By Taylor Rose Raucher
From the opening scenes of HBO’s 2022 cult hit Our Flag Means Death, it is clear that it is not going to be your typical pirate show. This is no Black Sails or Pirates of the Caribbean. These pirates are not swashbuckling. They are not cutthroat. Their first “raid” is on a small fishing boat where they steal a plant. And our captain Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) is not your typical pirate captain. He is finely dressed, pays his crew a weekly wage, keeps a daily journal of his exploits, and is not particularly murderous. He is a gentleman from Barbados who upended his life to run away to sea and become a pirate without having the first clue about what being a pirate means. And everything changes when he meets Blackbeard (Taika Waititi).
When Our Flag Means Death was airing in March and April of 2022, it was quietly making a splash as a charming workplace comedy. The unique spin on the pirate genre, described as a “hard to move genre” by showrunner and creator David Jenkins, was fresh and funny. But when the final two episodes of the first season dropped, the internet was ablaze with excitement: this show was unabashedly queer. And what made the storytelling particularly intriguing when it came to the queer narrative was that, while the love story was central to the plot, the characters’ sexualities were not.
The most stereotypically queer character, Lucius (Nathan Foad), flirts and has a budding relationship with the macho Black Pete (Matt Maher), but there is never a conversation about where they stand with each other—it is simply understood. The nonbinary pirate Jim, played by nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz, has a moment with the crew—who think they might be a mermaid—where they simply say, “Keep calling me Jim,” and so the crew obliges. And Stede, who spends the season discovering his own power as a captain and as a man, realizes he loves Blackbeard not by coming out in a lengthy speech, but by simply admitting that the person he loves is named Ed.
As a queer viewer, watching Our Flag Means Death was like finally being embraced by the media that I love. It was a bold and welcoming statement of acceptance and celebration of queer joy. These characters were able to simply exist without fear, and those who were cruel to them got their comeuppance. There is no internalized or even externalized homophobia, even in 1717. It may read more like a fantasy, but isn’t media meant to be escapism?
Watching Stede and Ed fall in love over the course of the ten-episode season is charming, heartwarming, and refreshing. They find what they have been seeking in the world in each other: a sense of belonging. They are friends first and lovers second. And, in a remarkable move for queer media, they are older. The actors and characters are in their mid-40s, proving that it is never too late to find love.
Many viewers were skeptical of the show’s writers, having fallen victim to queerbaiting many times over in the past. It didn’t seem like Stede and Ed were really going to be a couple, especially with two other queer couples, Lucius and Pete and Jim and Oluwande, in the supporting roles. But when they sealed their relationship with a kiss on the beach, the audience breathed a sigh of relief. We hadn’t been reading the signals wrong. These two characters were just as crazy about each other as we were about them.
Finding representation—especially such unbridled joyful representation suh as Our Flag Means Death—is challenging. Queer stories are often laced with tragedy or left to subtext through ‘queer coding.’ Being able to see a queer love story, one that doesn’t rely on tropes, big speeches, or a tired coming-out arc is like being able to breathe deeply for the first time. The weight of shame is lifted, and all that’s left is the path to happiness. Seeing characters celebrated for there queerness and celebrating their identities without pretense is a welcome reprieve from the ugliness of the real world.
Our Flag Means Death is affirming in its queerness. It lets the audience know that you can be loved for who you are, where you are, and how you want to be loved. Though the season ends on a cliffhanger—Ed and Stede separate after a confrontation with one of the show’s villains—there is unquestionable hope. Hope that they will reunite, that Stede will find Ed and confess his feelings, that they will be happy together. Because this show is about joy, acceptance, and, above all else, love.
Taylor Rose Raucher is a queer writer from Massachusetts. Her work has been featured in Historic Northampton’s “Covid-19 Stories,” The DG Sentinel, and Free Spirit.