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Dead Men Tell Some Tales

'Our Flag Means Death' and queer pirate narratives

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Editor's Note: "Dead Men Tell Some Tales" is a biweekly column reviewing and discussing various pirate-centric works of fiction.

Warning: Here be spoilers for the TV show “Our Flag Means Death”

To borrow from Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there is something inherently fascinating about pirates. Whether we see them as villains or heroes, society can’t get enough of them.

I get seasick easily, can’t tie knots at all, and am certainly not built for anything longer than a day at sea — and yet, over the course of the pandemic I’ve become obsessed with pirate fiction. I love reading it, watching it, listening to it, and talking about it. I’ve been lucky enough to get to talk a lot more about pirates these days, and that’s thanks to the new HBO show “Our Flag Means Death,” the first piece of pirate media I’ll be discussing in this column.

“Our Flag Means Death,” or “OFMD,” took the world (and the internet) by storm. Per the Los Angeles Times, “‘OFMD’ became the most-streamed new program for seven weeks running after its finale aired on March 24, according to data analytics firm Parrot Analytics.”

The show, created by David Jenkins, follows ex-aristocrat and new pirate Stede Bonnet, portrayed by Rhys Darby, as he tries to make it big on the high seas. Along the way, he and the crew of The Revenge meet the infamous pirate Blackbeard, played by Taika Waititi, who agrees to teach Stede how to be a pirate like him. As they and the rest of Stede’s crew grow as people and evade the Spanish and English, “Our Flag Means Death” treats its viewers to a high-seas story about falling in love and accepting yourself.

It is difficult to write about “Our Flag Means Death,” because so much has already been said about it. It’s a great show full of wonderfully written characters. It should be noted that I have a complicated relationship with the idea of representing marginalized identities in media, but it’s so fulfilling and heartening to see a TV show with such excellent and diverse characters. One can only hope that “Our Flag Means Death” inspires others in the film industry to write characters with this much respect and care.

Another thing that makes “Our Flag Means Death” so enthralling and affecting is that its queer characters and relationships are not without foundation — they are strongly rooted in the show’s thematic content. “OFMD” tracks Stede’s journey of self-discovery, along with Blackbeard and Jim Jimenez’s, played by Vico Ortiz, as the characters discover who they are and what they believe in. They not only find themselves, but also a family who accepts them for who they are.

This kind of love and community is inexpressibly valuable to see on television in our current political climate. As Lisa Rosen writes in the Los Angeles Times, “‘OFMD’ would be a truly modern take on love stories, except real modern life isn’t anywhere near as accepting as what’s happening aboard the Revenge.”

The idea of queer pirates isn’t something that’s come out of nowhere. Pirate stories are fundamentally about people who live outside the structures of society, and that’s a narrative that often lends itself to queer stories. The societal structures pirates sidestep also often forbid and punish life outside the traditional heterosexual ideas of love and family.

If you’ll allow me to speculate, perhaps this is part of what makes pirates such alluring and enduring figures; they allow us to realize that the structures in our societies are just that — structures that can be constructed as well as deconstructed.

But if my high school physics class taught me anything, it’s that you need solid research procedures and empirical data for your analysis to stand up to scrutiny. So, inspired by the likes of “Boba Crawl” and “Kill James Bond,” and with the help of a lot of caffeine and some very patient family members, I’ve devised my own pirate rating system: MATEY-Q. Please be aware that the MATEY-Q system is intended to evaluate how pirate-y a piece of media is, and not its quality.

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Maritime — How ship-forward is the pirate media? Do people yell about raising or lowering sails? Is there a lot of ship-centric fighting? I’d give “Our Flag Means Death” a maritime score of 2/5. The Revenge is mostly just a set piece and there’s basically no ship-to-ship combat. However, the ship also serves a symbolic purpose — representing freedom and agency — and I’m willing to give “Our Flag Means Death” points for that.

Archival — How much does the pirate media engage with ideas of history and historicism? “Our Flag Means Death” gets an archival score of 1/5. Like the ship, the history is mostly a matter of setting. A piece of media is not required to be historically accurate to get points in this category, but it has to be self-aware and engage with its own rewriting of history. “Our Flag Means Death” plays with history in a way that’s fun to watch, but these issues aren’t considered thematically.

Thrills — Is the pirate media exciting? Is it action-packed?  I’m giving the show a 3/5 thrill score. There’s a fair amount of action and menacing characters. Jim’s knife tricks in particular are always incredibly fun to watch. That said, the show prioritizes character-driven moments over swashbuckling. I appreciate that, but there’s also something to be said for a good, old-fashioned life-or-death sword fight.

Escapism — How much does the pirate media make me want to drop out of school and join a pirate crew?   “Our Flag Means Death” gets an empathic 5/5 on escapism. The show’s story is fundamentally about leaving your old life behind to find something new on the open sea. It also helps that life on The Revenge doesn’t seem all that barbarous, generally speaking.

Yowza — Are the pirates swoon-worthy? Are they cool? Is their fashion enviable? I’m giving “OFMD” a 4/5 yowza score because I think that in five years we will all be able to look back and see Waititi’s Blackbeard costume as the cultural moment it truly is.

Queer — Does the pirate media have queer characters and/or queer themes? “Our Flag Means Death” gets another 5/5, no questions asked.

Total Score: 20/30

All in all, “Our Flag Means Death” is a hilarious and heartfelt pirate romp that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, and I would recommend it to anyone — fan of pirate media or otherwise. What’s maybe the most exciting about this show — to me, at least — is that it has the potential to introduce so many people to the wonderful world of pirate media.

I’m hopeful that watching “Our Flag Means Death” makes people seek out other pieces of pirate media. This is also part of why I wanted to write this column. I think it’s truly worthwhile to consume and discuss pirate media, and hopefully, by the end of the summer, you all will too.

Reach Podcast Editor Ari Snyder at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @ari_snyder1

Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality student journalism by donating here.

Ari Snyder is a third-year student studying English and architecture. They have been making podcasts at The Daily since 2021

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