A-

Our Flag Means Death season 2 premiere: Max’s pirate show returns with three killer episodes

Swelling strings! Billowy shirts! Glowing sunsets! Gay pining! Bloodbaths! A scene stealing Leslie Jones! What more could you ask for?

Our Flag Means Death season 2 premiere: Max’s pirate show returns with three killer episodes
David Fane Photo: Nicola Dove/Max

It’s been a year and a half since we last hung out with the crew of the Revenge, which we can all agree is an unendurable length of time. Thankfully, the sophomore season of Max’s Our Flag Means Death wastes no time in giving us everything we’ve been waiting for: namely, so much gay pining.

David Jenkins’ beloved cult series excels at walking the fine yardarm between comedy and drama. And that’s even truer in the first three episodes of the second season, which had me laughing out loud even as the gang movingly tackled everything from romance to trauma to suicidal ideation. And given what went down in last year’s finale, the show would be remiss not to dig deep.

A quick catch-up: In season one, nobleman Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) set out for adventure on the high seas as “the Gentleman Pirate”; but he and his hapless crew of soft boys (and bois) quickly found themselves in over their heads in the cutthroat world of piracy. They soon joined forces with the infamous Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi) and his seasoned shipmates, who turned out to be something of a sweetie himself.

The two captains fell in love over the course of the season, culminating in a swoony kiss; but Stede cocked it all up when, in a fit of guilt, he deserted Blackbeard and returned to his abandoned wife and children. The last moments of the finale saw a heartbroken Blackbeard regressing to his murderous ways, a regretful Stede putting out to sea to reunite with his spurned love, and crew divided between the former’s frigate and the latter’s rinky-dink rowboat.

GRADE FOR SEASON 2, EPISODE 2, “RED FLAGS”: A-

GRADE FOR SEASON 2, EPISODE 3, “THE INNKEEPER”: B


The show garnered a fiercely loyal fanbase when it debuted last year, and it’s clear Jenkins & Co. knew they’d be crazy not to give their devotees everything they wanted in the second season. In most shows, fan service can be cringe-inducing at best; but it’s woven into the fabric of Our Flag, thanks to an ensemble that includes lovable sweeties like Samson Kayo’s Oluwande, delightfully bitchy sweeties like Nathan Foad’s Lucius, vengeful sweeties like Vico Ortiz’s Jim, and super-mean sweeties like Con O’Neill’s Izzy Hands. (When new character Zheng Yi Sao agrees to take Stede and his crew aboard her otherwise women-only ship, she says she’s made an exception because they’re “tender as hell.”)

But that fannish devotion is mostly thanks to the show’s unapologetic love of capital-R Romance—the kind that includes swelling strings, billowy shirts, and creamy sunsets. That starts from moment one of the series premiere, “Impossible Birds,” as Stede has a fairy-tale dream of reuniting with Blackbeard on a deserted beach, which begins with a Stede vs. Izzy sword fight—the latter getting run through with a plastic scimitar—before our hero and his paramour run full-tilt at each other across the sand.

But in classic Our Flag fashion, Stede’s dream is rudely interrupted by Wee John’s (Kristian “Hodor” Nairn) unholy farts. “Can’t be worse than you moaning, ‘Ed, oh Ed’ all night long,” Black Pete (Matthew Maher) grumbles.

Turns out Stede and his half of the divided crew—Wee John, Black Pete, Oluwande, Buttons (Ewen Bremner), the Swede (Nat Faxon), and Roach (Samba Schutte)—are working at Spanish Jackie’s (a scene stealing Leslie Jones) bar on the Isle of Pirates to save up money for a new ship. Amid the chaos, they meet Stede fanboy Prince Ricky Banes (Erroll Shand), plus Susan (Ruibo Qian) and Auntie (Anapela Polataivao), two humble soup sellers and who are for sure not fearsome corsairs in disguise.

By the end of the episode, the boys have attempted to steal Jackie’s supply of rare indigo powder (“Give me back my blue shit, Steve,” she demands), Jackie adds Ricky “fancy-ass nose” to her infamous jar, and the Swede has decided to stay behind to live in marital bliss as one of Jackie’s 20(!) husbands. And most vitally, “Susan” reveals herself to be none other than Zheng Yi Sao, the legendary scourge of the South China Sea, and opts to take the boys aboard her ship, the Red Flag.

Conditions are far worse for the crew of the Revenge, including Izzy, Jim, Frenchie (Joel Fry), Fang (David Fane), and new character Archie (Madeleine Sami). While Stede’s coping mechanism is relentless optimism, Blackbeard’s is nihilistic ultraviolence. He’s forced his underlings into a life of carnage so senseless that even the murderous Jim and the sadistic Izzy have been pushed past their limits. Dressed in screamo-band black, they turn an upper-crust wedding into a bloodbath. They’re all haunted by their actions—apart from Frenchie, who copes by compartmentalizing.

And Blackbeard? He’s got a death wish as deep and vast as the Caribbean Sea, cutting off his loyal first mate Izzy’s toes with empty-eyed relish and demanding that the crew throw all their accumulated treasure overboard to make way for more. Behind closed doors, however, he’s a lovesick teen holed up in his bedroom, weeping over Stede’s rejection and his own feelings of worthlessness.

This is when Our Flag begins its season-long commitment to saying the quiet part loud, beginning with Jim calling out Izzy’s unhealthy relationship with his beloved captain, whom he’s every bit as besotted with as Stede is. “I have…love for you,” he admits, shortly before Blackbeard shoots him in the leg, then turns his musket on himself. And just like that, Frenchie’s the new first mate. Good luck with that, baby boy.

Episode two, “Red Flags,” takes us aboard a ship as well-run as Blackbeard’s is chaotic: Zheng’s. Stede and the boys are quickly enamored with the supportive environment aboard a ship crewed entirely by women. The sole man is our dear Lucius, whom we last saw getting thrown overboard by Blackbeard. (We missed you, friend!) After a tender reunion with his boyfriend Black Pete, we learn that Lucius, a.k.a. “Ratboy,” is the picture of PTSD. Foad does an incredible job of conveying the weight of what the character’s had to do to survive, all scraggly beard and thousand-yard stares.

He’s the one who tells Stede about his ex’s deeply disturbed state of mind—and the fact that he’s directly responsible for the monster Blackbeard has become: “You broke him when you left, and then he broke me.” Meanwhile, Zheng falls hard for Oluwande, who got intimate with his BFF-turned-lover, Jim, at the end of season one. (We totally get it, man! He’s husband material!)

Jim is doing their own moving on with Archiewho, charmed by watching them tell Fang a half-remembered version of Pinocchio in a bid to soothe his ongoing trauma, makes out with Jim beside the bed of a half-dead Izzy.

And oh, Izzy. Though Frenchie has been ordered to murder him, he’s secretly helping Jim and Archie nurse him back to health in a hidden room below decks. This includes the latter two doing a hack job of amputating the lower half of his infected leg. “Kill me, you fucking c**ts!” the former first mate begs; but they shan’t.

Blackbeard discovers the truth, and the two old friends share a scene that’s one of the show’s most harrowing—and brilliantly acted—to date. (You can tell shit’s about to go down when Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony begins to play in the background—soundtrack code for “major drama ahead.”) Ed hands Izzy a gun and tries to goad him into shooting him in the head, but Izzy’s having none of it. “Clean up your own fucking mess. I’ve been doing it my whole fucking life.” He leaves Izzy alone with the musket, and a shot rings out offscreen.

Denied his suicide-by-proxy, Blackbeard decides to take his shipmates down with him by piloting the Revenge directly into a savage storm. Waititi’s performance, once Ed gives in completely to madness, is riveting; he’s a man possessed by profound self-loathing, laughing like Lear as he descends into a hell of his own making.

With their imminent deaths at hand, the crew has no choice but to mutiny. Ed seemingly gets his wish when Jim hefts a cannonball in their hands and brings it down onto the captain’s head. Or do they? “Red Flags” ends in a timely blackout, nothing but the roar of the waves playing over the credits.

Episode three, “The Innkeeper,” makes us wait a hell of a long time to learn the truth of Blackbeard’s fate. But the writers waste no time reuniting the ensemble, as Auntie discovers the ruined Revenge off the port bow, seemingly deserted. Good ol’ Stede immediately throws himself into the sea and swims to his former ship, calling out for Ed. What he finds horrifies him: the ruins of his once-lavish stateroom, knives driven into ever surface; and his long-lost crewmates, who are going full Yellowjackets on a raw seagull carcass. “Guys! Hi!” he exclaims in delight.

Back on the Red Flag, the reunions are every bit as satisfying as you’d hope they’d be—particularly Oluwande and Jim’s, as they grin at each other in the gentle glow of sunset. Jim immediately spills about their dalliance with Archie (“I saw her boobs. Both of them!”), and sweet Oluwande is totally cool with it. Are these two destined for a four-pirate polycule? On a show this queer, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Stede and Izzy’s reunion, on the other hand, is heartbreaking. The Gentleman Pirate has no idea that what Izzy’s been through makes Lucius’ ordeal look like smooth sailing; last time he saw the former first mate, he was trying to provoke a softer, kinder Blackbeard into killing Stede. The situation is tragic: In deep denial that his beloved has turned monster, he takes it out on the man Ed has hurt the most. “You and I did this to him,” Izzy says evenly, “and we cannot let the crew suffer any more for our mistakes.” This love triangle!

“The Innkeeper” stumbles when it comes to Blackbeard’s side of the story, as he wakes up on a desert island in the company of his mentor-cum–toxic father figure, Captain Benjamin Hornigold (Mark Mitchinson). Even if you haven’t watched Lost, the device is painfully obvious: This is purgatory, and Hornigold is a voice in Blackbeard’s head. The pair’s bickering quickly turns into a therapy session, the older man speaking the subtext: Ed has daddy issues, he believes he’s essentially unlovable, and he hates himself. Tell us something we don’t know, my guy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Detective Auntie discovers Blackbeard’s dead body(?) below deck, and his crew are branded mutineers and tossed in the Red Flag’s brig. Once Stede finds out, he hatches a plan to bust out his old shipmates and zipline back to the Revenge in the dead of night. It’s tragic, considering how unerringly kind Zheng has been to the guys—particularly Oluwande, whom she shares a kiss with moments before Jim appears to take him back to their old ship. It’s an impossible choice—and we have a hunch Zheng will be back to exact vengeance on the men who betrayed her trust.

The episode ends in a true gift for Stede/Ed shippers that’s also in keeping with Our Flag’s gorgeous earnestness. To the heartbreaking strains of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” Stede sits beside his lover’s inert body, begging him to wake up; meanwhile, a dreaming Blackbeard stands on the edge of a sea cliff with a boulder attached to a rope around his waist. “Come back to me,” Stede pleads as Ed goes full Black Widow-in-Infinity War, plunging into the deep. When he hears his beloved’s voice, he struggles to kick toward the surface.

And sweet gay lord, there his is: merman Stede, complete with a fishtail and a trident! You truly love to see it. The scene is fan art come to life, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of what this show does best—the silliest thing and the most romantic thing, at the exact same time. Ed awakens with a gasp to find Stede clutching his hand, and viewers weep in relief.

Stray observations

  • Blackbeard’s crew is going through it, but my God, the fits. Top awards go to Frenchie’s My Chemical Romance-meets-Sgt. Pepper lewk and Jim’s Road Warrior duds, paired with a fresh high-and-tight haircut. (I’m gonna show a photo of it to my barber next week.)
  • Ed’s pining reaches its adolescent climax in the form of the cake toppers he stole from the wedding—one that’s the spitting image of Stede, the other a bride Blackbeard paints to look like himself. Naturally, he dumps both into the drink.
  • There’s a lot of soup in these first three eps. At first it seems like a bit, but there’s symbolism here that’s wrapped up in the idea of comfort and accepting care from others. Keep an eye on who delights in a warm meal and who refuses it.
  • Buttons continues to be the series’ most fun side character. Aboard the Red Flag, Auntie names him a sea witch and offers him a spell scroll that will allow him to shift between “human and nonhuman forms.”
  • As performed by Quan with equal parts deadpan humor and quiet power, Zheng is a perfect foil to the wacky ensemble. Her delivery of “Girl, how are you?” when Stede is reeling from his reunion with his missing crewmates wins line reading of the year.
  • Our Flag exists in a heightened reality, and one of my favorite aspects of that is characters’ abilities to find each other at the exact right moment, making the Seven Seas feel like Lake Erie. Otherwise, this show would be just episodes upon episodes of the gang gazing out into vast nothingness.
  • Speaking of action economy, the series’ half-hour runtime ensures a rollicking, propulsive pace. More shows—dramas in particular—could stand to break from the hourlong format.
  • The needle drops in this show have always been off “The Chain.” (Get it? Get it?) And season two is no exception. The first three episodes include “I Love My Baby” by Nina Simone; “Strawberry Letter 23” by the Brothers Johnson; “Run From Me” by Timber Timbre; and, most heartbreakingly, “This Woman’s Work.” Hats off to music supervisor Maggie Phillips for her excellent taste. (And fingers crossed that Our Flag does for “This Woman’s Work” what Stranger Things did for “Running Up That Hill [A Deal With God].”)
  • With the casting of Madeleine Sami as Archie, Our Flag has added another nonbinary actor to its ensemble, alongside Vico Ortiz. The LGBTQ+ representation on this show remains formidable.
  • Zheng Yi Sao, a.k.a. Ching Shih, was the scourge of the South China Sea nearly a hundred years after Bonnet and Teach’s deaths. But with a character this perfect for our sad boys to play off of, who cares about a little anachronism? She enjoyed a far more successful career than either of our hapless heroes; while Blackbeard and Bonnet only had a force of 300 and 70, respectively, Zheng Yi commanded a whopping 80,000 pirates.
  • While Prince Ricky Banes and John Bartholomew weren’t real people, Benjamin Hornigold was. He played a vital role in founding Nassau’s “Republic of Pirates,” gave Blackbeard his start when he appointed him as his second-in-command, and commandeered the Revenge from Bonnet. Hornigold later became a pirate hunter in exchange for a pardon from the governor of the Bahamas. What a dick!
  • Since Our Flag is a riff on actual history, it’s time for Historical Trivia Corner: A.) Rhino horn was and is one of the most sought-after drugs in the world in its capacity as an aphrodisiac, fever-reducer, or good old-fashioned snuff. Today, thanks to the endangered status of rhinos, it’s worth more than cocaine, gold, or even diamonds. B.) Indigo was indeed incredibly valuable in the 18th century, prized by nobility across the globe; it also, tragically, played a major role in the slave trade.
  • “You dumped him.”
    “I didn’t dump him.”
    “You dumped him.”
    “He dumped you.”
    “No! We’re on a break!”
    Who knew Stede had so much in common with Ross Geller?
  • These episodes are full of laugh-out-loud lines, but the prize goes to Lucius when he’s recounting all the dark shit he endured: “I haven’t even told you about the little man who died in my lap. He wasn’t even a child—he was just a very small man!”
  • In a season almost entirely free of subtext, we do have one enigmatic symbol to unpack: What’s the deal with Hornigold’s pot-bellied pig? Sound off in the comments!

 
Join the discussion...