Welcome to the Revenge! Our Flag Means Death sets sail with a pilot episode that includes mutiny, arts and crafts, playing dress-up, a sword through someone’s face, and the strangest pirate crew since those vegetables on Veggie Tales.
1. Historical accuracy? Never heard of her
A wealthy 18th-century landowner leaves his life of luxury behind to become a pirate right as the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” kicks off. Sounds like a ten-episode HBO miniseries, not something that happened in real life. But Our Flag Means Death is loosely based on the real historical record of Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate, and his tumultuous time sailing with the fearsome pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.
While the premise of the show, the general sequence of events, and many details are taken straight from contemporary sources, that’s about where the resemblance to real life ends. In Our Flag Means Death, historical accuracy takes a backseat to comedy and storytelling, and thank goodness. The pirates don’t attempt accents, and the goofy vibe of the first episode lets you know straight away that while the visuals are impressive and immersive, this isn’t Master and Commander. However, freed from the constraints of history, the silliness takes over and we get details like a rec room in a pirate ship that flies four different flags, one with a cat on it.
2. Rhys Darby? Present. Taika Waititi? Present.
If you were into offbeat, underground comedy in the 2000s, you probably already know Rhys Darby from his role as Murray Hewitt, hapless band manager on the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, or the cool-guy werewolf pack leader in the movie version of What We Do in The Shadows. Darby is one of those character actors who pops up in a ton of projects and when you see him, you say, “oh that guy!” But Our Flag Means Death gives him the chance to take the spotlight and play a role, as Darby says, he was “born to play.”
In the first episode, Darby brings every bit of his usual barely-contained manic energy and incompetent manager persona to Stede, making it clear that this is a guy who is in over his head. But he also gets to show a softer, sadder side as well, in scenes where you see how painful it is for Stede to be bullied for who he is – a soft person who loves beautiful things and is repelled by violence. That Stede would choose to become a pirate makes no sense, and Darby embodies the contradiction perfectly.
Darby’s long-time friend and collaborator, Taika Waititi directed this episode and stars as Blackbeard. He doesn’t show up onscreen until episode three, however, giving Darby’s Stede a chance to establish himself first. I’ve been a fan of Rhys Darby for ages, so I was ready to love the show from minute one, but I’ve talked to some who didn’t feel like this first episode grabbed them enough to continue. I get it, but after seeing the rest, I think it’s important to establish how the rest of the world sees Stede before his other half is introduced.
3. Arts and crafts and theater kids, ahoy
After their first “raid,” Stede asks for his crew’s feedback and gives notes of his own, telling them, “we’re swashbuckling, have fun with it!” Like a pirate version of Ted Lasso, he encourages the crew to talk over their feelings and wants them to grow as people. This is so bizarre to the hardened crew that they immediately plan a mutiny, but can’t decide who will be in charge once Stede is dead. Plus, Captain Bonnet reads Pinocchio to them at night, and none of them can read except the scribe, Lucius, who can’t do silly voices nearly as well as the captain can. (Nevermind that Pinocchio wasn’t published until one hundred years later. It’s not important. See thought #1.)
The motley crew is tasked with each making a flag for the Revenge, leading to an arts and crafts scene that introduces each character through the lens of what they’d put on a pirate flag. It’s a genius way to show the minor characters interacting, as each character comes up with their idea of the scariest symbol would be. When the crew encounters the British Navy and has to pretend not to be pirates, they defend their flag designs in one of the most hilarious awkward dinner-party scenes I’ve ever seen.Continued below
4. One man’s treasure
Stede’s past as a gentleman comes back to bite him in the form of Nigel Badminton, a pompous Royal Navy officer who looks like he could actually be from the set of Master and Commander. In one of those convenient storytelling coincidences, Badminton went to boarding school with Stede. Once on board, his officers mock the crew of the Revenge, who pretend to be upper-class sailors instead of bloodthirsty pirates. Badminton also rips into Stede, reminding him of their shared past as bully and victim. Stede’s ship, like Stede himself, is a thing of glorious contradictions. With its extensive library (remember, no one but Stede and Lucius can read) and fireplace (on a wooden ship), the Revenge is a homey, welcoming, decadent, ridiculous ship, and Badminton insults the heck out of it. When Stede has had quite enough, he stands up to his bully and uses a “stun move” straight out of classic Star Trek, but Badminton ends up with a sword through his head instead.
While he’s horrified by it, Stede is convinced to take credit for Badminton’s death as if he’s an intentional murderer. Badminton’s death is silly, satisfying, and gruesome, which fits the tone of the show and reminds viewers that as ridiculous as Stede and his ragtag crew are, they’re still pirates in a world where piracy meant having a short, violent life.
5. Will the puppet become a real boy?
Though he vanquishes his tormentor, takes two British sailors hostage, and staves off a mutiny, the episode ends on a sad note for Stede, who seems to finally realize the enormity of his decision to leave his family behind. “High on a Rocky Ledge,” a beautiful song by Moondog, plays as Stede tries to convince himself that he made the right decision. He reads his bedtime story to the crew instead of his children, and proudly flies all four pirate flags, like a dad displaying his kids’ artwork on the refrigerator. This last bit gives viewers a taste of the tenderness at the heart of this silly pirate comedy and hints at the themes to come as Stede ventures out of his comfort zone to find family, love, and adventure on the high seas, finally becoming a real boy along the way.
The adventures of our ragtag crew continue next week when Jim’s true identity is discovered, the ship runs aground, and our posh pirate captain gets the best of an actual, honest-to-goodness pirate.
(HBO waited until the first day of Pride month to renew Our Flag Means Death, which ended the metaphorical teeth-gnashing and rending of garments that fans (myself included) had been doing for a solid two months since the final episode aired.)