Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby as Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet. (Photo: HBO)
“Oh my God. This is happening!”
I didn’t realize the seventh episode of HBO Max’s pirate comedy series Our Flag Means Death was titled “This Is Happening.” If I had, I probably wouldn’t have been so surprised when Blackbeard, aka Ed (Taika Waititi), looked lovingly and expectantly at hapless pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) as Stede picked a wayward piece of barbecued snake out of his beard.
But, I might be too hard on myself; even Lucius (Nathan Foad) was shocked at the sight, saying the episode’s title out loud–“Oh my God. This is happening.”
If you’ve been a part of slash fandoms in the past, you understand Lucius’s shock and might have been saying something similar to him as you watched the scene. Up until that point, fans were rightly wary of trusting the series. Even if it was executive produced and starring Taika Waititi, one of the most creative, open-minded directors and producers working in Hollywood today. Even if it did star queer actors: The series includes non-binary actor Vico Ortiz, who plays Jim, aka Bonifacia, a rare example of a non-binary character that gets to live out a complex life beyond being education for the audience. Similarly, Foad takes Lucius out of the realm of possibly being a stereotypical quippy gay character in any other series and into the realm of being the long-suffering good conscience of both Stede and Ed as they traverse the unknown plane of love and queer self-discovery.
There was so much pointing audience members to the fact that, yes, finally, two male leads who have undeniable chemistry will actually get together. But, after being burned so many times by so many popular shows, it makes sense the fandom (me included) was wary and suspicious, wondering just how this show would pull the rug from under us.
But the show did give us clear hints as to where it was headed, despite our anxiety. Examples: the shot of Ed quickly moving in for a kiss under the moonlight before faltering and backing away in Episode 5, Episode 6’s focus on Ed finally being vulnerable with Stede about his past traumas as he hides in a bathtub with Stede’s robe as a blanket, the aforementioned beard-picking scene in which Stede and Ed fall into a natural, old married couple style banter about a hypothetical “snakery” restaurant.
There are important hints and nods to the building friendship-turned-romance as soon as Ed joins the Revenge in Episode 3. After Episode 4 shows Ed and Stede cosplaying as each other by wearing each other’s outfits, Ed keeps some elements of Stede’s clothes throughout the series. Usually, it was just in the form of Ed wearing Stede’s undone black cravat. But as Ed suffers immense heartbreak after Stede unwisely thinks he should go back to his family in the first season’s remaining episodes, Ed wears another of Stede’s old robes and Stede’s khaki adventuring pants from Episode 7. Other moments of Ed using Stede’s belongs as comfort include when Ed retreats into a pillow fort made of Stede’s old pillows or how he eats Stede’s favorite marmalade right out of the pot in a fit of depression.
Stede, on the other hand, showed jealousy when Calico Jack (Will Arnett), a friend and ex-lover of Ed’s, randomly appeared, becoming a wedge between Stede and Ed. Like any half of a couple who has to put with their partner’s bad influence of a best friend, Stede spent his time glued to the window in his study, nosily watching them or telling Ed how he doesn’t like who Ed becomes when Calico Jack is around. Lucius is trying to manage both parties throughout it all–scolding Ed while attempting to coax Stede to put the telescope down and stop spending his days watching Ed and Jack like Bewitched‘s resident busybody Gladys Kravitz.
Then the home run came: Stede and Ed finally admitted their feelings and kissed! A rather romantic and steamy one at that. The fandom once again declared, “This is happening!” with joy, glee, and, once again, shock. The couple, deemed #BlackBonnet on social media, was full steam ahead.
A couple like BlackBonnet shouldn’t be revolutionary. But unfortunately, it is. So often, characters who are clearly giving off romantic vibes–think John and Sherlock in Sherlock, so many of the friendships on Supernatural–are later written as just platonically into each other, with series producers and writers gaslighting fans who want to see these characters smooch.
I remember the distinct feeling I had when Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss (who is, in fact, gay) gave the fans a weird talking to in interviews for suggesting that John and Sherlock could be together. It was as if the fans were the ridiculous ones for reading into the clear signals Moffat and Gatiss had written into the show. Somehow, we were weird for reading the chemistry Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman embued into their characters as more than just friendship between bros. It was insulting. If I, a straight woman, was offended by this, I can’t imagine how the LGBTQ fans of the series must have felt.
This type of treatment made fans wary of the goodness Our Flag Means Death was ready to present. A lot of us didn’t realize going into the show that writer/creator David Jenkins planned for it to be a romance from the very beginning. As he, Waititi, and Darby told IndieWire’s Ben Travers, the romance was what made the two leads excited to sign on in the first place.
“When SuperWhoLock-style slash fanfiction finally gets an HBO budget.”
“When [Taika and I] were talking about it early on, the reason to do the show is figuring out how these two people fell in love. It’s essentially a rom-com. It’s a pirate romance beween these two characters,” said Jenkins.
Waititi commented on the show’s “slow burn” aspect, saying, “I’ve been looking online and there’s all these people replying on Twitter with those memes: ‘Just kiss already!’ They can see it, and they want it.”
“And then people being very afraid that we’re not going to do it, which is fair. I didn’t realize how deep that ran until, honestly, this week,” added Jenkins. “After you watch the fifth episode, it’s very clear they’re almost going to kiss, and people either don’t believe we’re playing it or don’t engage with it when they’re writing about the show, that…I didn’t expect that. I thought it was quite explicit that they had feelings for each other. People are picking up on it, but they don’t actually believe that we’re going there.”
While it’s funny to hear how Jenkins was confused at what it would take to get fans to believe the relationship was happening, his comments touch on the exact thing jaded fans were anxious about. It’s such a commonplace thing for queer characters to get treated by a series as a way to gain ratings and popularity, only for the series to pull a bait-and-switch on invested fans.
Once fans realized things were going in their direction for once, popularity for Our Flag Means Death skyrocketed. Mashable’s Jess Joho rightly described the show as “[w]hen SuperWhoLock-style slash fanfiction finally gets an HBO budget.”
“While the show flew under the radar for a bit, the online discourse exploded after the final two (very explicitly queer) episodes aired. One viral tweet deemed it the new SuperWhoLock, which others were quickly to jokingly call that label out as a menacing threat because…no! It’s actually the exact opposite of that whole mess,” she wrote. “One investigative TikToker even started tracking the spike in fanfictions published onto AO3 post-gay explosion, going from a measly eight pages for the majroity of the season to a whopping 1,600 in the 16 days following episode 7’s release.”
The show has also earned critical praise from culture writers who have also been eager to see the media take a stand for once and show an unabashed queer love story on mainstream television. The Atlantic’s Emma Sarappo wrote, “Our Flag Means Death is the opposite of queerbait: It’s a love story told over a season where the narrative constantly affirms that the romance being teased is real. But imagine what television could pull off in a future where LGBTQ lives and stories are less stigmatized. Imagine the narrative possibilities for tales about queer romance if viewers can trust that they’re getting meaningful looks from the start, and not just settling in for seasons of endless yearning.”
CBR’s Renaldo Matadeen described the show as a panacea against toxic masculinity. “It spoke to how men in modern society are often afraid to be open and vulnerable because they’re looked down upon by fraternities, men’s clubs, locker rooms or by family, friends and co-workers,” he wrote. “But as this series shows, none of these things could ever diminish masculinity once guys were free to do whatever or love whatever. This arc of men being themselves is best summed up by how Blackbeard was healed by Stede’s compassion and warmth, finding a brotherhood on the ship he never wanted to lose again.”
Movieweb’s Finn Lynch also hailed the show’s exploration of queer life and love. “The show unveils the romance between the two main pirates beautifully and naturally, creating a well-developed and believable relationship where so many other attempts from Hollywood have fallen short,” they wrote. “It has been incredible to see these queer characters come to life on screen and be central to the story instead of being used by a production to check off the representation box. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of queer stories set in period films and seeing some queer pirates added to the list is what we all needed.”
Collider’s Dani Herd summed it up when they wrote how the show affected them as a queer viewer and creator. “On a personal note, as a queer viewer, I truly cannot understate how much the simple, deliberate, and gentle depictions of these characters and their relationships absolutely took my breath away,” they wrote.
Our Flag Means Death…and an emotional release
Viewers aren’t coming to the show for historical accuracy–the show is basically fanfiction about real-life pirates. But maybe it’s because of that fanfiction feel that Our Flag Means Death feels open to freely dive into some of the same themes that many AO3 slash fanfiction stories tackle. Like many a story about a fandom pairing, Our Flag Means Death explores the softer side of relationships and interpersonal connections. The show takes every opportunity to rifle through Ed and Stede’s reasons for being afraid to love and be themselves. Ed’s allowed to blossom into a fully-fledged person free from the shackles of heteronormativity and be the creative, expressive, happy individual he always wanted to be.
Emotional health is often at the center of slash fiction. Many writers use stories about same-sex couples to showcase the author’s need for emotional vulnerability, safety in intimacy, and desire to set healthy boundaries. These are things women and girls, who are usually the writers of slash fiction, often don’t feel safe expressing in a society that pressures them to be harmfully submissive and pliant to others’ desires, not their own. Amazingly, Episode 9’s exploration of Ed’s emotional journey after Stede leaves provides a great example of how society pressures everyone, regardless of gender, to suck it up and move on, despite the person wanting to be free to navigate their swirling emotions.
At first, once Ed makes it back to the Revenge, he’s numb. Then as reality sets in, he falls apart, building his pillow fort and dressing in Stede’s clothes, crying to Lucius as he eats Stede’s marmalade for comfort. Lucius patiently attends to him, giving him sound advice, which brings Ed out of his depression long enough to express his feelings through a creative outlet–song. He then decides that everyone should have a chance to express their feelings–something Stede was proud to promote to his crew–and put on a talent show. Even though Ed was sad, he was also simultaneously happy; he could feel the complexity of his emotions, their ebb and flow, without being accosted or chastised for being less than manly. Ed was healing. At least before Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill) got into his head, putting the pressure back on him to perform, be a man’s man, and be the Blackbeard that imprisons Ed’s true self.
But before Izzy meddled with things, it’s fascinating to see how Ed’s calmest, most emotionally stable, and most peaceful and free state of being was also when he was at his most vulnerable and, indeed, at his queerest. As he walked loose-limbed around the boat in Stede’s bohemian robe, sans facial hair and constricting leather, Ed seemingly felt at home in his skin. Even if rejection wracked his brain, he was allowed to openly feel his way through it, leaving him feeling more in control of his situation. Once he didn’t have to perform within stereotypical trappings of manhood, Ed was finally free, at least for a little while.
Scenes such as Ed being allowed to explore his emotions are what make Our Flag Means Death so meaningful and, sadly, so rare in a landscape full of male-centered shows. And indeed, its queer cast and the relationships they explore make the show one of the few that treats queer characters as just people, not as stereotypes or Big Important Lessons. The show sincerely gives these characters the space to be, feel, and love, and that quiet confidence makes the series such a revolutionary one.
Stede and Ed embody the show’s spirit perfectly. Here are two men who didn’t fit in with the status quo and decided to find themselves out on the open sea. Just as people in our society must traverse the symbolic waters of self-discovery, Stede and Ed discover how to cast off the shackles of the world they left behind and find their true essence, both as individuals and with each other.
While the first season ended with a dramatic cliffhanger, Jenkins and Waititi have declared that the sea’s favorite couple will remain one for as long as the show has eager fans. Seeing how the series has remained at the number one spot for five weeks in a row, beating out popular series such as HBO’s Euphoria and Disney+’s Moon Knight, it would appear that Stede and Ed will be the fandom’s power couple for a long time.