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‘Our Flag Means Death’ Just Delivered a Mortal Blow to Queerbaiting

"It's not bromantic, it's ROMANTIC."

Taika Waititi as Blackbeard shares tea with Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet on 'Our Flag Means Death'

For the whole of its March 2022 run, the cast and creatives behind HBO’s brilliant pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death have said they were telling a love story. Fans—queer and otherwise—hopped on board with increasing excitement as the series progressed and representation deepened. The gorgeously inclusive crew served up LGBTQIA+ relationships as well as a nuanced nonbinary pirate, alongside jabs at racism, sexism, colonialism, and general Georgian English buffoonery. And so, armed with hope from this promising set-up, we waited with bated breath to see whether we were being strung along by the primary queer pairing of the show, or if Our Flag Means Death was indeed a love story.

At Our Flag Means Death’s heart lay the developing bond between “co-captains” Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi). They were portrayed in a classic opposites-to-lovers style, a slow-burn affection and attraction sprung from finding delight in a partner who is your obverse. But queer fans have been let down so many times by paltry representation that it was difficult to believe that Our Flag Means Death would actually deliver on where it seemed to be going. All too often we’ve been made to subsist on subtextual scraps, “first gay characters” in major properties presented out-of-focus in the background, much ado about “bromance,” or creatives stating after the fact that they were telling a queer love story all along—we just didn’t get to see it affirmed or spoken. At their worst, some properties still resort to queerbaiting: giving slight suggestive nods to popular fandom “ships” or sexuality as though acknowledgment were the same as actualization, or centering promotions and press around a charged pairing that the show or movie never intends to make canon.

So imagine our profound relief when the last two episodes of Our Flag Means Death blew these rickety old standards out of the water. It turned out that they had, in fact, been crafting a love story. It also happens to be proudly queer. “I’m very proud of this romantic comedy we made,” star and producer Taika Waititi wrote on Twitter post-finale, attaching a fan-made video of Stede and Ed’s relationship. “Very proud. It’s not ‘bromantic’, it’s ROMANTIC.”

***Spoilers ahead for season one of Our Flag Means Death***

In episode 9, “Act of Grace,” Blackbeard is desperate to save Stede from execution at the hands of the British navy. He ends up volunteering to serve King George as a privateer for ten years if it means sparing Stede’s life. The two go to a sort of jokey pirate re-training camp, where Blackbeard is happy to become “Ed,” giving up his trademark beard and considering a future with Stede far different than the violent and reckless life he lead before. “It’s kinda nice just to take a load off. Just to … Just to be Edward,” Ed tells Stede as they sit alone together on a beach. “I don’t know if I wanna go back to the old days.”

“Suppose what I’m saying is that I … Right now, I just wanna do what makes Ed happy,” Ed continues, to which Stede gently inquires: “And what makes Ed happy?”

Then came a moment that caused me to actually, audibly clap in the middle of my living room. Ed works through his thoughts:

These past few weeks … have been … the most fun I’ve had in ages, years. Maybe ever. So … So, uh, I reckon what makes Ed happy … is …. Well, that’s, uh, that’s … you.

Ed kisses Stede, an action both impulsive and tender. Stede seems to not be expecting the kiss but he welcomes and returns it joyfully. When they draw back, Stede says, “You make Stede happy,” and just like that, the love story we were promised comes to fruition. All of the coy winks, longing gazes, sword fights as stand-ins for love scenes, and outside characters observing Stede and Ed’s burgeoning romance weren’t a tease—they were the build-up to earn this perfect moment. (“This is happening,” declared Stede’s right-hand man Lucius as he watched Stede and Ed flirt in episode 7, an episode titled “This Is Happening.” We should have fully believed Our Flag Means Death then.)

The entire scene was one of the most earnestly romantic exchanges I’ve seen onscreen. All kudos are due to showrunner, creator, and writer David Jenkins, who said he rewrote the scene “about a dozen times.” It’s played with care and sweetness by longtime friends Darby and Waititi, who balance the through-line of humor by ensuring that nothing about their characters’ heartfelt declarations or the kiss comes off as a joke. Stede and Ed in love isn’t a punchline. It’s the show’s payoff.

The thrilled and exuberant reactions to Our Flag Means Death’s conclusion on social media—which have been taking the form of all-caps key-smashing and incredulous exclamations, as well as an explosion of lovely fan art and fiction—are testament to how much realized representation means to so many. The sheer levels of astonishment also demonstrate how frequently we’ve been burned before, made to settle for crumbs or to suffer with buried gays or an assertion, as some historians are wont to do, that people who appear very much in love are just extremely good friends.

Perhaps the best part about the presentation of queer love here is how natural and easily accepted it is. By its very existence the show may be making a political statement in our world, but within the quasi-historical universe of Our Flag Means Death, being queer is just what you are. No one is hand-wringing about their sexuality or treated differently because of it. The characters’ sense of internal conflict comes from not knowing what path they want to take through life, not who they want to walk through it with.

It’s true that LGBTQIA+ representation on television has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. This is hardly the first show to feature queer characters kissing, nor even the first to show queer 18th century mariners kissing (I see you, Black Sails). But the difference here is that Our Flag Means Death openly tipped its tricorn hat at the baiting behavior we’ve seen before only to flip the script and actually be queer. It’s subversive in plain sight, a miraculous new invention. On the surface, at first, it seemed to be a wacky slapstick pirate comedy starring some well-known comedians, and it concluded as a much-needed love story for our era.

Not everything is sunshine and coconuts in the end, of course, because being human is difficult, and this “comedy” series is also capable of intense and devastating melodrama. The season finale takes us in new and sometimes heartbreaking directions; as one Twitter user said above, the experience of watching was both healing and also caused “violent psychic death.” Such is the genius of a show that can make catastrophically deep observations about the nature of lost love in the same episode that features a laugh-out-loud funny and absurd caper involving a big cat attack and a body crushed by a falling piano. The many tones of Our Flag Means Death are masterfully played, but they may not be for everyone. That’s just fine. Those who it’s for have found it, and those who need it will discover it in the future. Meanwhile, every other property and studio that baited audiences in the past is officially on notice. We’re only here for love stories now.

(images: HBO Max)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.