Kindness is not a word we would generally use about a show that involves pirates hacking off hands, disemboweling their enemies, and keeping a tank full of severed noses. No matter what Disney might try to sell us when we’re on vacation, the world of pirates was horrific and brutal. (I’m glad they no longer have men chasing women through Pirates of the Caribbean, but are we really supposed to ignore the fact that the entire town is on fire?)
But in talking about HBO Max pirate show Our Flag Means Death, actor Con O’Neill, who plays Blackbeard’s first mate Izzy, explained that he thinks the show has been such a hit because it is a show that prioritizes kindness. “I’ve done a lot of shows,” he shared with a live audience in August, “And when we were shooting this, it felt kind.”
“I think that’s why it landed. Because I think people embrace kindness.”
It’s undeniable that Our Flag Means Death is not your typical pirate show. Lead Rhys Darby plays Stede Bonnet as a foppy, fancy gentleman who thinks he wants to be Blackbeard, but is completely unequipped to do so. Meanwhile excutive producer Taika Waititi plays the tattooed, leather-clad Blackbeard as a soft-spoken loner who just wants to find peace for himself and maybe a nice linen outfit.
The series is billed as a comedy, and with that central odd couple set up, it clearly is. But below the surface Our Flag Means Death is also a show about people trapped in structures that dehumanize them.
Stede and his wife are forced to marry total strangers because that’s what the landed folk do. Blackbeard is trapped in memories of his youth and the expectations of others to be a pirate. Izzy clearly wants to be his “first mate” in a whole different way, but isn’t able to even conceive of the possibility that he is gay. When asked at the convention what kind of song his character would sing if the show ever did a musical episode, O’Neill said, “I think anything Izzy would ever sing would have to be tragic. I would kind of lean towards Freddie Mercury 'Who Wants to Live Forever.’" It absolutely fits; his story is that sad.
Even some of the various people Stede and company meet prove to be imprisoned, like the boat of French aristocrats whose catty put downs and ridiculous get-ups leave them admitting how bored they are, or Blackbeard’s old friend Calico Jack (Will Arnett), who is still the same drunk asshole he was when they were just starting out, despite how it’s ruined his life.
For as terrible as he is as a vicious mercenary, Stede refuses to live on other people’s terms, no matter what that means for his own life. Likewise, he and his crew allow people to be who they are, no matter what social conventions might otherwise dictate. And those choices affect others: Blackbeard sees the possibility of a real life for himself; Stede’s wife Mary finds a better life; Izzy says things he doesn’t even know are inside him. And the French rip one another to pieces.
Ultimately that’s the real genius of matching stories of acceptance and friendship with a pirate show: it’s true, a group of violent mercenaries can destroy a town. But kindness is much more dangerous. Give it time, and its presence can bring down a whole society.
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