How Our Flag Means Death Crafts Romance

In the second season of the period rom-com Our Flag Means Death, which comes to Max on Oct. 5, the New Zealand actor and comedian Rhys Darby becomes not only a pirate but also a merman.

Darby plays Stede Bonnet, the Gentleman Pirate, a wealthy landowner who tires of his plush life of leisure and decides to become a swashbuckling pirate. Executive producer Taika Waititi stars opposite Darby as the infamous pirate Blackbeard. In real life, these two figures really did sail, plunder, and capture ships together. But the historical parallels end there. Our Flag Means Death is a love story, in which Stede and Blackbeard slowly fall for each other.

Season 1 ended with Stede running away from Blackbeard, afraid of his feelings for him. The second season opens on a heartbroken Blackbeard who takes his pain out on his crew, bringing them down with him in a suicidal spiral until they’re forced to try to kill him. Blackbeard survives the assassination attempt but ends up in “the gravy basket,” mentally in purgatory while his body lies lifeless on the ship. Stede finds him there and tries to resuscitate him, and Blackbeard senses his presence.

As Blackbeard imagines it, he’s drowning, being dragged down toward death. But then, to the tune of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work”, Stede appears as a gallant merman, glittering gold in shining scales. A supercut of their most cherished moments together flashes by, and Blackbeard sputters back to life. 

It’s the kind of moment filmmakers fantasize about creating, actually come to fruition, says David Jenkins, Our Flag Means Death‘s creator, writer, director, EP, and showrunner. “You’re like, ‘This is beautiful,’” he says. “All the hours and everything, this is worth it. This is why we do this.”

The merman scene epitomizes the draw of Our Flag Means Death, which has turned into a snowballing sleeper hit with a devoted fan base since debuting last year. In its first season, audience demand for the show tripled between its premiere and finale. It then became the most in-demand breakout series in the U.S. Part romance, part workplace comedy, Our Flag Means Death is framed as a period piece, and dressed as a drama. What makes the show work, Jenkins says, is the fact that—unlike something like What We Do in the Shadows—the plot doesn’t reset with each episode. There’s more of a narrative thru-line, which makes the consequences for characters feel heavier. The show seesaws between asking viewers to suspend their disbelief (e.g., the merman) while maintaining a very real emotional core (Stede saving Blackbeard from himself).

“Teetering between these two tones, and just making sure one doesn’t totally dominate and destroy the other tone, that’s the fun of the show to me,” Jenkins says. “You never know what you’re going to get.”

When Our Flag Means Death was building word-of-mouth momentum last year, there came a flurry of think pieces about how it defied queerbaiting: Rather than defining Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship as platonic, leaving only queer undertones and implications—a phenomenon that LGBTQ+ audiences are all too used to—the writers’ room made it explicitly romantic, sealing the deal with an onscreen kiss in the penultimate episode of Season 1.

“I don’t see this as a queer romance,” says Jenkins. “I see this as a romance. It’s two people finding each other and falling in love, and it should have the same size as every other mainstream fantasy story about two people falling in love, with all the bells and whistles.”

Jenkins didn’t realize how deep the collective fear ran that the show wouldn’t make the relationship canon (legitimize it as part of the official, fictional universe) until the week of the finale, when that anxiety spilled onto social media. At that point, he already knew that he wanted the second season to be more overtly romantic. But the realization made him appreciate that this romance—its weight and attention to detail—might land differently with audiences than a male-female love story.

“There was a part of me that’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m making this show and I want these two characters to fall in love,’” Jenkins says. “But I am telling this story from a place of, I’m entitled. I’ve seen myself in romance and rom-coms. I’ve watched When Harry Met Sally and seen myself in that story.”

The allure of Our Flag Means Death is manifold. While its central romance has drawn plenty of praise, its pirate crew also gradually knits itself into a ragtag chosen family—another pillar of the queer community. The scribe Lucius (Nathan Foad) and the irritable Black Pete (Matthew Maher) become lovers. Best friends Oluwande (Samson Kayo) and Jim (Vico Ortiz) kiss but later return to friendship. At the beginning of season two, Israel “Izzy” Hands (Con O’Neill), Blackbeard’s first mate (also a real historical figure), admits his love for Blackbeard and loses a leg in the process. 

“Any workplace show is a platonic love story,” Jenkins says. “And it’s more of a family kind of love, where you want to kill them half the time, and the other half the time, you’re like, ‘Aww, I guess they’re OK.’”

If the zany, loveable crew of the pirate ship The Revenge—the grizzled Buttons (Ewen Bremner), who can talk to seagulls; Frenchie (Joel Fry), who immortalizes their adventures in song; Wee John (Kristian Nairn), who loves fire and dressing in drag—is the lifeblood of the show, then the romance between Stede and Blackbeard is its beating heart. Season 1 saw the two work through their relationship with the emotional maturity of teenage boys, Jenkins says. Now, they’ve grown up a bit and are figuring out the next phase: Emotionally speaking, it’s like they’re in their late 20s, about to move in with someone and split the rent.

“What they need to learn is: They want a true partner,” Jenkins says. “What is the cost of that? That takes work, to have a true partnership. And then after they have it, how do you maintain that?”

How Our Flag Means Death Crafts Romance

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