How Our Flag Means Death found its queer cult following

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If you’ve spent any time in queer online spaces in the last year, you’ve probably heard rumblings about “the gay pirate show,” as many early fans affectionately dubbed Our Flag Means Death.

While few people were talking about the show when it debuted without much fanfare on Max last March, it didn’t take long for the tides to turn in its favor. More than a year later, with the second season set to premiere on October 5, Our Flag Means Death has earned one of the most dedicated and ravenous fandoms in contemporary television history, and I was one of many who were unexpectedly swept away to the homoerotic seas.

After hearing very little about the show, I decided to dive in a few weeks after the first season had finished airing. One episode quickly turned into me watching the entire season. As darkly comedic as it was sincere, Our Flag Means Death both disarmed and captivated me.

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Our Flag Means Death season 2

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The season two trailer for Our Flag Means Death promises epic queer romance and mutinous high jinks galore. The hit gay pirate show offers a queer spin to the real life-story of 18th-century co-captains turned rivals, “Gentleman Pirate” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi).

The high-seas comedy, which first aired in the US in March last year, and in the UK about a year later, rapidly built a devoted LGBTQ+ fan base thanks to its range of explicit queer representation. Fans have been clamouring for a second season since the finale cliffhanger which saw Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship put in peril.

When their plans to run away together fall through, Blackbeard is consumed by bitterness and maroons Stede’s crew on a remote island. At the same time, Stede realises he has fallen head over heels for the wayward pirate and heads out on a new voyage to reunite with his lover.

The season two trailer, which dropped on Wednesday (30 August), shows the two pirates separated by an ocean of heartbreak, all set to the backdrop of Prince’s love ballad “The Beautiful Ones”.

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Know no shame: queerness in the golden age of TV and piracy

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Our Flag Means Death has become a bit of a sensation, to put it mildly. The show skyrocketed in popularity for weeks after its debut, both in terms of streaming metrics and the outpouring of fan art.

Light spoilers for Black Sails and Our Flag Means Death ahead.

That’s in no small part thanks to its centering a romance between two men, Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, which captured the hearts of many, especially among queer viewers starved of on-screen representation. Even as queer representation has improved over the decades, with several ongoing shows featuring queer characters and subplots, it’s still rare for a series to focus squarely on queer romance, especially in genre shows.

Perhaps some of the infatuation stems from how Our Flag Means Death marketed its romance story — namely, it didn’t. Those initial trailers, teasers, and handful of episodes focused on the comedy hijinks of Stede Bonnet and his inept band of pirates. Not so much as a longing glance between Stede and Ed.

For an audience more often used to queerbaiting or sometimes no inclusion at all, the shock that this show really was going to commit to that romance seems to have come with much elation, not to mention a viewership which tripled somewhere between its debut and its finale. Even creator David Jenkins has commented on the matter.

Speaking to The Verge, he said, “I think I didn’t realize — because I see myself represented on camera, and I see myself falling in love in stories — I didn’t realize how deep the queer baiting thing goes. Being made to feel stupid by stories, I guess. […] [L]ooking at how people were kind of afraid to let themselves believe that we were doing that was a surprise to me, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Oddly enough, though, this isn’t the first time a queer pirate show has buried the lede. Though the shows don’t share channels, decades, or even sensibilities, the way they slowly revealed the queerness of their protagonists reveals how both of these shows reflect the different climates in which they were released.

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‘Our Flag Means Death’ and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ are absurd in the best way

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“I reckon what makes Ed happy is you,” says Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) in an unexpectedly romantic, sunset-lit moment of the HBO Max pirate rom-com Our Flag Means Death. Both this show and FX’s vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows are produced by Waititi (and in the case of Shadows, co-created by him). Both are loving send-ups of well-established genres.

Both feature a group of misfits of that genre uneasily tossed together and learning to work and live side-by-side. And both are powered by a deep, abiding, and gleeful silliness that never takes itself (or asks us to take it) too seriously. But both are also able to play surprisingly moving emotional notes without ever abandoning their shows’ absurd melodies. It’s this central silliness that helps each show land its emotional blows — and their layering of comedy and pathos, often in the very same moment, maximizes both.

Our Flag Means Death, which completed its (hopefully!) first season in March, follows the not-quite-daring exploits of Stede Bonnet, a wealthy landowner from Barbados who gives up his comfortable life to take to the high seas as a pirate captain. The only problem? He doesn’t know how to sail, his sensibilities when it comes to violence are delicate, and he has generally no idea how to be a swashbuckler.

To fill in the gaps, he has assembled a ragtag crew including first-mate and seagull enthusiast Buttons, snarky scribe Lucius, mysterious and mute Jim, and sensible and pragmatic Oluwande. This misfit bunch goes from sewing flags and debating mutiny (Bonnet is saved in part by the fact that he does all the voices during their nightly story time) to trying their bumbling best to protect him from the British Navy officers who board their ship in an attempt to execute him.

Throughout, Bonnet and the fearsome Blackbeard are falling in opposites-attract love, much to the chagrin of Blackbeard’s first mate Izzy Hands, who wants Blackbeard to return to his bygone bloodthirsty days. The well-worn swashbuckling pirate genre is mined for both exhilaratingly silly comedy and for a touching and heartbreaking love story, both romantically and among the Revenge’s found family of a crew.

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‘Our Flag Means Death’ is show of pure queer joy

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David Jenkins’ pirate rom-com series Our Flag Means Death on HBO Max starring Rhys Darby isn’t just a great example of queer representation, but a great example of queer joy. Yes, these characters suffer (they’re pirates, after all), but the narrative is not that their suffering is intrinsically, undeniably linked to their queerness.

It is possible to be queer and happy, which seems like a pretty basic point to accept, but if you spend any time on Twitter (or, if you’re more daring, Tumblr) this week, you will see the intense reactions from fans at seeing this point made so decisively in a work of mainstream media.

First up is the relationship between Revenge crew members Lucius (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher). In Episode 6, “The Art of Fuckery,” Lucius develops an infection in one of his fingers after being bitten by crewmate Buttons. (We’ve all been there.) When the finger is ultimately lost, Black Pete appears with a gift: a hand-whittled wooden finger. “I’m used to death,” Pete admits. “But not your death.”

It’s cute, it’s sweet, it is kind of gross! But Lucius loves it, and kisses Pete. Throughout the rest of the season, the two continue to go about their respective independent piratical duties, but when they’re together, there’s casual affectionate touching and the use of pet names.

In contrast to the other two romantic relationships in the series, the one between Lucius and Black Pete seems to be easy and without turmoil. When Izzy tries to start some drama onboard by telling Black Pete about Lucius’ sketching of a naked Fang, it’s no big deal, no great seed of jealousy. “We don’t own each other,” says Lucius, and it’s as refreshing and healthy as that.

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