Our Flag Means Death: Season 1 — A remarkable voyage
In lieu of swashbuckling action, ravenous looting, and mythical creatures from the deep, Our Flag Means Death relies on complex, poignant characters to tell its pirate tale. It follows Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a wealthy landowner who abandons his family and a life of luxury for the high seas to become the world's first gentleman pirate. However, with no pirating experience, and a crew on the brink of mutinying, Stede seeks the advice of murderous Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), the pirate legend who, ironically, is also in need of some career help. What ensues is hilarious, wild, and so surprisingly moving it had me short of breath.
What works so well for Our Flag Means Death is that it's constantly diverting expectations. This may look and sound like a buddy comedy on the surface, something to flip on just for a hearty laugh at the end of a long day, but beneath its comedic shell is an incredible story of unlikely friendship. Stede, dressed in frilly colorful clothing and perfectly manicured hair, is on a quest to earn the respect of the pirating world while Blackbeard, armed to the teeth with guns and knives, wants to settle down and finally live the quiet life. Naturally, a role reversal takes place, opening up new worlds for the pirates to navigate. But they soon discover that embracing these new worlds can't happen unless they fully ditch the old, and straying from the status quo isn't exactly as easy as walking the plank.
Over the course of the season, we experience posh dinner parties aboard luxury ships, treasure hunts in humid forests, nude moonlight bathing, and so much more. Every episode is distinct, either in locale or by way of massive character shifts. And when swords and guns are drawn the action is excellently choreographed, even if made to look like randomized chaos. When these excursions aren't taking place, the crew exists aboard The Revenge, Stede's floating home, where he stations himself away in an expansive library and contemplates what he's meant to do next.
One's purpose, and how to achieve it, is the main voyage of Our Flag Means Death. The show questions what it takes to be a pirate as though actually asking what it takes to be a man, and over the course of 10 episodes it seems like everyone has a different answer. What might be most remarkable, though, is just how well it balances complex topics while also providing clever and rib-splitting humor from start to finish. It's hilarious when it matters, never relying on cheap laughs or gimmicky visuals to get a mild chuckle, and it perfectly bookends its most comedic moments with an important plot element or narrative twist to make every minute serve a purpose. Likewise, when things get serious, the writing has a way of softening the blow as to not scare away more casual viewers while also still allowing the drama to resonate.
Darby excels at portraying the flamboyant, extroverted Stede Bonnet, but's it's Waititi as Blackbeard who truly steals the show. He gives such a collected performance, one that is relaxed and thoughtful yet powerful when he needs to be. By trusting the dialogue in the script, Waititi uses subtle movements and quick tonal switches to really drive his points home, rarely resembling a character at all and instead a living, breathing person. It sounds simple, maybe even rudimentary, but the restraint these actors show is exceptionally strong.
- Final Thoughts -
Our Flag Means Death has found a striking tonal balance rarely seen in television, especially for a first season. To be genuinely hysterical while at the same time profoundly moving is a combination worthy of everyone's attention. I cannot recommend it enough.
(Our Flag Means Death image courtesy of The Atlantic)