Our Flag Means Death's second season is now well underway, and with four episodes under our belts it's safe to say that the tone and theme of this season is dramatically different from that of the first. Stede and Ed are no longer the quirky will-they-won't-they odd couple, and instead are dealing with the fallout of their respective mistakes at the end of Season 1 with wildly mixed results. But beyond showcasing all sorts of interpersonal relationship drama, OFMD Season 2 is also going out of its way to offer levity in the face of such bleak stakes. It is, ostensibly, about toxicity (or, more specifically, toxic bosses), but it’s also interested in progressing characters through the muck and the mire of their own behavior and, just maybe, advancing them through these negative arcs in positive ways. Even if it takes literal magic to do it.
By Episode 4 ("Fun and Games"), Stede and Ed have been brought back together, and it's anything but a happy reunion for either of them. Ed, who spent the bulk of his time post-breakup making the lives of his crew both utterly miserable and deeply dangerous, is nearly killed and then exiled from the ship as punishment. But, instead of actually dying, he winds up in the "gravy bowl," a sort of purgatory between life and death where he's confronted with a vision of his old mentor who, more or less, pushes him to crawl his way back to the land of the living. Unfortunately for him, however, that's only half the battle -- the exile from the ship still stands and he finds himself lost on an island with only Stede (and, eventually, two old acquaintances from his past) for company.
These moments all culminate in the final gag-slash-message of the episode: Buttons, the crew's resident eccentric and a man who believes becoming a seagull is the only way to be with "the love of his life" (the sea), actually somehow does manage to transform into a seagull. In an otherwise dark episode, it's a surprise pivot to levity, but more importantly, it happens right in front of Ed, just as he explains, cynically, that "people don't change." Apparently they do, Blackbeard, and in the most literal way possible.
It's not exactly subtle, in terms of putting a point on the themes here, and one of the few times the show has jumped into full-on magical fantasy. Blackbeard is clearly inspired by the magic, and the beat is immediately followed by him and Stede having a moment where they seem to acquiesce to one another. It’s the briefest glimpse of their Season 1 selves, tentative, sure, but genuine; and it’s a beacon of hope for anyone who’s been hoping for a happy ending for the two of them. But that’s where things start to get complicated in an entirely different way.
Both Ed and Stede's orbits are riddled with collateral damage -- their crews are struggling, prior to this moment, and their relationship has been in shambles. They're both floundering around with about as much grace and finesse as a dying fish -- but at Buttons’ prompting, we learn that it might not be a hopeless endeavor. They're not just fumbling in the dark towards nothing. The ability to change is there, they'll just need to earn it -- though for them, that probably won't mean burning incense and completing some sort of esoteric ritual of animal transformation.
What's curious about this particular message, however, is the way it opens the show and the characters up to even more tension, and asks even more questions than it answers. By using a magical sight gag to get those wheels spinning, OFMD risks trivializing the fallout of both Ed and Stede’s toxic behavior with jokes and easy answers.
Blackbeard, perhaps more than any other character in this season thus far, has proven himself to be the ultimate toxic boss. He's maimed his second-in-command, Izzy Hands, multiple times over. While he and Stede are both off being entertained on the island, his crew is struggling with very literal post-traumatic stress from his abuse. This isn't a suggestion or a wink in the narrative, either, it's made absolutely explicit with flashbacks and dialogue. They can barely function and every act of kindness offered their way is met with near-violent suspicion. It is interesting, if bleak, to apply the 'people can change' message here, too, because it is all too obviously a two way street. Yes, people can become better, but they can also become much worse.
The kicker will, inevitably, be the way the rest of the season is able to drive these smaller nuances and ideas home. Our Flag Means Death is an irreverent comedy, and one that has never hesitated to play fast and loose with reality, but by grounding itself in hyper relevant themes like power, toxicity, and consequence, it maintains a sense of genuine stakes and gravity. However, in doing so, it also risks being reductive and cheeky with the very themes it seems to want to examine. Here's hoping the show isn't trying to punch too far above its weight class. People can change, certainly, but when and where does that change become something they've earned, rather than a magical undo button for the past?
Our Flag Means Death season 2 is off to a bizarre, dark, and fun start