Our Flag Means Death review: a terrific pirate comedy to binge — eventually
It’s easy to watch HBO Max pirate comedy.
Our flag means death and immediately enters it as “Taika Waititi’s latest project.” Waititi, Director Thor: RagnarokWhat are we doing in the shadows as well as Hunting for wild people, the show’s executive producer starred in it and directed the pilot. And this pilot, in particular, seems incredibly close to the version. What are we doing in the shadows, with pirates instead of vampires? The humor built around a foppish, pretentious pirate captain and his crew of weirdos and misfits fits one of Waititi’s favorite themes. The slightly tragic, often hilarious conflict between how people present themselves and everyone else sees them. Like almost all of his best jokes, he is wholly deadpan and, at the same time, incredibly ridiculous.
But ultimately, the series is more of a vision from the creator,
Showrunner and writer David Jenkins. And with that setup, he’s taking the series in directions that people expecting Waititi comedy might not predict – trends. That make the show truly memorable and delightful. And not just the light, a one-shot sitcom that teases early episodes. Waititi is undoubtedly no stranger to heartfelt beats or big dramas. But the more the show builds throughout its 10-episode season. The more a completely different, distinctive voice comes out of it. That’s why it might be a good idea to skip the premiere and wait a week before watching it. Until enough shows are available so you can watch it and get a better idea. What really makes a show worth investing in?
It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with the show’s opening episodes,
Which introduces “gentleman pirate” Steed Bonnet and his crew and sets all the virtual machines in motion. Steve, played by Rhys Darby (Waititi’s longtime partner and head of “werewolves, not foul-mouthed” pack in What are we doing in the shadows), was the actual owner of the 18th-century plantation who abandoned his family, commissioned a ship, and declared himself a pirate captain despite his complete lack of seafaring experience. Darby plays out his incompetence ultimately: His version of Stead is a peppy, prim, soft-spoken boy who can’t handle weapons, sail, or command. He’s more suited to garden parties and lace shopping than boarding or weathering storms. And it shows in everything he says and does.
His team doubts him at best, but they’re not exactly killer material either:
The nudist cannibal’s Buttons (TrainspottingEwen Bremner), Frenchy’s apathetic lutenist (in the earth Joel Fry), grinning oaf John Feeney (Game of ThronesHodor, Christian Nairn), bumbling slob Swede (Nat Faxon) and mutiny wannabe Black Pete (Matthew Maher). Only the quiet Oluvande (Samson Caio) and the mute knife enthusiast Jim (Vico Ortiz) seem competent and capable. Or at least willing to put up with the situation of being paid regularly and not having to risk their lives on a real ship. Ship battles.
But with so many characters to introduce,
The pilot, in particular, is light-hearted and goofy. Mostly centered around Stede luring his reluctant crew into a competition to sew the best pirate flag for the ship. And the opening doesn’t say much about what happens next when Stede meets the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Waititi in a startling, outstanding performance). The show follows Stede’s life parameters broad enough that his Wikipedia page could be considered a series of major spoilers. But what’s missing from the history books is what drove Steed and Blackbeard’s relationship. And that’s what Jenkins wants to make up for in the series. Once this process starts, Our flag means death completely finds its foundation. Its heart, and the drama behind all the wacky characters and straight-forward comic banter.
The show introduces Blackbeard Waititi early on,
Along with initial hints at other elements that would become important to the big picture. Including Stead’s feelings for his wife Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), Jim’s secrets and backstory, and Black Pete’s fan desire. Be perceived as a real pirate. But the pieces don’t fully add up until around episode 4 when Jenkins starts to reveal his big intentions. Prior to that, the series is a perfectly amiable collection of absurdist sets built around cuddly guest stars like Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen as a pair of bar owners or Rory Kinnear as the stuffy British Navy. It has a lot of Waititi-style humor: one type of character is oblivious, smug, and full of the mythology of their own, and the other type is sloppy, weird, and prone to failing upwards.
However, when the setup is finally completed.
Our flag means death becomes much more tender: a story about identity and friendship, about how difficult it is for any person to understand who they really are when being alone and in the company of other people has its own pitfalls and distractions. Throughout its ten critically acclaimed episodes, Jenkins’ show never loses its poignancy of slapstick or low-brow humor – Bremner proudly running around bare-assed, spitting insults in an almost impenetrable raised Scottish accent, is a joke that continues to become more and more popular. More throughout the show. But the story finds natural resonance when you look at how people romanticize their place in the world and miss out on the connections they might make in reality. Relationships are a constant negotiation as people’s needs and desires constantly change how they grow.
And in particular, Darby and Waititi’s performances are getting better and more detailed as the show progresses.
Steve is a one-note male joke in the opening episodes, a repetitive part that gets annoying early on. It’s no doubt by design, but its single-minded, deliberate superficiality doesn’t make it any less superficial. And Blackbeard, too, starts more with a legend than a man. However, once the show moves into deeper waters, both men pour so much charm and nuance into these characters that the series is worth watching just to see how they interact. Waititi has always been as attractive on-screen as he is behind the camera, but here, as someone who continues to show new layers in every episode, he is incredibly compelling and captivating.
Obviously, you can watch the introductory episodes.
Our flag means death at startup and then come back later to learn more. But there’s so much content these days, and it’s so easy to start a show and then lose sight of it among all the other competition – especially one that starts off as an episodic and comedy series like this one, with no apparent mystery that makes for a viewing destination. And with a series that relies so heavily on turning early jokes into later drama and piecing together big emotions from small beginnings, the overeating experience is likely to be a lot more compelling. Maybe give Our flag means death pass this week. And then look out for when you have a chance to get the full impact.
Episodes 1-3 of Our flag means death is currently streaming on HBO Max with two new episodes airing a week on Thursdays.