“Our flag means death” and stories of queer pirates | Art
Editor’s Note: “Dead Men Tell Some Tales” is a bi-weekly column that reviews and discusses various pirate-centric works of fiction.
Warning: Here are spoilers for the TV show “Our Flag Means Death”
To borrow from Jane Austen, it’s a universally acknowledged truth that there’s something inherently fascinating about pirates. Whether we consider them villains or heroes, society can’t get enough of them.
I get seasick easily, can’t tie any knots at all and I’m certainly not cut out for more than a day at sea – and yet during the pandemic I’ve become obsessed with fiction pirate. I love reading it, watching it, listening to it and talking about it. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to talk about pirates a lot more these days, and it’s thanks to HBO’s new show “Our Flag Means Death”, the first pirate medium I’ll be talking about in this column.
“Our Flag Means Death,” or “OFMD,” has taken the world (and the internet) by storm. Speak Los Angeles Times“‘OFMD’ has become the most-streamed new program for seven consecutive weeks after its finale aired on March 24, according to data analytics firm Parrot Analytics.”
The show, created by David Jenkins, follows ex-aristocrat and new pirate Stede Bonnet, played by Rhys Darby, as he tries to make a name for himself on the high seas. Along the way, he and the crew of The Revenge meet the infamous pirate Blackbeard, played by Taika Waititi, who agrees to teach Stede how to be a pirate like him. As they and the rest of Stede’s crew grow as people and escape Spanish and English, “Our Flag Means Death” offers its viewers a high seas story about falling in love and to accept each other.
It is difficult to write about “Our flag means death”, because so much has already been said about it. It’s a great show full of wonderfully written characters. It should be noted that I have a complicated relationship with the idea of portraying marginalized identities in media, but it’s so fulfilling and encouraging to see a TV show with such great and diverse characters. One can only hope that “Our Flag Means Death” will inspire others in the film industry to write characters with equal respect and care.
Another thing that makes “Our Flag Means Death” so gripping and moving is that its queer characters and relationships aren’t unfounded – they’re deeply rooted in the show’s thematic content. “OFMD” follows Stede’s journey of self-discovery, along with that of Blackbeard and Jim Jimenez, played by Vico Ortiz, as the characters discover who they are and what they believe in. Not only do they find each other, but also a family that accepts them for who they are.
This kind of love and community is inexpressibly valuable to see on television in our current political climate. As Lisa Rosen writes in Los Angeles Times“‘OFMD’ would be a truly modern take on love stories, except real modern life isn’t as tolerant as what happens aboard the Revenge.”
The idea of gay pirates is not something that came out of nowhere. Pirate stories are fundamentally about people who live outside the structures of society, and it’s a narrative that often lends itself to queer stories. The societal structures that pirates avoid also often prohibit and punish life outside of traditional heterosexual ideas of love and family.
If you’ll allow me to speculate, maybe that’s part of what makes pirates so enticing and enduring; they allow us to realize that the structures of our societies are just that — structures that can be constructed as well as deconstructed.
But if my high school physics class taught me anything, it’s that you need solid research procedures and empirical data to make your analysis stand up to scrutiny. So, inspired by the likes of “Boba Crawl” and “Kill James Bondand with the help of lots of caffeine and some very patient family members, I designed my own pirate rating system: MATEY-Q. Please note that the MATEY-Q system is intended to assess the degree of piracy of a medium, not its quality.
Maritime — What is the progress of the pirate media? Do people shout to raise or lower the veils? Is there a lot of ship-centric combat? I would give “Our Flag Means Death” a maritime rating of 2/5. The Revenge is mostly just scenery and there’s hardly any ship-to-ship combat. However, the ship also serves a symbolic purpose – representing freedom and free will – and I’m willing to give “Our Flag Means Death” points for it.
Archiving — To what extent is the pirate media interested in ideas of history and historicism? “Our Flag Means Death” gets an archive score of 1/5. Like the ship, the story is mostly a matter of setting. A media outlet does not need to be historically accurate to score points in this category, but it must be self-aware and engage in its own rewriting of history. “Our Flag Means Death” plays with history in a fun-to-watch way, but these issues aren’t considered thematically.
Thrills — Is pirate media exciting? Is it action packed? I give the show a score of 3/5 for the thrill. There’s a lot of action and menacing characters. Jim’s knife tricks in particular are always incredibly fun to watch. That said, the series prioritizes character-driven moments over swordsmanship. I appreciate that, but there’s also something to be said for a good old fashioned life or death sword fight.
Escape “How much does the pirate media make me want to drop out of school and join a pirate crew?” “Our Flag Means Death” gets an empathetic 5/5 on evasion. The show’s story is basically about leaving your old life behind to find something new on the open sea. It also helps that life on The Revenge doesn’t seem so barbaric, generally speaking.
Yoza “Are pirates worth fainting?” Are they cool? Is their fashion enviable? I give “OFMD” a yowza rating of 4/5 because I think five years from now we can all look back and see Waititi’s Blackbeard costume for the cultural moment it truly is.
Queer — Does pirate media have queer characters and/or themes? “Our Flag Means Death” gets another 5/5, no questions asked.
Total score: 20/30
All in all, “Our Flag Means Death” is a hilarious and heartfelt pirate game that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, and would recommend it to anyone – pirate media fan or otherwise. Perhaps what’s most exciting about this show – for me, at least – is that it has the potential to introduce so many people to the wonderful world of pirate media.
I hope watching “Our Flag Means Death” will inspire people to search for more pirate media. This is also partly why I wanted to write this column. I think it’s definitely worth consuming and discussing pirated media, and I hope that by the end of the summer, you all will too.
Contact podcast editor Ari Snyder at [email protected] Twitter: @ari_snyder1
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