“So I’m very much enjoying this,” I said in a group text to a pair of dear friends as I began to watch Our Flag Means Death for the first time, “and there is some very queer queerness happening. But I just have to know. Do we get something on screen? I cannot get my hopes up again.”
What comes is a flood of reassurances that could be interpreted as mostly screaming. “I’m trusting you…” I say, only two episodes in and still wary, a lifetime of queerbaiting dragging me down like an anchor tied around my legs. “I can’t let my heart be hurt. I am so starved.” One of my friends said, “This is a meal.” The other, “It is a FEAST.”
Our Flag Means Death is a workplace comedy from HBO Max that centers on the romance between two historical pirates, Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard (Taika Waititi). It’s 10 episodes long and was released in two-episode installments starting March 24. It was a low-impact release, with little fanfare or marketing, and through sheer queer willpower and word of mouth, it became the most in-demand streaming show (according to the Geekiary). Not just on HBO Max (where it was streamed more than mainstays like Euphoria and buzzy shows like Peacemaker) but across all streaming services, meaning that it took the previous in-demand show, Book of Boba Fett, off the list. And, according to Parrot Analyticsit’s currently holding off Moon Knight for the fourth week in a row. This weird little period romance was so popular that it’s more in demand than Star Wars or Marvel. That’s wild.
And it is so fucking queer. From the side characters to the main men themselves, there is no part of this exceptionally absurdist alternative history that isn’t queer as hell. It takes inspiration from historical accounts, but (as one of the above friends pointed out) Our Flag Means Death had already taken a stance on how important it considers historical veracity when it decided to put Oluwande (Samson Kayo) in Crocs after the second episode. Showrunner David Jenkins put it this way in an interview with Collider: “We’re not doing real life because we’ve got a Polynesian-Jewish man from New Zealand playing Blackbeard. Once you’re doing that, you’re not doing real life.”
I went in knowing that it was queer as hell. I was told by multiple people that it was Gay gay, not just TV gay, but I’ve been burned by genre television too many times to count. There was Buffy the Vampire Slayer (sort of gay, but Buffy/Faith never went anywhere), Supernatural (shameless queerbaiting), Supergirl (unintentional queerbaiting), Black Sails (frustratingly coy about the main character’s queerness, despite that being the entire point he was out at sea), and then Arcane (queerbaiting, again!). Without explicit on-screen representation of gay people in intimate, loving relationships, all I had was subtext. I had to read queerness into these shows. And I don’t mind that, really—I love subtext. I love interpretation and re-imagining characters and worlds to suit my own narrative desires.
But I’m tired. I want to see queerness on screen, in a way that doesn’t need interpretation, that can’t be dismissed or ignored. I want to see myself on screen, having adventures, doing cool shit, and I don’t want to have to worry that my identity is going to be the butt of a joke or a topic of derision.
So I watched Our Flag Means Death with bated breath. And it was more than I ever expected. Besides the fact that there were multiple on-screen queer relationship,s there was also a trans nonbinary person who seamlessly explains to their crew that they’re “Just Jim, okay? ” and whose pronouns are respected regardless of the situation. Our Flag Means Death didn’t fumble a single joke, and even when Blackbeard’s first mate attempts to slut shame a member of Bonnet’s crew, he’s immediately laughed at instead. Truly, this show didn’t miss a single beat.
But I had watched it the entire time expecting something to change. I thought that this was going to be a show that would never really admit that the leading men had feelings for each other, that at the end of it I would still have scraps and subtext. Longing glances and almost-admissions. But no. At the end of the show, Blackbeard and Bonnet kiss, confess their feelings, and then make plans to be together. It gets fucked up, of course, but that moment was real. That moment was on-screen, explicit, and I felt my shoulders relax, I could breathe.
It was real. They had feelings for each other. They were halfway into love. They fucking kissed. I hadn’t imagined all that subtext after all, which I was halfway to dismissing because Waititi has the uncanny ability to wield his eyes like a Disney prince. They fucking kissed. THEY FUCKING KISSED!!! Nobody was going to be able to take this away from me, or say that their queerness was all in my head, or that I was “seeing things that weren’t there, ” (actual quote from my friend Greg when I told him about another pair of characters, suck it Greg), because they had actually, on-screen, in-camera, kissed. And then, because I’m weary and ready to feel happy again, I watched Our Flag Means Death a second time. And this time it was even better than the first time. I knew that what I was seeing was an honest-to-god romance. That I wasn’t watching a rug pull or a hook being baited. I was watching two men fall in love on screen, and it was so much more emotional for me the second time around, because all that queerness and subtext was intentional, was done for the sake of building up to that kiss.
It took knowing, not just being told, that this show was gay for me to really enjoy it. Not because it wasn’t good the first time, but because I was ready to be disappointed, as I had been so many times before, even when people had reassured me that a show or book or movie was, actually, pretty queer. I was preparing to be told at the end of the show that this was all in my head. The second time I watched Our Flag Means Death it was with the knowledge that this was a show for me, where my perspective was a deeply important and considered part of the writing, acting, and direction. Not just because Blackbeard and Stede kissed, but because there were so many points during this show where queerness could have been used as a joke and instead it was turned into a celebration.
So many television shows don’t mention people like me. So many pieces of media don’t touch on queerness or transness or being non-binary. And, frankly, I’m not asking for everything to be queer (although I really wouldn’t ‘t mind). But for once, something is unashamedly queer, and it’s not a risk to watch because it’s a comedy, and it’s joyful, and weird, and celebratory. I’m going to be grateful for Our Flag Means Death forever, because it’s revolutionary to see real, explicit queer joy on screen, without reservations, without hate, and without strings attached.
The collective queer fandom deserves a show like Our Flag Means Deathand I suggest you watch it twice. Once to know that what you’re seeing is real, the second time to understand how well it’s built up throughout every episode. And lastly, HBO, if you’re reading this, renew Our Flag Means Deathyou cowards.
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