Our Flag Means Death is a great blend of comedy, adventure, and character study, and a voyage well worth taking.
This review of Our Flag Means Death Season 1 is spoiler-free.
There are certain things that are virtually guaranteed to improve something, and HBO Max’s new comedy Our Flag Means Death has two of them – pirates, and Taika Waititi, who both directs and stars as Blackbeard in an irreverent buccaneering adventure that builds on real-life history in funny, fresh, and eventually quite touching ways.
That history involves, albeit loosely, Captain Stede Bonnet, a wealthy landowner here played by Rhys Darby who decided to become a pirate. The setup essentially allows for a workplace comedy in which the work is being a pirate. All the usual tropes are there, just in a context that isn’t used to accommodating them, so the whole thing – stocked, predictably, by a comedy-actor who’s who of shipmates – moves along at, if you’ll forgive the terminology, a rate of knots.
It’s absurd, obviously – basically everything that Waititi touches ends up being. But it’s also surprisingly heartfelt in moments and reckons with actual human drama in ways that it probably didn’t need to in order to be funny and entertaining. There’s enough obligatory fish-out-of-water comedy – Stede comes from the lap of luxury and has no idea how to be a pirate, but his can-do optimism gets the audience on-side – for the historical basis to have some narrative value, but it’s in the implications of Stede’s abandonment of his life and family – he left behind a wife and children – that the show does solid, surprising work.
In applying workplace comedy tropes and a distinctly modern social sensibility to a very old-fashioned depiction of piracy, the show finds a secret weapon. It’s able to challenge some of the accepted norms of both pirates and their chosen vocation in a way that makes for very solid comedy and drama, and it gives the arch, eccentric characters played by the ensemble cast a sense of real camaraderie and warmth. Everyone ends up being a bit more sensitive than you’d necessarily imagine a pirate being, but that’s the point. Our Flag Means Death treats pirates in an oddly real way, as flawed people hiding within the shadows of their outsized reputations. It adds a human contour to what is typically just an idea, an aesthetic, or a framework. The question of how to be a good pirate can just as easily be read as how to be a good human being, a good friend, a good comrade, a good anything. It’s a novel approach.
And the cast really sells it. The performances are energetic, but not manic – or at least not always. They know when to subvert expectation and when to play to type, and it’s not always when you’d expect. There’s a dynamic chemistry – particularly between Darby and Waititi – and that allows the audience to invest in the relationships much easier. Our Flag Means Death is an adventure well worth embarking on.