This review contains some spoilers for the first three episodes of Our Flag Means Death season two.
I’ve always loved pirates. I was in high school during the height of the Pirates of the Caribbean craze, and we spent many a movie night watching and rewatching the first movie, quoting our favorite lines, and for me, wondering what that feeling in the pit of my stomach was every time Keira Knightley was on screen (Spoiler – it was the GayTM).
I’m not sure why, but pirates have always felt inherently queer to me. Maybe it’s the adventure and the breaking of established societal rules. Maybe it’s the outfits. Whatever it is, you can count me in for most pirate media, especially when there are lady pirates. (RIP Black Sails; Justice for Eleanor Guthrie and Max!) Many of the pirate-themed movies and shows I’ve watched have hidden the queerness in subtext or blink-and-you-miss-it main text, so imagine my surprise and ensuing delight when Our Flag Means Death burst onto the scene last year with its overt queerness front and center.
I’ll admit, when the show was first pitched to me, I was wary, what with all the cis men, but honestly, Meg Jones Wall’s 10 queer reasons to watch sold me. Actually, if you’re here and you haven’t read that yet, go do it and then come back. Okay great. Season one of OFMD gave us multiple canon queer relationships and situationships, non-binary characters, and later-in-life coming out; and they did it so naturally and casually. And in a time when queer shows are getting canceled left and right, it feels really nice to have our little gay pirate family back. At the time of writing, Max has dropped the first three episodes of the season, and so far season two is darker and moodier than season one, but it’s also somehow gayer, funnier, and more vulnerable than ever before.
Previously on Our Flag Means Death, Stede Bonnet left his fancy pants life and family in favor of becoming a gentleman pirate. He found himself a motley crew (including personal fave, Jim, played by absolute smokeshow Vico Ortiz), pillaging and plundering ensued. He met the famed pirate Blackbeard, whose tough exterior protected the gooey marshmallow of a man inside named Edward Teach. The two fell in love and did a bunch of gay kissin’ until Stede returned home to his wife and children, thus ending their burgeoning relationship. What Ed didn’t know though, is that Stede’s wife Mary was a helluva lot happier with Stede gone, and since Stede was a helluva lot happier with Ed, he set back out in search of his crew and his man.
Season two opens with Stede and Ed each dealing with their breakup very differently. Stede, by dreaming of Ed and writing both real and imaginary love letters to him; and Ed, ahem, Blackbeard, by crashing weddings and raiding every ship in sight. To be fair, who among us hasn’t embarked on a journey of pilfering and debauchery after losing the love of our life? This is relatable content is all I’m saying. Meanwhile, Blackbeard’s crew, which now includes Frenchie and Jim, are dealing with their captain’s recklessness by employing some Lena Luthor level compartmentalization just to make it through the violence of each day.
Ed is in serious pain with no way of knowing that Stede is doing everything in his power to get back to him, and everyone around him can only sit, watch, and follow orders. Everyone that is, except Izzy. The crew calls out his toxic relationship with Blackbeard while I’m over here yelling “IZZY IS IN LOVE WITH HIM, DAMMIT!” to anyone who will listen. He’s the only one who confronts Blackbeard about the vibes on the ship, and unfortunately, that does not go over well with the captain. Ed spends the majority of these first three episodes making his heartbreak everyone else’s problem, and while it’s dark and sometimes tough to watch, it’s also honest and real in a way that isn’t often shown with men on television.
Now, while Stede and Ed are the central relationship of the show, where Our Flag Means Death really shines is in its ensemble cast. And because I am nothing if not predictable, let’s start with Jim, shall we? After originally disguising themself as a man at the beginning of season one, Jim is now comfortably settled into their nonbinary identity. Their relationship with Olu was one of the most tender and vulnerable of last season, and though the two don’t reunite until episode three, Jim’s heart is still fully on their sleeve in other ways. They immediately comfort Fang one evening by retelling the story of Pinocchio, complete with character voices, just to make him smile. It’s an interaction that catches the eye of Archie, another member of Blackbeard’s crew. Archie and Jim share several adorable moments in these first three episodes, and I won’t spoil them for you, but I do hope we get many many more.
Leslie Jones returns as Spanish Jackie, and every word out of her mouth is ridiculous and hilarious. It’s the perfect role for her IMO. She and her 19 husbands add one more to their polycule, in the form of the Swede, in what ends up being a surprisingly entertaining subplot. In addition to Olu and Jim’s reunion, Black Pete and Lucius have a shocking reunion as well. And speaking of Olu, my favorite sweet boi continues to be sweet and earnest as he gets to know some fresh new faces.
Which. Brings. Me. To! Soup Bitch! Or is it Pirate Queen? Or maybe Soup Queen, as suggested by my friend Carla?? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Early in the first episode we meet a woman who runs a soup kiosk in the Republic of Pirates. Her humor is dry, her soup is delicious, and she gets a bit too much camera time for a passing NPC. Well surprise! She’s not! The woman our crew knows as Susan is actually the famous pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao, and she is a very real historical figure. Zheng’s claim to fame? Oh, just conquering China, no big deal.
The introduction of the pirate queen, her Auntie, and her ship called The Red Flag (lol) gave me some of my absolute favorite moments of the first three episodes. And don’t get me started on Ruibo Qian’s portrayal of Zheng Yi Sao. Catch me on bended knee swearing fealty to this woman who will tear down a man with her words AND her swords. It’s almost too much. Despite Auntie’s protests, Zheng has a sweet spot for Oluwande, which adorably catches him off-guard. Based on how episode three ends, I’m unclear on how much we’re going to see Zheng in the rest of the season, but I hope it’s a lot because I can see her quickly becoming a fan favorite.
*This is about to be a spoiler for episode three*
If you were worried that Stede and Ed would spend half the season apart, worry not! Episode three is heavy on Blackbeard introspection as we watch him come to terms with his own fear of being unlovable. It’s a fear that started with his father and grew over time until this most recent “evidence” of Stede leaving him. All he needs to do is (quite literally) wake up and see what’s been in front of his face this whole time. Stede isn’t evidence of Ed being unlovable; he’s evidence that for the first time, someone actually sees Ed and loves what they see.
At the end of the episode, we get one of the most romantic scenes I’ve seen in a very long time. I surprised even myself by how emotional I got. The scene is set to “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush — but because I’m a Black reality TV fan, I know it as the Maxwell song that was also the soundtrack to the most heart wrenching So You Think You Can Dance routine in history. But I digress. The scene is beautifully shot and beautifully acted, and it will live in my brain for a very long time.
If these three episodes are any indication of the full season, then we are in for a ride, folks. As always, my wish is for even more women and nonbinary characters to join the cast; and with the addition of Zheng Yi Sao, this writer has her fingers crossed for even more historical lady pirates to arrive. Anne Bonny, you up?