Our Flag Means Death
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This comedic romp follows the ridiculous, yet real-life story of aristocrat Stede Bonnet and his mid-life crisis decision to abandon his family and sugar plantation in Barbados to become a pirate. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a true story. You cannot make this up.
Our Flag Means Death stars Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords, Jumanji) as the “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok, Jojo Rabbit) as the notorious Edward Teach. You might know him better as the legendary pirate Blackbeard. Waititi is also an executive producer and directed the premiere episode. The ensemble cast includes Joel Fry, Samson Kayo, Ewen Bremner, Nathan Foad, Matthew Maher, and Vico Ortiz, a non-binary Latinx actor playing the gender swapping Jim/Bonifacia, who brought their experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community to the role. You can read more about that here.
After eight days of being glued to CNN and BBC, anxious over the state of our world, I welcomed an escape to another time and place where the laughs flowed as freely as rum down a pirate’s throat. Our Flag Means Death is the creation of writer/producer David Jenkins (People of Earth) with episodes directed by Nacho Vigalondo and Taika Waititi. I fully accept my bias belief that anything Taika Waititi touches is gold.
The tone of the show harkens back to the glory days of Monty Python. During Episode 2, “A Damned Man,” one dialogue exchange in particular about whether concessions on cannibalism are allowed while the crew is stranded on an island reminded me of the “too silly” guards’ exchange at Swamp Castle trying to understand Michael Palin’s orders. Similar to Monty Python as well, the anachronistic choices for the show help heighten the humor and remind viewers that this is tongue-in-cheek fun. I highly doubt, no matter how much of a gentleman Bonnet was, that he rowed out with tapas to greet a Spanish galleon or encouraged group therapy for PTSD.
While the first few episodes of the show borderline on ridiculous, a depth within the main characters builds, especially with the introduction of Blackbeard. Waititi balances his comedic stylings with sincerity as his performance injects humanity into a legend. Darby and Waititi are a joy to watch on screen. Creator Jenkins commented that the pair have opposite energies that complement each other in scenes. “Rhys has dog energy,” he said in an interview, “Taika has cat energy, and I think that’s why they’re so very good together.”
The set pieces and costumes are a feast for the eyes. Bonnet’s main cabin on the ship has more paisley, florals, gilded sconces, and mahogany panels than any room in constant threat of water damage should have. There’s rigging and rope and sails and even a marooned ship with waves crashing upon the sands. You can’t do a pirate story cheaply, and expense wasn’t spared for this show. Bonnet’s colorful, lacy costumes contrast against Blackbeard’s leather biker jacket, another anachronistic choice that tells viewers this isn’t your typical swashbuckling tale.
The most intriguing question Our Flag Means Death asks is how could a seemingly wealthy man with all the trappings of an envious 18th century life turn his back on it for the reward of an untethered soul and the risk of a hangman’s noose? Bonnet’s real-life motives are a source of great speculation. The show provides its own explanation, but regardless of whether you believe it or not, it is obvious that Bonnet’s decision comes out of a mad desperation to escape his life. Something many viewers can relate to. And something that makes Darby’s character hauntingly real, despite his absurdity.
Our Flag Means Death is a fun escape into the absurd, and we could all use a reminder that even in the 1700s people had mid-life crises and needed to escape reality as much as we do today.
Share the laughs with your best mateys, your crew, your ride-or-die squad. Waititi fans and anyone who loved Flight of the Conchords should especially appreciate this show.