co-star Samson Kayo as the “pencil in a box of crayons” Oluwande – the sensible, love-lorn second-in-command who never sees himself as above his crew-mates and just longs for a peaceful life.
Our Flag Means Death is captivating and comedic from the get-go, with reminisces of Stardust’s closeted sky-pirate Captain Robert De Niro, and anachronistic humour that is akin to ITV2’s hit Plebs. But it’s not until The Revenge is boarded by Blackbeard and his crew, in episode 3 that the show becomes fully formed and electric.
Taika Waitiki seems made for the part of the moody, rock-star pirate legend Blackbeard. He embodies the restless boredom of a man who’s seen and done and killed it all, with an effortless swagger. All leather and stillness, he is clearly a lethal threat yet also undeniably a man in search of something else, which Stede Bonnet unexpectedly provides.
The chemistry of the real-life friends’ Darby and Waitiki is endearingly sweet, and the anarchic comedy then walks hand-in-hand with an achingly adorable love story, as two disenfranchised middle-aged men suddenly discover their happiness in each other. Stede is stunned but overjoyed when Ed takes delight in his quirks that everyone else had mocked, and is beside himself to share his knowledge and skills, in what becomes a beautiful and baffling partnership. It’s perhaps unsurprising that a show about pirates would be so unashamedly, gloriously gay, but its open-hearted diversity – without any nudge nudge wink wink queerbaiting – is very welcome, along with its no-nonsense depiction of non-binary character, Jim (Vico Ortez).
Despite the largely male cast, the female characters are not neglected, with SNL’s Leslie Jones eating up the screen as many-married baddie Spanish Jackie, and a surprisingly sensitive and strong depiction of Stede’s abandoned wife Mary Bonnet is delivered by Catherine O’Doherty.
Brits Con O’Neill, Rory Kinnear and Guz Khan excel as various levels of villainy in the supporting cast, with writing that gives the entire ensemble juicy morsels to work with, through sword fights, explosions, and equally murderous and disastrous pirate adventures. But the show belongs to Stede and Blackbeard, and their agonising dance toward romance.
It’s no surprise their ‘ship (Blackbonnet) made Tumblr’s top 5 ships of the year, as the painful stormy seas the pair traverse in order to touch a joy they’ve never previously believed could exist, is made for internet “shipping”. But it’s also simply incredibly watchable, and a wonderful exploration of finding yourself, and following your heart later in life.
A second-season has been filmed, and although we know that in real life Bonnet and Blackbeard met sticky ends, let’s hope Our Flag Means Death is given a stay of execution long enough to give us many adventures with The Gentleman Pirate and his beloved Blackbeard. There never was a more romantic foot touch in all of TV.
Our Flag Means Death airs Wednesday’s on BBC Two and is all available on iPlayer now.