Our flag means the campness of death is the key to its success

Our flag means death is a show about pirates and homosexuality which is also not a show about pirates and homosexuality. It’s full of the gunpowder, stabbing, and occasional bouts of scurvy you’d expect from your typical swashbuckling drama. Its central relationship features two middle-aged men with the emotional maturity of teenage lovers currently on track to check all the mandatory romantic comedy boxes. But what sets it apart from other shows swimming in the same waters is that it doesn’t care about mainstream genre or storytelling conventions – it instead uses them as unrestricted props to tell a love story. very particular in a very particular world.

That’s why a scene in which a grown man cries in a bathtub about having no friends after confessing to premeditated murder and identity theft isn’t played as either a downfall or a horrifying revelation. Instead, the legendary Blackbeard (Taika Waititi) resting his head against the outstretched hand of his victim, aristocrat-turned-pirate captain Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), is a moment of tender vulnerability that might bring some viewers to tears and others burst out laughing. . And if the show is recent seven week race as the most requested series and fervent calls from viewers for a second season (fortunately, HBO Max just announced the show’s renewal today) have something to do, it gives fans everything they wanted.

And all thanks to the most irreverent method that defies genre and convention: the camp.

No discussion of camp can avoid mentioning cultural theorist Susan Sontag’s seminal essay Camp Notes. And yet, even Sontag posits that camp is difficult to define, as it is neither meant to be pinpointed nor perceived indiscriminately. It’s a sensitivity. For many, this sensibility manifests itself most visibly in fashion statements and histrionic stories – drag queens on TV, big dresses at the Met Gala, gold jockstraps and sequins at Pride. He wears a peacock feather train to the DMV, or struts down the produce aisle like it’s a runway. It is ostentation, flamboyance and extravagance: in other words, a “weird aesthetic.”

According to this definition, the premise of Our flag means death has all the makings of a campy, slapstick game through the golden age of piracy, at least superficially. Stede Bonnet leaves his family and his cushy life to become the Gentleman Pirate. He “kills with kindness” and tells bedtime stories to his crew aboard a wooden ship with an open fireplace, while dressed in the 18th-century equivalent of a designer three-piece suit. His crew includes a man who basks in the moonlight in naked communion with seagulls and a musician terrified of cats. Stede sees piracy as theatrical, something playful and refined. His inherited wealth can take care of the need for plunder and his “people-positive management style” makes the threat of mutiny an afterthought. Of course, this MO only lasts until the “real” world comes in the form of British and Spanish ships with bloodsucking swords and life-ending weapons.

But camp is more than just a fashion statement or an exuberant personality. This is what Sontag calls “dethroning the serious”: not so much rejecting the serious outright or judging it by satire as finding pleasure in exposing the artifice behind it. Seriousness is worn like an ill-fitting but utterly fabulous tiara, a way of engaging with the world “in quotes”. And it serves as a private mode of identification for those who can recognize the device for what it is. He says, “I see you exactly as you see me, and we speak the same language.

In this regard, Stede is right: piracy in this world is itself a form of artifice. He has his own props of hyper-masculinity and hyper-violence, like jars filled with the pickled noses of defeated enemies. You can get passed through with a blade a number of times and survive as long as you grab it in your left side. It’s playing in an endless “theater of fear” until it becomes routine, exhausting and, worst of all, boring.

Rhys Darby in Our Flag Means Death

Rhys Darby in Our flag means death
Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

When Blackbeard meets Stede, he is held captive by his own reputation; he’s the conductor of the city’s oldest Broadway show, too successful to leave but too jaded to continue. Of course, he still mutilates and loots and cuts off toes for fun. But he is also a solitary man who longs to get away from the long shadow of his violent personality. He’s in love with Stede’s style and the joy he brings to a job he’d retire from earlier if retirement was a thing pirates did. So, after an impromptu test of identity swapping, they strike a deal: Blackbeard teaches Stede how to be a pirate, and Stede shows Blackbeard how to be a gentleman.

What follows is a romance that grows in the tension between the theatrics of camp and the ever-looming threat of action with fatal consequences. And in the show’s deft shifts between high camp and dark comedy, it makes clear what will never be a downfall or punished for drama: experiencing life on the fringes.

Our flag means death is ahistorical in the sense that Blackbeard is a Polynesian Jew, and the Nigerian prince scams and pyramid schemes were born in the flames of a crashed party boat. Although this is a less dangerously bigoted world, isn’t it a race- or gender blind. With a main cast half made up of people of color and actors allowed to perform in their own accent, racism is directly exposed and showcased in a way that is not performative but in line with the world of series. . Fans immersed themselves in biracial readings in the character of Blackbeard. When Jim (Vico Ortiz) turns out to be non-binary, the crew accosts him over lunch and quickly moves on, referring to them by their chosen name and pronouns. There’s a clear intentionality and care in the way the show approaches and treats its characters and ensemble cast – there are no awkward gestures to inclusivity, or tokens tossed down the wishing well. of representation. Instead, the relationships between the crew form the backbone of the show, strong and serious in a way that can only come with fill the writers room with people who belong to the communities from which these characters come.

Homosexuality is normalized in this version of the high seas, because it’s actually reflective of what it might have been at the time. The three central romantic relationships of the series are homosexual and two are with people of color. But even with this abundance, every instance of queer intimacy still seems miraculous. For fans accustomed to seeing themselves only obliquely through on-screen characters, baited watching shows via snippets of lingering hand touches and vaguely platonic lines, even one of the show’s most romantic scenes could feel like a trap for another bromance. The scene in question: when Stede slips a piece of red silk that Blackbeard has worn since childhood in his breast pocket and tells him that he wears many beautiful things, while looking into his eyes, bathed in the light of the full moon and with Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 5” in the background.

But for once, the strangeness of this moment is not a red herring. Instead, the country character of the show only reinforces the scintillating sincerity in otherwise absurd circumstances. Because when the artifice of the camp is finally stripped, the novel of Our flag means death becomes all the more raw.

When Stede and Ed finally kiss, it’s one of the least dramatic scenes in the entire series. During the penultimate episode of the first season, they are both physically and nominally stripped of their roles as pirates and gentlemen, having surrendered to the British to save Stede’s life. There is no artifice, no costumes or staging. Now they meet as two people with new names and lives in the making. And as with all intimate scenes on the show, there are no fireworks or power ballads, just a serene calm that feels like a whiff of relief. It’s as real as fiction can get, and it’s undeniably love.

Except, since this isn’t an old romantic comedy, the show doesn’t end there. Because Stede doesn’t even know it’s love. It’s not until he ditches Ed on what is essentially their honeymoon to reconcile with his wife Mary that she helps him understand (in an equally intimate scene) that every interaction between the two captains was building the romantic basis of what makes their relationship so captivating. But as Stede finally stripped himself of the last of his tricks, Ed leaned in all the way in the protective but ill-fitting monstrosity costume that’s come to be expected of him. He slathered black makeup on his eyes and hairless face, emptied the ship and Stede’s crew, and resumed business as usual with just a little more drinking and crying. And now the question is whether they will be able to find each other again.

The camp is the tool by which Our flag means death signals what should be taken seriously. Because mostly, as Sontag noted, camp is a “tender feeling.” It’s not the show or the burlesque pageantry that is at the heart of the series. Really, OFMD is having the courage to build a life with people who see you and celebrate you for who you are and who you want to be, even when you’re told it’s impossible. It’s about building a world on the fringes as endless as the sea. In other words, it’s a show about love and the pursuit of happiness, with a heavy side of homoerotic stabbing. And isn’t that a story worth seeing more?

James C. Tibbs