Getting their ship together: Thoughts on Our Flag Means Death (season 1)

(courtesy IMP Awards)

On the face of it, and by that we mean a highly entertaining trailer rife with gleefully appealing parodic elements, Our Flag Means Death looks like it will a highly amusing, nay ridiculously hilarious, sideways take on the classic age of piracy.

And in an age when pandemic, climate change and war is rife, a metric ton of laughs, both of the gut-busting and wryly comedic variety, is just what the existential angst doctor ordered.

But the great delight of HBO’s quip-laden, oneliner-heavy and character absurdist romantic period drama, and make no mistake that’s what it is in large part, is that it has a tremendous of heart at its gloriously dysfunctional core.

The first few episodes don’t necessarily embrace that dramatic destiny, content to paint the series’ protagonist, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) a nobleman of great wealth but little real purpose, as a hapless fop who decided hat what his restlessly unfulfilling life needs is excitement and the way to get that is to become a pirate.

Yes, a pirate.

Leaving his arranged marriage and children behind – he and his wife Mary (Claudia O’Doherty) are muddling along but remain manifestly unhappy in a domestic arrangement that suits neither of them – he designs and builds a ship, the Revenge, finds a crew, all of whom seem to have failed at Crewing 101 to varying degrees, and sets of to become a Gentleman Pirate.

He is not exactly Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), a man who dresses in fetching leather and whose brutality is renowned across the high seas, and on his first looting trip to another ship, he asks someone how violent they think this battle might get.

He has, as you might imagine, high ideals but very little appreciation of what being a pirate actually entails and much of the humour of the first few episodes, which mostly but doesn’t always hit its mark, comes from the fact that Bonnet’s idea of what a piratical life doesn’t always match with the actual bloodthirsty reality.

Cue for instance the moment he and his crew, who are all for mutinying at first against his regime of sharing their feelings and encouraging a familial atmosphere aboard ship, finally decide to board another ship, and find its an armed-to-its-teeth British Royal Navy warship which is more than likely going to decimate them.

It doesn’t in the end but largely because of a series of ridiculous happenstances mean the crew get away with a few Navy hostages, including Bonnet’s old schoolyard bully, and the once-scorned captain accidentally kills one of them.

Far from being emboldened by being blooded by his first kill, Bonnet is traumatised, and even after an accidental vacation (read; they strand the ship) where the captain has time to come to grips with his new murderous life, he isn’t entirely sure he can handle the new life he has chosen for himself.

It’s at this point, and with the arrival of Blackbeard who turns out to be disillusioned with his existing regime of pillaging, looting and maiming & killing, that Our Flag Means Death takes a highly effective swing towards more serious territory, tackling some fairly serious topics such as identity, fulfilment, love and what it means to belong.

It’s still funny as hell, and full of a surreal sense of clever silliness that becomes sharper as the season progresses, but it is also incredibly and unexpectedly emotionally resonant in way that has your heart every bit as engaged as your funny bone.

In one way it’s wholly unexpected since the series gives us every impression at the start that it will be a superbly well-executed one-joke pony and possibly not much more; its melding of the silly and the serious is near faultless, with neither compromised or reduced in its impact by the presence of the other.

In fact, the way in which Our Flag Means Death seamlessly goes from amusingly goody and self-referentially comedic with talk of talent shows, self-actualisation and disaffection with piratical careers to some serious ruminating on what really matters in life is a masterclass in dancing between very different storytelling styles and living to tell the tale.

Our Flag Means Death benefits enormously from its two charismatic leads, Darby and Waititi who are as adept at playing the goofy side of the script as they are its more serious side, able to beautifully articulate hilarity and poignant vulnerability in such well-rounded ways that their characters always feel fully-formed and well-realised.

It would have been all too easy to have the main characters and indeed the supporting players, mostly made up of the lovably intense crew, comprising gifted actors like Nathan Foad as Lucius the scribe, Nat Faxon as the Swede andSamson Kayp as Oulwande who is close friends with non-binary pirate Bonifacia “Jim” Jimenez, played by Vico Ortiz, simply play one-note characters and let the jokes drive them forward.

But Our Flag Means Death is far more clever and nuanced than that, choosing to spend the time needed to built up each and every one of its characters, even if they only appear for an episode or two, such as Leslie Jones as Spanish Jackie or Fred Armisen as one of her 19 husbands, Geraldo, so that this impact matches the increasingly thoughtful and beautifully layered script.

This is a series that goes from a flurry of joking where it appears the characters will play second fiddle to the jokes to a show that values its characters, uses them very well so that the narrative is always people-drive, not joke-led.

Possessed of so many jokes that you will wish you could remember them all and repeat them later, Our Flag Means Death is a brilliantly funny and emotionally mindful show that comes with a welcome queer sensibility – people are in love with whoever they’re in love with and that is that, no fuss made which is exactly as it should be – that goes hard on the comedy while remembering that we often laugh to cover the pain, which is not only acknowledged but explored and then leveraged for an affecting storyline that shows you can be both hilarious and insightful without losing anything in the telling.

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