David Jenkins’ “Our Flag Means Death” brings to the deck, quite literally, a uniquely fresh tale with a range of wacky characters. Setting out as a fictitious and comedic retelling of the life of Stede Bonnet, a 16th-century aristocrat who had given up his title to become a pirate, the show gradually becomes a subtle narrative on love, inclusivity, and human relations. As profound as that might sound, though, “Our Flag Means Death” is always humorous and has an almost nonsensical and silly style of comedy. It’s not that the entire first season is smooth sailing, as there are parts where the narrative is unnecessarily stretched. But overall, the show is a fun watch for anyone looking for a light, mindless comedy.
Major Spoilers Ahead
‘Our Flag Means Death’ Season 1: Recap Summary
To set the premise first, the year is 1717, around the golden age of piracy, when a wealthy English aristocratic landowner, named Stede Bonnet, gave up all his fortunes to go out on the open seas to become a pirate. For the most part of his life, Bonnet had received everything readily, and so by middle age, he was bored of such a drab existence and set sail for a life of loot and plunder. However, despite being quite well-read on pirates and their activities, Stede hardly had any substantial sense or understanding of the profession, and it is here that the show begins, after Stede has managed to gather up a motley crew of crewmen.
This crew includes: Buttons, a grey-haired sailor who always has a seagull as a companion; Lucius, a poetic scribe whose duty is to keep a record of all of Stede’s pirating adventures; Frenchie, whose only talents are stitching and singing while playing a makeshift guitar; The Swede, an unnamed Swedish man who seems quite eccentric and loves to sing, although he does so horribly; Roach, the ship’s cook; Wee John Feeney, a large-built man who loves violence and putting things on fire; Oluwande, a dark-skinned compassionate man who always tries to sort things out between the crewmates; Jim, a mysterious young man with scruffy long hair and a beard, who also happens to be mute; and Black Pete, a pirate closest to the conventional depiction of pirates—he is constantly trying to build up a mutiny, and is falsely boastful of having been a part of the crew of the legendary pirate Blackbeard.
It is quite obvious that, as the leader of such a strange and unusual set of crewmates, Stede Bonnet is also not your usual pirate; rather, he is a man who wants his crew to be happy and cheerful more than anything else, and therefore encourages all sorts of teamwork and entertainment activities onboard. He has also designed the ship to his own fancy taste, with walk-in closets for different clothes for different seasons and even a library. However, the crew grows increasingly bored as the days go by, looting poor fishermen with empty dinghies and engaging in a friendly competition aboard, in which crewmates would have to design a flag for their ship, named Revenge, and the best design would be put up.
Things soon get interesting when Stede spots a big ship on the horizon and, together with his crew, decides to loot it for some much-needed pirating action. However, as they get closer, they realize that the ship is an English Royal Navy warship, and that attacking it would be simply foolish. But it is too late to retreat now, and the English are about to attack when their captain recognizes Stede and decides to give him a visit.
Stede, who wants to get away from the social and royal life of his past, is disappointed to see that the man is Nigel Badminton, his childhood bully and now an officer in the British Navy. To hide their true selves, Stede and his crew dress up as aristocrats and pretend to be so when Nigel once again gets back to his bullying self inside Stede’s quarters. Stede can take it no longer and hits Nigel on the head with a showpiece, but the fall makes the captain get stabbed dead by his own sword. The pirate crewmen manage to take two Britishers hostage and flee before the rest of the Royal crew gets to know anything.
After a short while, the crew of the Revenge manages to stupidly get their ship beached on a forested island, and the two hostages incidentally escape. Jim is revealed to be actually a woman who can talk and who has been hiding their (the series throughout uses the gender-neutral pronoun in the case of Jim) identity with a false nose and hair. Jim is a mercenary who has a bounty on their head, and Oluwande had known all of this and had helped Jim escape onto the ship.
Meanwhile, Stede and two of his men go into the forest looking for their hostages and meet with a villainous-looking pirate who has taken hold of their possession. The three men manage to pull off a negotiation, though, and escape to their ship with the two English hostages before anything goes too wrong. Next, they set out for the Republic of Pirates, a safe haven for pirates, in order to try and sell the hostages. As Stede is continuously haunted by the memory of having killed naval officer Nigel, he decides to stop indulging in violence and instead be a “Gentleman Pirate” who “kills with kindness”.
As they reach the harbor and set about trying to sell the Englishmen, they reach a tavern owned by Spanish Jackie, a notorious woman known for her gruesome piracy. The bounty set on Jim’s head was actually for having killed Jackie’s favorite husband, but despite Oluwande’s persuasion, Jim enters the tavern and then the dead husband’s shrine in order to retrieve their family dagger. The villainous-looking pirate earlier seen is back to meet Stede in the tavern. He introduces himself as Izzy Hands and says that his captain is looking to meet with Stede, but he purposefully does not reveal who his captain is. Stede turns down the offer and instead tries to make a deal with the bartender, who tricks him and his crew into the hands of the Spanish navy.
Just as Stede is about to be executed for being a pirate, the ship is attacked by another pirate ship, and the entire crew is saved from death. It is revealed that it is the legendary pirate Blackbeard who has come to their rescue, and that Izzy is his first mate.
After coming up with a joint plan of escape together, Blackbeard, whose real name is Ed Teach, and Stede soon become good friends, and the notorious pirate reveals to him that he is rather bored with his life as a feared killer. Instead, he shows an interest in the fine clothes and books on Stede’s ship and in the cutleries and mannerisms of “civilized” society. After raiding a ship, they find an invitation to a French high-society party, which Stede wants to avoid, but Blackbeard is interested in going to. They decide to go anyway, disguised as the invited aristocrat and his accountant, with Blackbeard dressed as the accountant.
At first, he is able to blend into the party with his jokes and humor, but things turn wry while having dinner. Blackbeard gets confused with the cutlery and is ridiculed by the aristocrats for it; he can take it no longer and leaves the scene, wanting to get his revenge with his gun. But Stede stops him and deals with high society in their own way—by revealing their dirty secrets to one another.
Over the next few weeks, the two men grow even closer as Stede now learns to duel with Blackbeard. But Izzy Hands is very unhappy with this growing relationship, for he believes that Blackbeard is growing less violent in such company, and he asks his captain to get back to his former self and murder Stede during a raid. It seems Blackbeard is also approving of the plan as he readies to kill his unsuspecting host.
Why Does Blackbeard Not Kill Stede?
Blackbeard had earlier talked of an experience where he saw the mythical Kraken come out of the water and kill his father. He had also shown Stede and his crew the visual trickeries that he uses to intimidate his foes. Aiming to pick up the skill, Stede and his crew prepare a similar act for Blackbeard, and they use the sounds and shadowy tentacles of the Kraken as part of it.
As Blackbeard seems to be in two minds over murdering Stede, he sees this act with the Kraken and is scared to bits. He soon reveals to Stede that it was not the Kraken that had killed his abusive father but himself, and that the act had reminded him of that memory. He also reveals his now-abandoned plan to kill Stede, but the latter forgives him and asks to be his friend. Soon, on the deck, Izzy challenges Stede to a duel, and when the captain wins the challenge in a roundabout manner, Izzy is banished from the Revenge. He now goes to see Spanish Jackie to cook up some plans for retribution.
Sometime later, the crew is in dire need of oranges and stops at a small pastoral town. When Jim, Oluwande, and most of the other crewmates go in search of the fruit, they come across a knife-throwing nun to whom Jim is seemingly related to. The town had actually been the native place of Jim, where they had been born and where their father had been mercilessly killed by a gang. It was the nun who had trained them after that, and now she once again encourages Jim to go out and seek personal revenge. Jim agrees to do so and leaves the crew of Revenge, despite their budding romance with Oluwande.
All this time, Stede and Blackbeard, accompanied by Lucius, had gone out on a treasure hunt based on a shoddy map, only to cheer up Blackbeard’s bad and bored mood. Although Blackbeard is very unimpressed by this meaningless activity, Lucius tells him that Stede has been doing this for his sake, and the pirate now fakes encouragement and joy. The map ultimately leads them only to a petrified orange, though, but Stede seems to be almost overjoyed with it as they return to the ship.
Some nights later, an old friend of Blackbeard’s, Calico Jack, shows up in a small boat and starts to wreak friendly havoc on the ship after coming aboard. He is a drunkard whose crew has deserted him after a mutiny, and now he wants to get back to the old days of merrymaking with his old friend. Blackbeard entertains his ideas as well, as the two drink incessantly, fire cannons at furniture, and destroy glass bottles with a whip. Jack seems wary of Stede, though, who has been expressing a sense of jealousy since Blackbeard now spends more time with Jack and tells him more about their earlier revelries, which included sexual proximity as well. Stede plays it down, saying that he has nothing to do with Ed’s (Stede calls Blackbeard by his real name by now) past, but is angered beyond limit when Calico Jack destroys more things on his ship and even kills Buttons’ seagull friend with his whip, and the captain orders Jack to leave.
While leaving, Jack encourages Blackbeard to go with him, and the latter agrees. As the two row away onto a small island far from the ship, Jack reveals that Izzy had sent him to take Blackbeard away from the Revenge, which is soon to be attacked by the English Navy. The man is understandably livid when he learns of this ploy and abandons Calico to be killed by the British cannon strikes. He swims back to the Revenge as the English Navy arrives and captures all of them onboard. The English are headed by Chauncy Badminton, twin brother of Nigel, who is investigating rumors that Stede has killed his brother.
The truth soon gets out, and the naval officer orders Stede and Blackbeard to be executed by gunfire. Just as they are about to be killed, Blackbeard claims an Act of Grace for both of them. This means that the two pirates would be spared their lives if they agreed to give up their misdeeds and instead work for the English Navy against the Spanish. The two men are then sent to a privateering academy, where they tell each other of the happiness they feel in each other’s company and share a romantic kiss. Ed, who has now shaved off his notorious black beard, tells Stede of a plan to escape to their ship, where they want to spend their lives together.
Stede follows the plan accordingly, but it is interrupted by Chauncy, who trips over and shoots himself dead while trying to attack Stede, and Stede once again has to live with another death on his hands. When Ed goes over to their purported meeting point, he does not find Stede there; he waits for a long time and then ultimately returns to the Revenge. Meanwhile, shocked by all the sudden incidents and also knowing that he has been declared dead, Stede decides to go back to his house and family.
Both Stede and Blackbeard are characters haunted by their own pasts, and this is what draws them to each other. Stede had a rough childhood where he was bullied by friends and also by his emotionally-abusive father for having been too ‘delicate’ and ‘soft-hearted,’ for he found comfort in picking flowers rather than in hunting animals and getting his hands bloodied. He is chased by the ghosts of his failures, and, more so, by people calling him a failure all through life. The truth of the fact is, Stede has never been able to find his belonging anywhere, he has always felt like an outsider—in his childhood, after his marriage which was also fixed by his father, and even after having kids; and this is what had pushed him towards piracy.
On the other side, Ed’s memories of childhood are of his mother showing him rich and fancy clothes which they clearly cannot own as they belong to the working class, and of his drunk father beating his mother. Ed had learned lessons about class difference and violence at that very young age, which pushed him towards piracy, for a completely different reason. While one was trying to find his space in the world, another was trying to establish his domination over this world. When these two finally come together, they gradually grow closer, sharing things with each other that they never did before. Blackbeard is unable to kill Stede because he finds a true friend in him, but this gradually takes the two men on the course of love.
‘Our Flag Means Death’ Season 1: Ending Explained – Does Stede And Ed Get To Unite?
Returning home is not quite the experience that Stede had expected it to be. He finds his wife, Mary, living a happy life as a widowed painter. She has made a name for herself and has also got a new lover in Doug, her painting instructor. Understandably, she is not excited to see her husband back, and struggles to share a bed with someone else again. Their children are not happy to see their father either. The young son does not even recognize Stede. He finally gets some attention at the local pub, telling stories of his adventures and experiences, and in a drunken state, he goes to an exhibition of Mary’s paintings and messes it up.
That night, Mary plans to kill her husband with a skewer, but fails to do so as he wakes up in time. The couple then have an intense discussion about their incompatibility, and they discuss love like two friends. Stede realizes that he loves Ed. He tells Mary about him, and Mary happily hugs him like a true supporter and friend. Meanwhile, on Revenge, Ed had been terribly sad and moping around, having been away from his lover. Izzy is again very critical of his actions and also threatens him.
One evening, Ed has a very sudden change of heart and decides to bring back his Blackbeard-self. He coldly pushes Lucius into the ocean, killing him, and then smears his eyes and cheeks with black paint. Ecstatic at the return of his true leader, Izzy and his crew empty out the ship and also abandon most of the crew on a small island. In his private chamber, Blackbeard continues to weep for his lover, but with his formidable outward appearance back, he sets sail on new adventures under his own new flag.
Back in the town, Stede realizes how selfish he has been and now wants to relieve Mary of her duties as a wife and stages a plan where he will fake his death. With the help of his family and Mary’s friend Evelyn, he executes the plan to perfection, where a corpse made to look like him lies on the street while the real Stede rides away on a carriage. He then sets out on the sea to return to his lover, Ed, and to his ship, but only finds a small island with most of his crew abandoned on it.
It is most possible that it was Ed’s love for Stede, and the following frustration of not being able to be with him that pushed him towards making the switch back to his violent self. The man had earlier turned compassionate and friendly in the company of Stede, and now, without his friend by his side, he finds it difficult to continue. Also spurred by the words of Izzy, Ed decides to take up action in his own hands once again, and transforms himself back to the feared pirate.
What To Look Forward To In ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Season 2?
Although a second season of “Our Flag Means Death” has not been officially renewed, the makers have clearly stated their interest in continuing the series, and there are plenty of things to look forward to in that case. First and foremost, it would be the romantic or friendship arc of Stede and Blackbeard that continues, and especially their reaction to meeting each other again. How Stede gets his crew back will also be interesting, for everyone except Jim (who had returned to the ship after having settled their personal score) and Frenchie had been abandoned on the island. These two are taken away as part of Blackbeard’s new crew.
Whether Stede’s family makes any more appearances or if they are truly tied off from the man’s life now is also something to be looked at. Overall, “Our Flag Means Death” has kept the basic history of its true characters in sync with reality, and added a colorful array of narrative to it, a narrative which is not always totally convincing, but one that is fresh and pretty enjoyable. How it continues to draw a socially aware painting of fiction over a backdrop of facts is what is most interesting to look forward to.
“Our Flag Means Death” is a Period Comedy Drama Series created by David Jenkins.