The Unicorn Scale: Our Flag Means Death

By Jennie Roberson

June 10, 2022

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Photo credit: Image/HBO Max

Ay and avast, me Unicorns! We hope that the seas are calm, the wind is strong in yer billowing sails, and that ye’ve got more than enough booty to go around.

Who doesn’t love pirates? I know I adore them. I went to see Pirates of the Caribbean seven times in the theaters (and no, not just because I was besotted with Orlando Bloom). From Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island onward, these rebels of the high seas have symbolized an enticing sense of freedom from our landlocked lives and provided us with plenty of fodder for the imagination. We still have Talk Like A Pirate Day every year on September 19th. Even last year, there was a massive #birates trend on TikTok that unveiled a huge subculture of the queer community who love multiple genders as much as they love a chestful of doubloons.

Image/HBO Max

Which brings me to this column’s focus, Our Flag Means Death, a pirate comedy from HBO Max starring Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby. As soon as I saw the preview and that the show would be focusing on a character who called himself the Gentleman Pirate, I immediately knew I would have to find out more about this fish-out-of-water tale.

Before I get too carried away with this analysis, I should probably go over a few disclaimers. First and foremost, I should note that this article will contain SPOILERS for the first season. As for content warnings, I would note that the most common ones throughout the season are comical violence (these are pirates, after all) as well as a few moments of animals seen or getting alluded to being hurt — again, mostly comically. If you’re concerned there may be a particular trigger beyond these, you can double-check here to see if there is something that may concern you and be sure to check out our grading rubric if you are unfamiliar with Unicorn Scales. 

Our Flag Means Death is a period romantic-comedy television series whose first season started in 2022 that loosely centers on the true story of Stede Bonnet (Darby), a foppish member of the landed gentry leading a comfortable life who decides to chuck it all and become a pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy. Around each turn he learns how to earn the respect of his unimpressed crew and become more ruthless in his dealings — which ends up impressing one of the most feared and treacherous pirates in all of history, Ed Teach — better known as Blackbeard (Waititi).

What I Liked:

Y’all. Y’ALL! There is so much queer representation here!

Let’s start with the main course here — Ed and Stede’s love affair. While if we blended Blackbeard’s fictionalization here with what we know of his real life, it could be argued that his wives plus his affection for Stede here makes him bi. But I want to talk about how the show, created by David Jenkins, approaches the sexualization of Stede.

Ed and Stede sharing a close moment. They are sitting down together and are sharing a meal.
Image/HBO Max

I think many would argue that Stede’s arc in the first season, among many things, follows his gay awakening as he realizes that Ed makes him happy. But I think we could make the argument that Stede was bi but didn’t really feel towards his wife, Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), as he feels towards Ed. Throughout the first half of the season, we do see flashbacks of Stede trying to bond with his wife and family (unsuccessfully). As he lingers near death, we note that one of the last things that flashes before his eyes as he lingers on the edge of death. He also keeps her painting in his quarters. We do see Stede make and give Mary an anniversary gift, and he does call out for her during his coma. The true love here is clearly Ed, but as we’ve spoken about many times here on this website (and as Robyn Ochs reminds us), bisexuality doesn’t mean we have to be attracted to multiple genders in the same way or to the same degree.

With Ed and Stede, we get to see what is very rarely shown in modern cinema — queer representation in pirate stories, and subtext becoming text. I know many of us have felt like other shows have gotten into queerbaiting territory without actually delivering on the goods, but in the final episodes of the first season, we get to see Ed and Stede openly bond and flirt and play footsie even during a raid. The tenderness in how their attraction unfolds, right down to their first kiss, is a source of deliberate and intentional queer joy. Not only that, but the source of their conflicts never comes from their budding romance or how others will handle their dynamic, but rather the dangerous circumstances of the marginalized and outlaw lives they lead.

Ed and Stede facing another ship's captain in a confrontation onboard a ship.
Image/HBO Max

But Our Flag Means Death won’t just settle for one queer romance. No! We have two other couples who get romantic developments! Crewman Black Pete (Matthew Mayer) and scribe Lucius (Nathan Foad) get to become a delightful gay item — though whether Lucius survives the season we have yet to see (not putting him into the #KillOurGays category just yet). And we get the culmination of a flirtation between nonbinary crew person Jim (Vico Ortiz) and sensible boatswain Oluwande (Samson Kayo.)

Jim and Oluwande talking and smiling sitting in their quarters close to one another.
Image/HBO Max

Some people may contend that this is queer rep overkill, but the truth of the matter is there were a lot of queer unions in the world of pirates. In fact, it was so common that there was a term for many of the civil unions — matelotage — that is known about. While word is still out on the sexual orientation of some fictional pirates like Long John Silver, it is a well-documented fact that the high seas were a place of a surprising amount of sexual freedom.

What I Didn't Like:

Nothing! Nada! I can’t fault the show for not using the term “bi” because, in the context of the show, the term hadn’t been invented for another two centuries or so. Is there a part of my queer-loving heart that wishes it was in there? Sure — especially since a lot of the humor in the scripts depends on both apocryphal language use as well as modern management ideas being introduced into a world of havoc and plunder. But not enough that it made me turn off the show in disgust or anything like that.

The Rating:

Our Flag Means Death manages to deliver on both humor and pathos and queer representation in great swashbuckling form. The series manages to do what many shows have failed to do before and normalize queerness that really was present in an era of derring-do, giving marginalized characters fully-fleshed-out life and loves they would not be able to explore on land during their own time. The jury’s out as of writing time on whether or not there will be a season two, but between the sizable fan following it has garnered and the star power behind its cast, I remain hopeful. Maybe in the next season all of our queer lovebirds can meet up and join forces with Mary Read and Anne Bonny (other bi pirates of note of this period) and pillage a whole countryside.

Either way — I’m thoroughly happy with what this show has brought to the public so far. Makes me want to go forth and find my own horizon — and my own bonnie lass, too.

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