At a time when it seems like things need to be either epic or edgy to pop, MAX’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death made its mark on the strength of its quirky goodness, its ability to (as showrunner David Jenkins puts it) make its audience feel seen, and a resistance to condescension in service of comedy and servicing its main relationship.
While resultant buzz and hard numbers surely helped the show secure its second season (which debuts tonight on MAX with 2 episodes), it’s easy to assume that the passionate fanbase played an outsized role in MAX’s decision-making. Check Reddit, Tumblr, and other social sites for fan posts and you’ll discover a powerful love fest comprised of fan art, fan fiction, and excitement for the places the show might go with the love-struck lead characters at its heart: Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Blackbeard aka Ed (Taika Waititi). Who would want to let down such a vocal group?
Eager to get a sense of the impact of that explosion of love and support from fans and where things are going with Stede and Ed as we head into the new season, Uproxx spoke with Jenkins about last season’s finale, the meaning of happy endings, comparing the show to The Sopranos, and whether we’re going to get Muppets on the show.
Do you feel an enhanced level of responsibility because people are feeling seen by the show and have an affection for the show? Going into creating this second season, you’re obviously exposed to that, you know that that’s there, is there a danger of overcompensating and over-delivering for fans when you’re creating the second season? How do you defend against that?
I try not to think about it too much because I think the strength of the show is that it’s not super back patty. And I think once you get to the point where you’re like, “We’re doing a great job, we’re really doing an amazing thing,” then it’s going to suck. I do think that if you staff the room well and you create a good sociological imagination for the room of a bunch of people who have a bunch of different backgrounds and a bunch of different perspectives and you listen to them and then you try to keep the fan art out of it, keep the things people are asking for and clamoring for… As much as you can, I try to keep that out of the writer’s room and out of the creative. It’s fun to enjoy when you’re going through your thread, but it can’t come into the room. If you’re logically following what the characters are doing, it keeps you from getting high on your own supply hopefully.
Why did we need that break with Ed and Stede at the end of last season? Why couldn’t we continue the momentum of the coupling into season two?
I think because they’re both clumsy and they don’t know enough yet and they’re both emotionally very immature and there’s no way that they’re going to be healthy enough to sustain a relationship knowing what they know. And I think seeing Stede learn that he doesn’t even know what love is until his ex-wife tells him about it at the end of the first season. And Ed’s never let himself be vulnerable before and he gets really burned. Stede never knows what he’s done, he always underestimates his own power and how he can damage something just by doing things impulsively. And then Ed, what does a really damaged guy look like after he’s had his heart broken? I think to skip over those storylines I think gives us a lot less fuel to see them rebuild each other and just try to find a more mature way to be in a relationship.
Is there hope for these characters or are these fatal flaws? And by hope I don’t mean is everything going to be perfect for the rest of the run of the show? Is there hope for something more than just this cyclical thing where they break up, they get back together, they break up, they get back together, the Sid and Nancy of the sea. Is there hope for them to grow?
Sid and Nancy of the sea, that’s a good pitch. (Laughs) I think that, to me, the fun of it is there’s the ending of the thing, they lived happily ever after. Which apparently all cultures have different ways of doing that. Other cultures, instead of saying they lived happily ever after, they say, and the story goes on and on and on. And our insistence that it’s happily isn’t like what our relationships are. Our relationships are constant work and constant, is it going to capsize? Is it not? Oh, it’s really good right now, but what happens when it shifts? And so I like the idea that I want to see these two guys learn what a more mature idea of love is and then see them struggle to maintain it, which seems to be the story of all of our romantic relationships and a lot of our friendships.
Yes, it’s constant work, but there’s also constant reward, it’s micro treasures that you uncover along the way. And so seeing them do that, when I talked to Rhys, there was a notion expressed that it’s nice to see characters just hang out and be together. Can we anticipate seeing that at some point in the future with these characters where they can get over some of this and over the hurt?
I think so, and I think we get there in this season, but I think what, to me, mature love is being comfortable with a thing called midlife, which is just life without volatility. Sometimes being comfortable, just being okay is the hardest thing. It is their struggle to be, can we just be together and fine? Is an interesting struggle. But I think that has to be a struggle for it to be interesting and I think that there have to be moments where things are good. Tony and Carmela on The Sopranos, very troubled marriage. There are moments where things are all right.
I hope Stede and Ed aren’t modeled after Tony and Carmela.
That’s a different relationship.
Slightly different. Who’s who in that? Ed is Tony, maybe? No, maybe not.
Ed’s got strong Carmela energy.
That’s a good point. I think you’re actually right. I think Ed is Carmela and Stede is Tony.
I think that looking at Aunt Bonny (Minnie Driver) and Mary Read (Rachel House) as a George and Martha couple, where’s it’s like, that’s a very, very messed up, way more mature (relationship) than Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship because they’re dealing with marriage and committing to each other for a long time and they have a very poisonous view of it. But I think they’re looking at, who are couples that are successful? They’ve never seen a successful relationship. Ed’s parents are messed up, Stede screwed up his marriage. And to watch these two people who are damaged just learn how to be okay, that seems like a good journey to me. And I think you want to reward that with some times that are okay. That’s where it’s fun that they could die at any minute because they’re pirates, so other things can happen.
The ensemble was so strong in season one, it’s great in season two and you also have some guest stars this season. As a showrunner, do you ever get nervous that you’re going to lose the thread of the characters, that you’re not going to be able to service all of these characters with the same level of affection?
How do you balance that?
It’s tough. I think you can tell if a guest star is even (within) the script. You’re like, okay, this is a lot. And then you look at the page count. I think that was a thing with Will Arnett. We can get Will Arnett to play Calico Jack and it’s a fun, big character and it’s really easy to be, “Woo, Calico’s got a lot to do, let’s look at page count here. Let’s add a good sea story for Frenchie and Wee John, I haven’t seen them in a minute.” And I think with this show we’re blessed. We have so many muppets and everyone’s such a brilliant actor and any of these characters could have their own show. I think that the balance is always striking. Does everyone have enough to do? Does everyone have enough of a meal or even a bite in an episode and then with two fewer episodes, it’s definitely a constant struggle through this season.
You mentioned Muppets. Can you add literal Muppets?
You can always add Muppets. I would argue that Karl the Seagull is a Muppet in a way. We couldn’t use a seabird in New Zealand in season two, and so we had to figure out how to do it so all of Karl’s stuff was shot in Los Angeles. But maybe we should have made him a Muppet, that would’ve been a little easier.
As far as season three, do you have a plan in place or do you wait, take a breath, see how things are received?
Take a breath, see if this is something that Max wants to do again. They were really gracious in giving us season two and in helping us rightsize the show so that this is something that they would want to do post AT&T. Warner Discovery is being, I think, a lot more fiscally responsible. God bless AT&T and Jason Kilar for giving us the first season. But I think it’s a big show. I think for season three, if it makes sense for them and we have the fan response, we loved making it, they’re wonderful partners. I have a very strong notion of where I’d like to take that show for a third and final season. I’d love to go on this ride again. It’s a joy to make.
Without spoiling anything, does season two end in a way that if that was the last bit, that people aren’t going to light things on fire, that people will accept that as an ending? Is it satisfying or do you have to leave it open to try to push?
It was very important to me to land season two in a place where if this was it, this particular audience would feel like Ed and Stede had their due and it wasn’t just pain, but it was something that could be construed as a happy ending. And I think there’s a clear way forward for a season three, but I think if this were it, I think this could be a kind and non-upsetting and gratifying way to wrap the show up.