Our Flag Means Death's campiness drives the show's success

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Our Flag Means Death is a show about pirates and queerness that also isn’t a show about pirates and queerness. It’s rife with the gunpowder, stab wounds, and occasional bouts of scurvy you’d expect from your typical gritty swashbuckling drama. Its central relationship features two middle-aged men with the emotional maturity of lovestruck teens currently on track to check all the obligatory rom-com boxes. But what sets it apart from other shows swimming in the same waters is that it doesn’t care about genre or mainstream storytelling conventions—rather, it uses them as no-holds-barred props to tell one very particular love story set in a very particular world.

It’s why a scene in which a grown man weeping in a bathtub about not having any friends after confessing to premeditated murder and identity theft is played as neither a punchline nor a horrifying reveal. Instead, legendary Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) resting his head against the proffered hand of his intended victim, aristocrat-turned-pirate captain Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), is a moment of tender vulnerability that could make some viewers cry and others break into laughter. And if the show’s recent seven-week run as the most in-demand breakout series and viewers’ fervent calls for a second season (thankfully, HBO Max just announced the show’s renewal today) are anything to go by, it’s giving fans everything they wanted.

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And it does this all through the most irreverently genre- and convention-defying method of them all: camp.

No discussion on camp can avoid mentioning cultural theorist Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Notes On Camp. And yet even Sontag posits that camp is difficult to define, because it’s neither meant to be pinned down nor indiscriminately perceived. It’s a sensibility. For many, that sensibility most visibly manifests in fashion statements and histrionics—drag queens on TV, big gowns at the Met Gala, gold jockstraps and glitter at Pride. It’s wearing a peacock feather train to the DMV, or strutting down the produce aisle like it’s a runway. It’s ostentatiousness, flamboyance, and extravagance: in other words, a stereotypically “queer aesthetic.”

By this definition, the premise of Our Flag Means Death contains all the makings of a campy, slapstick romp through the Golden Age Of Piracy—at least superficially. Stede Bonnet leaves his family and cushy life to become the Gentleman Pirate. He “kills with kindness” and tells bedtime stories to his crew aboard a wooden vessel with an open fireplace, all while dressed in the 18th-century equivalent of a three-piece designer suit. His crew includes a man who basks under moonlight in naked communion with seagulls and a musician who’s terrified of cats. Stede sees piracy as theatrical, something playful and refined. His inherited wealth can take care of the necessity of looting and his “people-positive management style” makes the threat of mutiny an afterthought. Of course, this M.O. only lasts until the “real” world comes rolling up in the form of British and Spanish ships with swords that can draw blood and guns that will actually end a life.

But camp is far more than just a fashion statement or exuberant personality. It’s what Sontag calls “dethroning the serious”: not so much rejecting seriousness outright or judging it through satire as finding delight in exposing the artifice undergirding it. Seriousness is worn as an ill-fitting but utterly fabulous tiara, a way of engaging with the world “in quotation marks.” And it serves as a private mode of identification to those who can recognize the artifice for what it is. It says, “I see you just as you see me, and we speak the same language.”

In this respect, Stede is right: Piracy in this world is itself a form of artifice. It has its own accoutrements of hyper-masculinity and hyper-violence, like jars filled with the pickled noses of vanquished foes. You can get run through with a blade any number of times and survive so long as you take it in your left side. It’s playacting in a never-ending “theater of fear” until it becomes rote, exhausting, and, worst of all, boring.

Rhys Darby in Our Flag Means Death
Rhys Darby in Our Flag Means Death

When Blackbeard meets Stede, he’s held captive by his own reputation; he’s the conductor in the pit orchestra of the longest running Broadway show in town, too successful to leave but too jaded to go on. Sure, he still maims and pillages and cuts off toes for laughs. But he’s also a lonely man who yearns for a break from the long shadow of his violent persona. He’s enamored with Stede’s style and the joy he brings to a job he’d sooner retire from if retirement were a thing pirates did. So after an impromptu test run of swapping their identities, they strike up a deal: Blackbeard teaches Stede how to be a pirate, and Stede shows Blackbeard how to be a gentleman.

What follows is a romance that grows within the tension between camp theatricality and the ever-looming threat of actions that have fatal consequences. And in the show’s deft shifts between high camp and dark comedy, it makes clear what will never be a punchline or punished for the sake of drama: the experience of life on the margins.

Our Flag Means Death is ahistorical in the sense that Blackbeard is a Polynesian-Jewish man, and both Nigerian Prince scams and pyramid schemes were born in the flames of a crashed party boat. Though it is a less dangerously bigoted world, is it not a race- or gender-blind one. With a main cast half-composed of people of color and actors who are allowed to perform in their own accents, racism is directly called out and given its comeuppance in a way that isn’t performative but in-line with the world of the show. Fans have themselves delved into biracial readings into the character of Blackbeard. When Jim (Vico Ortiz) is revealed as nonbinary, the crew broaches it over lunch and quickly moves on, referring to them by their chosen name and pronouns. There’s a clear intentionality and care to how the show approaches and treats its characters and ensemble cast—there are no clumsy gestures at inclusivity, or tokens tossed into the wishing well of representation. Instead, the relationships between the crew form the backbone of the show, strong and earnest in a way that can only come with filling the writers’ room with people who belong to the communities these characters come from.

Queerness is normalized in this version of the high seas, because it’s actually reflective of what it might have been like at the time. All three of the central romantic relationships of the show are queer and two are with people of color. But even with this abundance, each instance of queer intimacy still feels miraculous. For fans who are used to seeing themselves only obliquely through characters onscreen, baited to watch shows via dangled scraps of lingering hand touches and vaguely platonic lines, even one of the most romantic scenes of the show could feel like a trap for another bromance. The scene in question: When Stede tucks a piece of red silk Blackbeard has carried since childhood into his breast pocket and tells him he wears fine things well, all while the two gaze into each other’s eyes, bathed under the light of the full moon and with Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 5” playing in the background.

But for once, the queerness of this moment isn’t a red herring. Instead, the campiness of the show only enhances the sincerity glittering beneath otherwise absurd circumstances. Because when the artifice of camp is finally stripped away, the romance of Our Flag Means Death becomes all the more stark.

When Stede and Ed finally kiss, it’s one of the least dramatic scenes of the entire show. During the penultimate episode of the first season, they’re stripped both physically and nominally of their roles as pirates and gentlemen, having surrendered to the British to save Stede’s life. There is no artifice, no costumes or playacting. Now, they meet as two people with new names and lives in the making. And as with every intimate scene in the series, there are no fireworks or power ballads, just a serene quiet that feels like a breath of relief. It’s as real as fiction can get, and it’s undeniably love.

Except, since this isn’t any old romantic comedy, the show doesn’t end here. Because Stede doesn’t even know that it’s love. It’s not until he ditches Ed on what’s essentially their honeymoon to reconcile with his wife Mary that she helps him understand (in an equally intimate scene) that every interaction between the two captains was building the romantic foundation of what makes their connection so captivating. But while Stede has finally stripped himself of the last of his artifice, Ed has leaned full tilt into the protective yet ill-fitting costume of monstrosity that’s expected of him. He’s smeared black maquillage across his eyes and now beardless face, gutted Stede’s ship and crew, and is sailing back to business as usual with just a little more drinking and crying. And now, the question is if they’ll be able to find each other again.

Camp is the tool through which Our Flag Means Death signals what should be taken seriously. Because most of all, as Sontag noted, camp is a “tender feeling.” It’s not the swashbuckling or the slapstick pageantry that’s at the heart of the show. Really, OFMD is about having the courage to build a life with people who see and celebrate you for who you are and who you want to be, even when you’ve been told it’s impossible. It’s about constructing a world in the margins that’s just as endless as the sea. In other words, it’s a show about love and the pursuit of happiness, with a hefty side of homoerotic stabbing. And isn’t that a story worth seeing more of?