It’s not a twist, exactly, when HBO Max’s Our flag means death turns out to be a love story. Creator David Jenkins insists that the romance between pirates Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby)) and Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) was the centerpiece of the show from the start. But for queer viewers who have seen sparks fly between beloved characters only to make it disappear into thin air, the episode nine kiss between the two captains of the ship was a significant event. And it’s hard to blame anyone for being surprised by a full-blown television romance. After all, they barely exist anymore.
Our flag means death is in many ways a quirky workplace comedy cut from the same cloth as The office. But the entire first season is structured around Stede and Blackbeard, from their meeting shortly after a stabbing to an awkward date on a treasure hunt to that much-anticipated clinch. TV shows pair up their characters all the time. Still, it’s hard to think of a recent series that has paid so much attention to a classic will-she-or-won’t-them.
†moonlight is such a satisfying show because you watch Cybilli and bruce, and are they going to live together?” Jenkins says in a recent Zoom call, referring to what has become the gold standard for slow TV romance. “I don’t think there are many shows where it’s the main event.” Darby adds: “I feel like it was big in the ’80s, and then we fell off the wagon with it. The world has changed so much, and I think we’ve forgotten romance.”
Internet fandom, with its ships and fanfiction and amazingly detailed fan art, has never forgotten romance. Those viewers have embraced Our flag means death with an intensity that delighted and surprised the people who made it. Darby has met adoring fans before, when he was a voice on Netflix’s Voltron series, but “this is tenfold,” he says. “This is unbelievable. And thanks to the fans, this thing is now surfing so high.” The season ended on March 24, but Darby says he saw the intensity of fan reaction increase as the final episodes aired — and a search of #OurFlagMeansDeath on Twitter proves that the enthusiasm has not diminished.
Stede and Blackbeard may be the centerpiece of the show, but there’s a full cast behind them – including two other groundbreaking love stories, a non-binary pirate with a mysterious past (played by a non-binary actor Vic Ortiz), and a slew of guest stars. They all somehow fit into the welcoming but still violent world that is very, very loosely based on the adventures of the real-life Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard. (They did work together in real life, but probably didn’t put more emphasis on tea time and feelings than looting and looting.) It’s a show where Nick Kroll and Kristen Schaal appear as ridiculous French aristocrats and Will Arnett plays a rough-hewn pirate who is also Blackbeard’s ex; it’s also a show with lots of flashbacks to various characters dealing with childhood trauma. The final episode features a heartbroken Blackbeard tucked into a pillow fortress and Stede pretends to be dead via jaguar. With so much going on, everyone can find something to love.
There are streaming songs that suggest: Our flag means death surpasses Disney+’s Marvel series Moon Knight (“What is it? Is it a knight who lives on the moon?” Darby teases), but like any streaming show these days, the real ratings are hard to pin down. And in our IP-obsessed era, it’s hard to quantify the value of a devoted fanbase, especially for something not based on an IP address any different than vague legends about people who lived 300 years ago. Jenkins, wary, will say only this: “All the analytics I can see say we’re outperforming. And then the analytics that they can’t share on the network, you kind of talk to them and they say, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s good, it’s good.’”
Confirmation of a second season, however, remains frustratingly elusive – although, in this reporter’s opinion, Darby and Jenkins aren’t. sound like guys who are afraid they won’t be able to continue their story. “I think, given the amount of impact the show has had, you’d be stupid not to think, ‘Hmm, wondering where else are we supposed to take this thing?'” Darby says. “Like I said before, it has become a phenomenon.” Jenkins, pointing out Darby’s peppery stubble, jokes that “Rhys is already growing a beard from season two.”
Our flag means death, with its period costumes, huge cast and countless stabbings, was not an easy show to create. “We had this wonderful production, and then we had the same amount of time that barry gets to film,” says Jenkins, praising the contemporary Los Angeles-based HBO show. “Everyone has to put on a wig and stuff, so a 10-hour day becomes a 14-hour day by the time you have everyone there.” Darby, who immersed himself more in Stede than any other role he played, says he did take the character home at the end of the day – “but I was only home a few hours a night, and they were there to to sleep. “
But success, as so often, has a way of softening the hard parts. For Jenkins, that meant not just making the show, but making sure he was the right person to make it. He, Waititi, and Darby are all straight men in their 40s—the exact demographic that has fueled so many of the want-them-or-not-them romances in TV history, as well as so many of its future strangers. To do it differently, Jenkins knew he needed the right staff to help him. “If you’re going to write a show for a modern audience, I think you need the sociological imagination of a well-rounded room,” he says. “So you can create something that appeals to more than just a bunch of guys in love with sopranos– including myself. If you have a non-diverse room, you’re just going to make the same thing over and over.”