Barbados, 1717. Stede Bonnet seems to have it all: wealth, land, and a doting family. And yet he leaves it all behind; runs off, like a thief in the night, to pursue a life of piracy. His ship isn’t captured but commissioned; he pays his crew in wages, not plunder; and his impractical attire and genteel ways come to earn him the nickname, ‘The Gentleman Pirate’.

It’s a tale as old as time… right? Maybe not, but Stede Bonnet’s story, though much of it is lost to time, is true – and it’s the subject of HBO Max’s best new series: Our Flag Means Death. Created by David Jenkins (People of Earth) and starring Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby as Stede, it follows the ridiculous and often disastrous exploits of the Gentleman Pirate and his beleaguered crew as they roam the high seas. When news of Stede’s escapades reaches the infamous pirate Blackbeard, played by Oscar winner Taika Waititi (who also executive produces), an unlikely romance begins to blossom between the pair.

*Spoilers for Our Flag Means Death*

Our Flag Means Death quickly became the show that launched a thousand fics, not to mention fanart, tattoos, thinkpieces, TikToks, cosplayers, and 567 cakes (and counting!), alongside umpteen demands for HBO Max to just get on with renewing it already. It would be unthinkable not to: with those numbers, that reaction, and the fact that everyone involved in making it seems ready to go, what are they waiting for? (Hopefully, it’s just the massive Warner Bros/Discovery merger slowing things down, and not HBO dragging its heels for any other reason). It’s not only because it’s perfectly cast, brilliantly written, and that every frame looks is a masterpiece – from the costumes and the sets to the music and the effects. For a series that had little promo but word of mouth, its rise is staggering – but why? Because, in a media landscape that deals in performative allyship, and which continually queerbaits its audience and sidelines its characters of colour, Our Flag Means Death offers genuine, visible, and meaningful representation. People want these stories; they want to be taken seriously and they want to be seen. No wonder, then, that the series topped the streaming charts for seven consecutive weeks, beating Disney+ behemoths The Book of Boba Fett and Moon Knight.

Our Flag Means Death has become a sanctuary, a safe space, bordering on a utopia. While the series intentionally portrays Stede and Blackbeard as rather different people to their historical counterparts, it doesn’t wilfully ignore the realities of racism and homophobia or revel in their exploitation. On the contrary: it calls out characters on their bigoted assumptions and microaggressions, it gives racists and homophobes their comeuppance – in one episode, Frenchie (Joel Fry) and Oluwande (Samson Kayo) even con a shipful of bigoted white aristos in a literal Pyramid Scheme – and it ridicules such bigotry for being ‘absurd’ without stripping it of its danger.

For my part, I’ve been just as captivated as the rest of the world – and on every rewatch, I discover something new. It was on my third time through that I started to realise just how much the story dealt in mirrors, reflections, and doubles. Duality, rather fittingly, takes two forms in the show. The first is the side of the self that is repressed, trapped: the double that emerges from struggle, from confinement, or that is produced as a means of survival. Think of Blackbeard, and the Kraken; of Stede Bonnet, ‘family man’ and leaver of lovers. This is duality as misery: the self that is the mask. The second type is duality as joy: of being more than just one thing boxed off from another. It is a celebration that is distinctly queer, a transcending of binaries that allows you to be not just one thing, but many simultaneously – just as Stede rejects the choice between Gentleman and Pirate and gives himself the permission and the freedom to be both. Just as Edward Teach can be both ‘Ed’ and ‘Blackbeard’; just as all the pieces that make up ‘Ed’ and ‘Stede’ come together in a beautiful mosaic: love as synthesis, in its purest form.

Before we get there, though, let’s go back to the beginning.

The biggest question hanging over the real life Stede Bonnet is, simply, why? For what reason would a privileged nobleman abandon a life of luxury for a life of piracy (and a rather inept brand of piracy, at that)? The history books say that he found ‘discomfort in a married state’, but Our Flag Means Death posits a different theory: that Stede Bonnet, repressed and misunderstood, sought a life outside of the path society had chosen for him – and that he found more than just adventure out there.

What Stede finds is someone who not only accepts him, but who genuinely likes him. Before Ed came along, the only thing saving Stede from mutiny was his skill as a storyteller; a Scheherazade in chiffon. When Ed comes into his life, though, everything changes. Where others see foibles, Ed sees virtues; while others find him exasperating, Ed finds him charming; and while others might write off Stede’s ideas, Ed is sincerely interested in his point of view. And the feeling is reciprocal: where others see ‘Blackbeard’, Stede sees Ed. Not the fearsome pirate captain, but a kind, clever and eccentric man who has felt just as trapped by life as Stede has.

When they first meet, they are, for all intents and purposes, dead. Meeting each other brings them ‘back’ to life; it’s a resurrection, an awakening. It’s also a mirror. They reflect aspects of themselves which are alike and also qualities they long for but lack. Fictional doubles and foils often serve to challenge and to reveal: seeing what you are not exposes what you are. So, when Ed and Stede meet, they find in each other all they had been missing. It’s no coincidence that Edward introduces himself as ‘Blackbeard’ to the Revenge crew and as ‘Ed’ to Stede. Meeting ‘Blackbeard’ compels Stede to reflect on just how incompetent a pirate he really is – and meeting Stede makes Ed reflect on how he is perceived by the world.

The picture of ‘The Mad Devil Pyrate Blackbeard’ in one of Stede’s books, disturbs Ed. He is discouraged by the reminder that this is how the world views him. It also symbolises the way that this ‘image’ has come to be more real than the ‘real’ him, just like the flag on his ship: a flag which strikes such fear into the hearts of all who see it that they surrender without a fight. It has left Ed with a profound sense of ennui, but he is unable to see an alternative, until Stede suggests ‘retirement’. The fact that Ed doesn’t know the meaning of the word illustrates more than just a contrast with Stede: it embodies the opportunities (or lack thereof) to which the world affords characters based on the colour of their skin or the depth of their pockets.

Even Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill), Blackbeard’s brutal first mate, knows what ‘retirement’ is: he might not wield the same social or economic power Stede does, but he does have access to the knowledge that a (white) person can elect to stop working by choice. However distant, tt’s still a possibility for him – but not for characters of colour like Ed, Olu and Jim (Vico Ortiz), who don’t have the luxury of leisure.

Like Waititi, Edward Teach is a biracial man in a white supremacist society, meaning that his ‘worth’ to characters like Izzy is measured by the extent to which he can perform a sort of ‘violent’ hyper-masculinity, a persona which is itself ‘othered’ and ‘othering’, and coded in racist stereotypes. Ed’s alter egos, Blackbeard and especially the Kraken, are deeply and intentionally linked to his identity as a man of colour, and specifically as a man of Māori heritage. The Kraken emerges for the first time when Ed kills his abusive white father in order to protect himself and his mother, who is Māori. The abuse his father perpetuates on them is colonialism in miniature. So while Ed’s proximity to whiteness might grant him access to ‘white’ spaces (like the French party ship), it also prevents him from feeling a sense of belonging there. And it means that he is caught in an eternal dilemma: do you make yourself meek, or ‘monstrous’?

Meanwhile, Stede’s symbolic ‘other’ – a lighthouse – is less overtly monstrous but no less dangerous. A lighthouse is both a help and a hazard: it’s a lantern for sailors lost in the dark, but also something that must be avoided at all costs “so you don’t crack up on the rocks”, as Ed says and then comes to learn for himself. It is Stede’s regret that he was not there to watch over his family, that gives him and Ed the idea they need to save the ship from the Spanish crew tailing them. They manage to fend off their pursuers by creating the illusion of a lighthouse thanks to a lantern, some liquor, and the dulcet tones of one Wee John Feeny (Kristian Nairn).

It’s the first moment of pure synthesis in the show – not only between Ed and Stede but the entire crew. It’s significant that this creative ‘fusion’ takes place when Ed and Stede are wearing each other’s clothes: Ed in linens, Stede in leathers. They take this a step further by swapping ‘roles’, names, and mannerisms – and these physical changes mark the point that their ‘mirroring’ becomes literalised.

From then on, the reflection shifts and reorients as the bond between them is challenged and recalibrated. A group of French aristocrats dote on and subsequently deride Ed, leaving Stede to take a distinctly ‘upper crust’ sort of revenge: passive aggression, followed by a spot of arson. Afterwards, Stede reassures Ed, who has longed for luxury but long felt unworthy of it. With Ed’s consent, Stede takes the red silk that Ed has carried with him since boyhood, and places it neatly in his waistcoat pocket, telling him “You wear fine things well”. It is a moment of permission and acquiescence, of validation and revelation. The scales are in (almost) perfect balance.

That equilibrium is disturbed when Ed, spurred by Izzy, plots to kill Stede and steal his identity, until he realises that hurting Stede is the very last thing he wants. Instead, he confesses that the only person he’s ever killed is his father. Ed expects rejection, but Stede offers acceptance and friendship. Izzy cannot understand such things; for him, ‘acceptance’ is always conditional. To his credit, Stede is never once fazed by Izzy, so when Izzy proposes that they duel for a place on the ship, he accepts without hesitation. Miraculously (and on a technicality), Izzy loses.

With him out the picture, Ed and Stede grow closer, though Ed remains restless. Desperate to keep him onboard, Stede proposes a treasure hunt – which Ed belittles until Lucius (Nathan Foad), the ship’s scribe and unwitting relationship counsellor, confronts him with the fact that Stede cares about him. The pair declare themselves ‘co-captains’ by the story’s close; a step closer to symmetry. Their bond is tested again when Calico Jack (Will Arnett), Ed’s ex, shows up on The Revenge and Ed reverts to a frat boy-type that Stede doesn’t recognise. When Jack eventually betrays them to the English, Ed has a chance to escape – but he returns to Stede even though it means getting captured along with him.

With Stede about to be executed by firing squad, Ed calls for an ‘Act of Grace’, clemency for reformed pirates in exchange for service to the King. It is granted, but only if Ed signs away his freedom too. He doesn’t have to, but he does all the same. While at the military barracks, Ed and Stede confess that they make each other happy, and they share a kiss. It is the last moment of true synthesis between them in the series so far: immediately afterwards, Ed proposes they run away to China together, and Stede agrees, but in his excitement Ed cannot see how tentative Stede is: that he sees only obstacles while Ed sees only the finish line. When Badminton marches Stede into the forest at gunpoint later that night, and spews his diatribe about how Stede brings only ruin and decay to those who love him, Stede believes him. He returns to his wife, while Ed waits on a dock, alone.

Stede made the decision to leave without discussing it; in doing so, he not only fails to live up to his own maxim (“We talk it through as a crew!”), but he fails to share his vulnerabilities and fears with Ed as Ed had done with him. Stede’s decision ruptures the equilibrium of the entire series, toppling the scales almost to destruction; after this point, the show and its characters will never be the same. He disrupts the now-stable lives of his wife and children when he reappears after months, seemingly from the dead; he disrupts the lives of his crew, who had elected the level-headed Olu as captain and were just about to rid themselves of Izzy once and for all; and, most importantly, he disrupts Ed’s evolution. Stede had taught Ed that there could be a life of leisure for him after a life of toil – and then he snatched it away. Stede’s decision not only unravels the delicate threads of Ed’s self-worth, it puts his crew directly in harm’s way. With Lucius thrown overboard, half the crew marooned and the other forced to work under the Kraken’s command, The Revenge has truly earned its name by the show’s close, every bit a vessel of bitterness and spite.

Ramifications like this underscore how greatly Our Flag Means Death values mutuality, collaboration, and partnership. Whenever characters like Izzy, the Badmintons, and Stede, make unilateral decisions without consultation, they always end in disaster. Synthesis is the solution. As Stede says of his crew, “We are a company. So this work is a shared vision” – and this is true both in the world of the series and in the ‘metatext’ of how the show came together. Stede created a net for them all to fall into, but when he left he took that net away. To find his way back to them, and to truly become a captain, he will need to be a guide, a leader, a light: instead of a lighthouse, he has to become a beacon.

There is hope, and closure, in the series’ final moments. Stede and his wife, Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), have shared their first moment of mutual honesty, vulnerability and truth. Mary assures him that she has a good life, a career that she’s passionate about, and a partner she adores. When she describes how she feels about him, Stede realises that that’s how he feels about Ed, and he decides to return to him. Mary and Stede work together on how they will ‘fake’ his death to do so. He confides in Mary and his children; he tells them where he is going, and why, and that he will always care for them no matter how far away he is. In short, he does everything when the series ends that he should have done before it began: he arrives where he started, and knows the place for the first time.* In those last moments, Stede has none of his wealth or finery, and when he takes to the sea for a second time, instead of running from his old life, he is now running towards a new one, with a renewed sense of self and in pursuit of the man he loves. As Mary says of the supposedly ‘late’, and certainly great, Stede Bonnet: “Complicated, hard-headed, really irritating at times… and now free.”

*“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

—T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding”

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