Con O'Neill sings as Izzy Hands on 'Our Flag Means Death' season 2
(Max)

Is It Just Me or Are We All in Love with Izzy Hands on ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Now? 

***Spoiler warning for season 2 of Our Flag Means Death and CW for mention of suicide***

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As I write this, Our Flag Means Death is in the thick of the pirate romcom’s second season with only the finale episode to be aired. And like many members of the OFMD fandom, I find myself in a curious position.

I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but at some point I sat up in bed in a cold sweat and thought, well shit.

I really care about Izzy Hands.

This is not to say I didn’t care about Blackbeard’s loyal first mate at all in season one; actor Con O’Neill’s deft performance has always been fun to watch, even when Izzy was a sneering stormcloud pushing the plot toward disaster like the best kind of Shakespearean villain. But that’s where it ended for me.

Was there a delicious, unspoken, tragic whiff of unrequited love whenever Izzy shared a scene with Blackbeard? Was he extremely watchable while tormenting the crew like a seafaring middle manager drunk on power and possibly repression? (That “ooooh, daddy” bit … whole tomes could be written about that single line.) Of course, but I was entirely focused on the blooming romance between the two leads, Ed Teach a.k.a Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, has been thoroughly documented. I didn’t have time to devote to a side character that was only one part of a hugely talented ensemble. 

When it came to Izzy Hands, I was Switzerland, and I may have been in the minority. He was a polarizing character in my corner of the world, where fannish friends seemed to either love him with all their heart or spit on the ground at the mention of his name. Villains are like that. And although there is plenty of debate over Izzy’s motives, you have to admit: the guy did betray our heroes to the British. Dickhead move, as Ed might say. Pretty standard villainy.

But season two Izzy? I would lay down my life for him.

This season of Our Flag is all about transformation: for better; for worse; for survival; as self-care; into a seagull—you get the picture. And like many of the characters, Izzy Hands seizes the chance to reinvent himself. It begins early on when Izzy tells Ed he loves him and is worried about him, making what was previously unsaid much clearer. This gives the audience a chance to feel a twinge of empathy for Izzy, if they haven’t already. We have also fallen in love with Taika Waititi’s beautiful, hilarious, and troubled Ed over the course of the show, so we know what Izzy’s going through. 

After being shot by Ed and losing his leg, things look hopeless for the Revenge’s first mate. The show does some clever trickery, but the choice to show on camera that Izzy tried to kill himself and lived is, to me, very important. On any other show, this would be a point of no return for a character like Izzy. If they were a queer character to boot? They would be doomed. 

But Izzy survives.

What follows is a touching scene in which the traumatized crew put aside their own issues to focus on helping Izzy with his. When Izzy discovers the new wooden leg they’ve fashioned for him out of the mangled remains of the ship’s figurehead, he is moved to tears. And so the fuck was I. His rebirth is marked by becoming the new figurehead, smiling with real tenderness at the crew’s accompanying note: For our new unicorn. For a character who previously only smiled with lethal intent or malicious horniness, this is a turning point.

I have to believe that Izzy’s acceptance of the unicorn mantle deliberately positions him as a man on the cusp of coming to terms with himself—and his queerness—for the first time in his life. Unicorns are not just mythical creatures with ties to virginity; they are also a symbol of queer pride. (Also a slang term for bisexuals who are up for no-strings threesomes but … well, who am I to say where Izzy’s arc will end up? Steddyhands real, whisper the Izzy stans who believe in a Stede/Ed/Izzy OT3. I don’t know if I would go that far, myself, but if it’s real in their hearts, who am I to judge? Izzy teaches Stede as much when he convinces him to get rid of his “cursed” red coat.) 

Curiously, Izzy is one of the few characters who has not changed their outward appearance much this season. The difference in Stede’s wardrobe is obvious, now that he’s wearing the humble threads of the newly destitute, and Ed swaps his leathers for various costume changes at different points. But Izzy remains in his black-on-black, even as internally, his character undergoes a dramatic shift. 

Very similar to, say, how an older queer person might come out later in life.

He flirts with Lucius instead of grumpily being the target of mocking flirtation; he agrees to train Stede in a pirate skill bootcamp; he generally seems more at ease with himself. (He’s also kind of drunk a lot of the time, but if I was in 1717 and had no medication to treat my massive injury, I would be too.) Izzy’s transformation peaks in the season’s penultimate episode, when he dons drag makeup and sings a love ballad for the crew to slow-dance to. 

This is a man who struggled to accept a comforting hug in the first episode of this season. Now he’s kissing the back of Wee John’s hand and performing a literal act of love for the crew that have adopted him as their mascot. Yeah, he’s an asshole, but he’s their asshole, as Vico Ortiz’s Jim so eloquently puts it. We love a found family, it’s true. It doesn’t hurt that Con O’Neill’s voice, which some have likened to a sword scraping over a gravestone at midnight, is beautiful in song, a real testament to his award-winning career in musical theater. How can you not love a man who sings like that? 

Izzy’s sea change is undoubtedly a queer experience. He “comes out” in a way that many middle-aged queer people might be familiar with: he comes into his own and for his own good. He’s doing it for himself.

Izzy isn’t doing this for Ed or anyone else. In fact, Izzy is clearly supportive of Ed and Stede’s burgeoning relationship. The tightrope walk that Con O’Neill does in those moments—fond, proud, protective, a tinge of wistfulness—is fascinating as it is validating. As a queer person who didn’t fully accept myself until later in life, this performance is a lifeline. How many characters are there that portray this specific journey? With this much humanity and this much care? 

I’m an elder millennial who grew up in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, when queerness was only mentioned in the context of death and suffering. Izzy, as played by the 57-year-old Con O’Neill, is a symbol for those who came of age at the worst of it. And yet, despite everything—he lives, he fights, he thrives. He is hurt but he’s not dead yet. If that’s not the queer experience, what is? 

I am grateful that this show is committed to showing queerness in as many forms as possible, including one that so closely mirrors mine. I am blown away by this compelling character’s arc and how quickly I’ve changed from an Izzy acknowledger to an Izzy believer. I cannot take my eyes off this old man, and I don’t plan to. 

TJ Alexander is the author of several acclaimed trans and nonbinary romance novels. Their next book, Second Chances in New Port Stephen, is about a trans man reconnecting with his high school boyfriend as they approach forty. It’s available now for preorder.

(image: Max)


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