When Our Flag Means Death (OFMD) premiered on HBO Max in early March of 2022, it was easy to just brush it off as another funny, quirky, charismatic show. Created by David Jenkins (People of Earth), the show follows aristocrat-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and his crew aboard the Revenge as they try to make a name for themselves and end up befriending famed and feared pirate Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi). But as the first season came to a close at the end of the same month, it shot up in popularity and became the most in-demand show in the U.S. for seven straight weeks.
How did this dramatic spike in popularity come to be? I’ll give you a hint: they made it gay.
[SPOILERS FOR OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH SEASON ONE BELOW]
I was on the OFMD bandwagon way before the first few episodes dropped. In fact, I was even David Jenkins’ pinned tweet for a while before the show began gaining traction. This is why while there is no shortage of queer undertones in the show, it felt like we all started watching it with an air of apprehension – we’ve been burned by other shows in the past. Shows like Supernatural and Sherlock have used queerbaiting tactics to string LGBTQIA+ audiences along for views but make their charcters’ perceived love a canonic relationship. What OFMD does differently is create is an environment where being queer is the norm and thus build on queerness as an integral part of the story. By making queerness its standard, the show manages to normalize queer romance in a way that has precious few peers now and just hasn’t really been done before.
OFMD appeared to start off on the same queerbaiting route by having its secondary characters come out and be vocal about who they loved. However, the show keeps the big reveal – i.e., “Black Bonnet,” Stede and Blackbeard’s ship name – hidden until the final two episodes of OFMD Season 1, when its two leads finally confess their love for each other and plan to run away together. It’s a new precedent for a show to actively following through with the romance it set up from the start.
Stede’s season-long arc is all about him working through his guilt, connected directly to both his feelings about abandoning his family for a life of piracy and to his sexuality. As shown in the fourth episode, “Discomfort in a Married State,” Stede has always been a soft person, and his proclivities have always gotten in the way of everything he thought he was supposed to want – including, of course, the life he was supposed to lead. It’s only in meeting Edward and developing their (obviously) flirty friendship that Stede comes to terms with who he is and finds comfort in the parts of himself society dismisses or outright detests. Similarly, it’s only after returning home in the season finale (“Wherever You Go, There You Are”) and seeing that his wife and children are much better off because he left that Stede is able to let go of what his father and family wanted for him and finally accept his true feelings, sailing off after the man he loves.
Aside from the big ship for the season, the Our Flag Means Death queerness means introducing a lot more queer couples, in the process setting up a strong through-line that (almost) everyone in this show is part of the LGBTQIA+ community. The first example comes in the form of out-and-with-nothing-to-hide Lucius Spriggs (Nathan Foad). Lucius is open about his sexuality from the start, displaying his attraction for men as simply another facet of his personality. It’s neither commented on nor mocked in any way, and thus sets up perfectly the crew of the Revenge as open-minded and accepting. Lucius’ relationship with Black Pete (Matthew Maher) also develops throughout the season, going from open and casual to something a bit more serious as the story progresses. And it’s their relationship that allows Lucius and Black Pete to care for other people and start down the road of growth.
In a story similar to Stede and Edward’s slow-burn romance, OFMD also follows friends-to-lovers Jim Jimenez (Vico Ortiz) and Oluwande Boodhari (Samson Kayo) as they fall for each other and finally get together in the season’s penultimate episode. Jim’s identity journey, going from being Bonifacia to finding themselves as a non-binary person and being accepted by the crew, is one of the best things Our Flag Means Death does all season. The normalization of Jim’s pronouns adds beautifully to the foundation of this world: the switch informs character and reminds audiences that if illiterate 18th century pirates can process a change in nomenclature this quickly and easily, so can anyone alive today. Jim and Oluwande’s romance also continues Our Flag Means Death‘s attempt to show love in all its shapes and in a language that everyone can understand.
At its core, Our Flag Means Death is a story about acceptance and allowing yourself to understand what your sexuality is, whom you choose to love, and that you can’t be afraid to go after the love you know you deserve. By creating a world where being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community is normalized (and, might I add, historically accurate), Our Flag Means Death‘s queerness leaps forward in representation, showing us that gender and sexuality don’t change who you are – they’re part of what makes you whole.