Our Flag Means Death E1 recap: “Pilot”

Released: March 3, 2022
Network: HBO Max
Showrunner: David Jenkins
Genre: Rom-com, Alternate history

In which cats are terrifying.

My Thoughts

“1717. The Golden Age of Piracy. Wealthy landowner Stede Bonnet set out to find adventure and renown on the high seas. Things did not go as planned…” Cue Frenchie’s adorable little pirate shanty.

This is the perfect opening scene. We learn the big brush strokes of all the crew – how they’re both silly and in the early stages of a found family situation. Stede is so obviously a dandy playing at being a pirate: “Places everyone! Look scary!” The raid on the fishing boat is exactly what Stede thinks of as piracy. It’s a chance for him to feel powerful and important for a few moments out of a life where he has been dismissed as weaker and lesser than everyone else. And he gets to do all that without causing any lasting harm to himself or others. 

And then into the captain’s quarters, full of lit candles and dangerously swinging chandeliers. I love the conceit of having him walk around his ship narrating the backstory to Lucius. It works to not only catch the audience up but to really show off how different Stede is from everyone else. It’s also a red flag (har har!) in that Stede is unable or unwilling to see any problems. It’s good leadership to be able to reframe Wee John’s sarcasm into a positive that instills teamwork for the good of the ship, but it’s also troubling that he is incapable of processing the underlying truth of Wee John’s critique and grow from that. We see this again with the potential mutiny. Buttons lists off all the things the crew thinks of Stede and his response is to ignore it all and play pirate even harder.

But there’s a reason he does this. As we see in the scene with his father, Stede carries a lot of trauma of his own. For him, there are only two ways to move through the world: consumed by negativity or pretending it doesn’t exist. He doesn’t yet know how to confront or process his trauma. He learned it from the abuse he got from his father and from his school chums. He’s gotten good at playing the part of the gentleman and thinks he can fake his way through being a pirate. Except he can’t. People’s lives depend on him now in a way his family’s didn’t (Mary has property and money, and as we later see, she is perfectly capable of thriving without him). 

Which leads us to the dining scene where he forces his pirates to play gentlemen. It’s a preposterous plan that goes even more poorly than anticipated. We can’t not talk about the racism in this scene. At first, I was disappointed that the show seemed to take the obvious, lazy route by making Frenchie, Oluwande, and Roach the servants, not to mention the lines “Tell me about your colorful crew,” “clearly made by savages,” “Enough interruptions, slave. Your captain may suffer uppity behavior”. But, again, Stede is a gentleman playing a pirate playing a gentleman. He has to take the obvious route because A. that’s how a gentleman would arrange his servants (see the episode with the French ship), and B. because he hasn’t learned to see people for who they are yet. He hasn’t learned to consider the context and consequences of his choices.

Stede makes the choice to stay at sea even though he longs for the love he never had with his own family. The audience doesn’t know it yet, but that flashback to the conversation at the dinner table smacks of unreliable narrator syndrome. We’re not seeing the truth (like we did with the bullying or the conversations with his father) but his interpretations of it. The clue is the lighting. 

Oluwande is right that taking credit for Nigel’s demise is the strategic thing to do – it’s the pirate thing to do – but it also means Stede will have to face his actions, something he is ill-prepared to do. I also appreciate how the show shows what a calming, wise being Oluwande is. As a Black man in the Caribbean, his options are extremely limited, unlike those of his white crew. Working under Stede may be ridiculous, but as he points out, it’s safer than he’ll probably ever be. Ride the ride as long as it lasts. 

What makes Stede work as a character is how Rhys Darby plays him as earnest and sincere, even when he doesn’t know who he is yet. Other actors might make him fall too hard on the flouncy side (playing up the stereotype of the fancy, effeminate gay man) or the writers could have the crew treat him with disdain instead of dismissal. Both of which I expected going in because that’s so often what we get. Shows like this are so often cisheteronormative with queer content grafted on, so you can see where they missed the details. But by making the show queer from the ground up, they can stop the cisheteronormative bullshit before it begins. 

Final Thoughts:

  • First appearance of the black scarf!
  • The crew are just as useless with Stede as without. Wee John is just winding a random piece of rope. Lucius is chilling out, staring at nothing. Even Jim is doing jack-all. 
  • I love the way Stede walks all stiff during his introduction, as if that’s how he thinks pirate captains move.
  • “Watch my buttons!”
  • “Take care of the plant!”
  • There’s a harpsichord! How did I not notice that before? This is what comes from not wearing my glasses.
  • Lucius’ little head shimmy in the Jam Room = adorable
  • God, I love the way boat physics works in this show. As in, who the fuck knows how any of it works but I absolutely don’t are in the slightest.
  • Baby Bonnet is Rhys Darby’s real son.
  • Rory Kinnear is so good at being so bad.
  • Eek. There’s a fat joke. Could use 100% fewer of those in S2 please and thank you.
  • Important that Jim, a Latinx person, is the one to stop the racist English naval officer from being racist.

Frenchie’s Fun Facts

  • “Yeah, cats are terrifying. Everyone knows that. ‘Cause they’re witches. And they have knives in their feet.”
  • “Actually, everyone knows cats are very evil because they steal children’s breath.”

Fashion Corner

  • Stede wears the black scarf when he’s in Pirate Mode. He takes it off while cowering in his yellow bathrobe then puts it back on when at dinner with Nigel. 
  • In the dinner scene, Stede is a gentleman playing a pirate playing a gentleman, which we see in his messy, crooked wig.

Closing credits song is “High on a Rocky Ledge” by Moondog: So much foreshadowing! Hints of his marriage to Mary on the lighthouse cliff, his relationship with Ed, and their declaration of love on the cliff.

One thought on “Our Flag Means Death E1 recap: “Pilot”

  1. The running gag of Frenchie saying wild shit about cats is one of my favorite jokes in the show. I am not super-much a cat person myself, so I enjoy it extra for that. And a HUGE yes to Olu being such a sensible presence on the ship from the very beginning. He is my fave.


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