Is it weird that one of the sweetest little feel-good shows on television this year also featured a group of pirates pillaging and murdering their enemies and sometimes chopping each other’s limbs off? It’s probably weird. It felt weird to type, at least. But it’s all true. I didn’t even mention the thing about the mutiny or the cursed outfits or Bronson Pinchot walking the plank. Or the thing about the grizzled and gruff first mate donning makeup and belting out “La Vie En Rose” on the ship. Our Flag Means Death is a wonderful television program. Weird, sure. But also wonderful.
The first season of the show kind of came out of nowhere. There was a fancy aristocrat named Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) who fled his wife and posh life in search of adventure on the high seas. He eventually crossed paths with Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), the legendary real-life pirate, or at least a very loosely fictionalized version of him. They fell in love. A bunch of the pirates on the ship fell in love with each other, too. Everyone was smooching and swashbuckling and having a blast until everything was torn apart in the final episodes. Stede and Blackbeard broke up. I was devastated by this. Picture trying to explain any of this to a person who never watched the show. This was my life for an entire year.
It returned for a second season this fall, finally. Things were still weird, but in a different way. Blackbeard was taking out the pain of his heartbreak by ramping up his pillaging, raiding so many ships and towns that he was ordering the crew to throw old treasure overboard to make room for new treasure. There was a minor mutiny. They ran afoul of the Pirate Queen of China (Ruibo Qian), who, because this show is committed at all times to being wild, spoke like an American millennial and blackmailed via charm. She fell in love with one of the male crew members, eventually. It was very sweet.
Stede and Blackbeard got back together, too. The specifics are too important for me to type out here beyond saying that there were sword fights and hallucinations of mermen and a deeply satisfying and adorable reunion on the beach. Again, this is a show where people get slashed through the abdomen and blasted with cannonballs pretty much every episode. Leslie Jones from SNL showed up and chopped a dude’s entire nose off. There was, briefly, a character named Steak Knife who the Pirate Queen killed in a saloon. And it was also the cutest damn thing you’ve ever seen.
This exchange has stayed with me for over a week now. It might stay with me forever. It’s weird how these things work out.
You wanna hear the wildest part of the whole thing? Yes, even wilder than “the dreaded murderous pirate Blackbeard had a hallucination while comatose where his posh estranged boyfriend appeared to him underwater with a mermaid tail and kissed him on the mouth”? I hope so because I’m going to tell you.
None of that — the forbidden romance, the Pirate Queen finding love, an actual wedding between two members of the crew — was the sweetest part of the show. That honor goes to the character arc for Blackbeard’s first mate, Izzy Hands, a raspy-voiced seafaring lifer who practices swordplay in candlelit rooms and who lost the lower part of his left after Blackbeard shot him and then amputated it to keep the infection from spreading. (It’s okay. The crew made him a prosthetic leg out of the wooden unicorn he destroyed in anger. See above, re: weird/wonderful show.) I have rarely gone from “I hate this guy and hope he dies” to “I would gladly give this man any of my limbs if he asks” faster for a television character. The list is pretty much Izzy Hands and Richie from The Bear. It’s a prestigious list. Richie would be a fun pirate.
Anyway, here is Izzy singing “La Vie En Rose” in full theatrical makeup on the deck of a pirate ship, just in case you thought I was kidding about that earlier.
All of which is why — spoilers coming in heavy here — I was so heartbroken when he died in the season two finale. Like, actually heartbroken. I’m still sad today. I did not expect to cry a little while watching the show about gay pirates doing murder, but here we are. Between this and Reservation Dogs (also produced by Waititi), all of my favorite comedies have been making me leak tears out of my face lately. I feel okay about it.
I also feel okay — or at least okay-ish — about Izzy’s death after seeing this explanation of it all from showrunner David Jenkins in Vanity Fair.
There’s a trope that I like with mentor stories, where the mentor dies in the second act. Our protagonist outlives the mentor and then they have to go on. We felt like Izzy’s story had reached its conclusion, where we put him through enough. And then there was the realization that he is kind of a mentor to Blackbeard and that he is kind of a father figure to Blackbeard. It felt nice to have him die and have Blackbeard be upset by it, because Blackbeard killed his father. But this is a father figure that he’s losing that it’s hard for him; it’s sad and he doesn’t want him to go. Izzy has such a beautiful arc in season two; he does a lot of the things, has a lot of the breakthroughs that you want that character to have. It felt like: It’s time to give him a full meal. And it’s also a pirate show, so he’s got to die.
“It’s a pirate show, so he’s got to die.” I mean… yeah. Fair.
The season ended on a heartwarming note for almost everyone else, though. Stede and Blackbeard gave up pirating to open an inn together. The crew pressed on. There was a triumphant battle waged against stuffy British aristocrats. It all could work as a series finale if this is all we get. I hope we get more, though. It really is a remarkable little show, a mish-mashing of genres and style that makes the craziest twists you’ll ever see feel plausible. Plus, I want to see more of the Pirate Queen, who was a great addition to the show and one of my favorite characters on television so far this year.
It looks like Jenkins has plans for it, too, as he explained to Entertainment Weekly.
I mean, we’ll see. We’ll see if it makes sense for them to make a third one. We have a lot of ideas for a third season, and there’s a lot more story to tell. But if it’s not in the cards, I just wanted to leave Stede and Blackbeard in a good place. Instead of seeing them get punished for following each other, I wanted to see a moment where they’re alright. And it is just a moment: I think a relationship is going to take a lot of work for them.
Three notes in conclusion:
- I love this weird little pirate show
- I really hope it gets a third season, just to see where they end up taking it
- More shows should feature a character named Steak Knife