There’s a song called “Lawyers in Love” that Jackson Browne wrote 40 years ago, and that’s what comes to mind whenever I think of the pirate workplace comedy – ship comedy “Our Flag Means Death”? It’s about two captains who fall in love on the high seas and amid the dangers of their chosen profession. Pirates in love!
Browne was writing a geopolitical satire—”Eating from TV trays tuned to ‘Happy Days’/Waiting for World War III while Jesus slaves to the mating calls of love-struck lawyers”—and “Our Flag Means Death” (on Max) was also satirical and slightly political it has intentions, too, and puts a queer romance front and center in a genre rarely handled with such compassion.
Based on real people who existed in the 18th century, the show revolves around the naive and naive Stede Bonnet, known as the Gentleman Pirate (Rhys Darby), and the infamous hellraiser Blackbeard, who goes by the name Edward Teach (Taika Waititi). It’s a stirring premise where opposites attract and pirates make gooey eyes on the deck of a ship. Boating for the ages.
But relationships are complicated.
The duo begins Season 2 feeling estranged and deeply saddened by this turn of events. A depressed Blackbeard is a dangerous Blackbeard, and if there’s any ice cream to devour in between his brute-force plunders, then you’ve got it. Instead, he steals some wedding cake toppers and gives the bride a full Blackbeard makeover, pining for a now-broken relationship. Bonnet pines too, but with greater hope, he sends his beloved Ed mash notes by throwing them into the sea in a bottle. Their reunion is inevitable, but also complicated.
The show attracted a loyal audience thanks to its combination of broad comedy and romantic sincerity. But it’s worth thinking through creator David Jenkins’ initial impulse. My problem with the series stems from the decision to build a story around these two historical figures. The real Bonnet owned slaves and his wealth came from a sugar plantation he inherited in Barbados. Teach also came from a slave-owning family who inherited plantations in Jamaica.
“Our Flag Means Death” makes no mention of these facts and essentially turns men into cute teddy bears. This leaves a very sour taste. It doesn’t seem like a win for weird storytelling. Presumably Jenkins wanted the thrill of history; keeping true to their real names and the broad outlines of their hacking careers and then asking “What if they fall in love?” by asking. – have no intention of dealing with this other aspect of their lives.
Writer Jendayi Omowale sign For the website Making History in Public, pirates were complicit in perpetuating the slave trade by selling the African people they captured, and “the two pirates at the heart of ‘Our Flag Means Death’ were directly involved in such action.”
This is in direct contrast to the show’s pleasures, much of which relies on Darby’s endearing, seriously ridiculous performance. Every scene he shares with Waititi pays considerable dividends, as Ed abandons his flamboyant façade for first heartbroken rage and, ultimately, vulnerability. For a while, it looks like these two might make it. When Stede decides to collect all of Ed’s stolen treasure in one section of the ship, he tells him it’s blocking the way, people tripping over it…
But Ed is sullen. “Great. A reminder of my guilt. The guilt room.” It’s interesting where the show places his guilt (nowhere near his involvement in slavery.) It’s not that a romantic comedy can’t or shouldn’t be built around these two men, it’s that it clearly prefers to stay away from their inconvenient truths. Debut of the show he at least offered a few comedic forays in the direction of colonialism, but he was only willing to go so far. The new season doesn’t even bother.
“Our Flag Means Death” sets out to completely eliminate the moral brutality of slavery. What does it mean when a viewer is asked to ignore it? Casting black actors in supporting roles does not eliminate the problems. The CQ musical “Hamilton” has drawn similar criticism, but even that falls short of turning slave owners into lovable comedic inventions. Bonnet is particularly sensitive about violence and is often described as “soft” and “fragile”, but hypocrisy abounds; Profiting from enslaved labor is the very definition of violence in action.
Jenkins was apparently inspired to create the show after first learning about Bonnet having a spectacular midlife crisis that caused him to abandon his wife and children to take up piracy. I wonder what he was thinking when he got to the part about Bonnet’s involvement in slavery, and why he thought it still made sense to cast her as a likable, romantic lead.
“Our Flag Means Death” Season 2 — 2 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Maximum
Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.