‘Our Flag’ means laughter

HBO Max comedy series offers historical fiction with a heart


Rhys Darby (Stede Bonnet) and Taika Waititi (Capt. Blackbeard) star in the HBO Max comedy series, This Flag Means Death.

Our Flag Means Death is a period romantic comedy set in the early 1700s. It follows the eccentric Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a former aristocrat-turned-pirate captain; his crew aboard The Revenge; and the infamous captain Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), who joins Bonnet’s crew after becoming fascinated with rumors of the self-proclaimed “Gentleman Pirate.” The show’s compelling storyline, remarkable acting and striking costuming and set design make it a standout series of 2022 and a worthwhile watch.

Perhaps the most captivating element of Our Flag is the noteworthy cast of characters and their interpersonal relationships. The most prominent example is Stede Bonnet himself. Though Stede could’ve easily fit the archetype of the well-meaning yet incompetent idiot, an 18th-century Michael Scott, the story makes it clear that he is a complex character.

The first episode alone gives insight into Stede’s childhood through flashbacks that show his father and school acquaintances mistreating him because of his softer attributes, like his fear of blood and love of picking flowers. Stede feels inadequate because that’s all he’s ever been told. By episode four, we see Stede starting to come out of his shell with the arrival of Blackbeard, who doesn’t make fun of him for things like his extensive wardrobe or his emotional vulnerability. In a way, we get to know Stede more as Blackbeard does.

Stede’s over-the-top clothes add to his personality and provide a striking visual contrast between him and the other crew members of The Revenge.

Like Stede, the other characters are revealed naturally as the story progresses. New information about characters doesn’t feel like a shocking twist, but rather, a continuation as we get to know the characters. Lucius (Nathan Foad), Stede’s scribe, is first introduced as the only crew member who can read and write. The first few episodes slowly reveal his sarcasm, ineptitude at piracy and proclivity for giving advice. The process of getting to know the characters feels more immersive than it would had the writers handed us all the information about each character from the start.

Of course, no amount of good writing would make the characters feel real without good acting to match. And when it comes to acting, Our Flag delivers quite well. Rhys Darby gives an excellent performance of Stede. The subtle change in the pitch of his voice depending on whom Stede is talking to lends the character an endearing quality, as well as intrigue as this change could hint at Stede’s need to be seen as adequate to other men. In addition, Darby’s mannerisms enhance both his vocal delivery and the writing itself. In one particular scene, as Stede is monologuing to Lucius, he paces his room before sitting down, crossing his legs, then getting back up to pace again. In the context of the scene, this detail enhances Darby’s comedic performance.

Taika Waititi’s Blackbeard is also notable. Waititi has an excellent range, enriching the complexity of the character. In some scenes, his delivery goes from calm and collected to angry in the blink of an eye. In others, he’s more subdued, showing a softer side to the character. He shows, perhaps, the broadest range of emotion out of all the characters, rivaled only by Stede. Waititi’s edgy performance of Blackbeard stands out among the rest of the crew, who are, in most cases, more predictable—a good quality for sure, but Waititi’s Blackbeard adds more intrigue to the series.

The cast could perform in an empty room and still make the characters convincing; however, the visual elements of the series bring it to the next level. Stede’s clothing and quarters, for example, give excellent insight into his character and influence some scenes and storylines. Stede’s most recognizable outfit is his teal ensemble in episode one. This outfit clearly shows how out of place he is at sea as he attempts to captain a ship while wearing a tailcoat, vest, frilly shirt, and heels. Stede’s over-the-top clothes add to his personality and provide a striking visual contrast between him and the other crew members of The Revenge, who dress in threadbare, sunbleached clothing, many wearing belts of rope.

Our Flag Means Death is clearly a show with a talented cast and crew that care about telling a compelling story.

Stede’s quarters also accomplish a similar task to his clothing, while providing a setting for some important scenes. His quarters aboard the ship include a full library of books, a sitting area, a desk, an alcove bed, and a hidden closet he calls his “auxiliary wardrobe.” The library provides the setting for a previously mentioned moment where Lucius informs Stede that he’s the only crew member who can read. It also characterizes Stede as someone who loves books, something we see frequently throughout the series. His walk-in closet provides the setting for an early moment between him and Blackbeard, in which they bond over Stede’s fancy clothes and Blackbeard’s interest in fine things. In addition, the settings are well-put-together and visually pleasing with lots of material for detail-oriented viewers.

Our Flag Means Death is clearly a show with a talented cast and crew that care about telling a compelling story. With only 10 episodes in its first—and currently only—season, it’s not too big of a time commitment, and it’s definitely a good use of several hours. If you want a laugh, a tug at your heartstrings, or simply a good time, consider checking out the series on HBO Max.