Are pirates SFF-nal? They are fantastic, for sure, in the sense that the figure of the pirate has from the moment of its emergence attracted audience fantasies—libidinal fantasies; fantasies of freedom; of violence; of travel; of profligate non-heritable riches. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines “fantasy” very broadly as “fiction about the impossible.” And “fiction about the impossible” works fine as a descriptor of the alt-hist, absurdist-speculative, workplace pirate romance Our Flag Means Death.  It will do very well in that way.
OFMD is not high fantasy, which requires a fully realized secondary world. The show’s plot is tethered at varying distances to Atlantic seagoing history during the Golden Age of Piracy, and a brief title card at the start of the first episode shows us the date “1717,” teasing a factual timeline for the events to follow. But Our Flag Means Death operates as low, or low-fi, fantasy, where the fantastic—or impossible—regularly exerts brief but decisive pressure within a semihistorical plot. It’s the semihistory that troubles the nature and trajectory of the show, while the fantastic or impossible may offer routes out of the plot-crises which loom over the end of Season One. But it is unlikely to be able to fully sort out OFMD’s uneasy marriage between received historical information and a hilarious, gay, swoony, deeply fictional pirate-pageant that happens to be playing for blood.
Which sounds like I mean it as a negative, but in my opinion not having these things fully sorted out is fine. Who wants perfection? Something exciting and new, scary, funny, and romantic has been created in OFMD, and a lot of people, including myself, love it a lot. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t consider where the show may stumble in its attempts to wrangle the ugly, devastating biographical and contextual material that accompanies the decision to even peripherally ground the show in eighteenth-century Caribbean and Atlantic history.
To what extent does the series refer to “real” history? Well, there’s that title-card: 1717. The names: Stede Bonnet. Israel Hands. Blackbeard, or Edward Teach. If you’re not familiar with them already, you can easily look them up online or otherwise. If you’re so-minded (though this is not a recommendation) you can visit Bonnet’s historical marker in Southport, North Carolina, or a second stone marker close to the site of his 1718 execution in Charleston, South Carolina. The Charleston monument stands very near, in more ways than one, to the former location of the city’s infamous slave-market. This world still touches our own, and shapes it. No one’s calling on Our Flag Means Death to be realistic (ptah) or accurate (ptui). But even besotted fans of the show are, I think, entitled to say it may not have all of its shit completely worked out when it comes to the fact that its reimagined-as-lovable protagonist, Stede Bonnet, was in his known and recorded eighteenth-century career a violent white Barbadian plantocrat.
The show tries. It really does, and racks up some impressive successes in my opinion, especially in Episode Five. I will come back to this. Also, The Truth About Stede Bonnet is hard to hang on to while you’re watching, and I mean that as a compliment. The show is deeply smart, funny, there isn’t a wasted line in it; the sets are gorgeous and technically interesting; the acting is stratospherically good; every member of the cast is delightful to look at; Rory Kinnear appears as an abhorrent British naval officer, twice. (Twice!) OFMD is also in its own fractured, campy, murder-y, sun-stunned way extremely sweet and earnest, and there you see the influence of Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s 1987 film The Princess Bride, which is directly referred to at the start of Episode Two. 
Piracy, fame, and the nature of the piratical role are the most obvious through-lines between The Princess Bride and Our Flag Means Death. Blackbeard would clearly benefit from a quick career-chat with The Princess Bride’s Dread Pirate Roberts, but there are other less overt and more pervasive connections. Stede Bonnet, as brought to life by Rhys Darby in a riveting performance that’s never strained by the show’s emotional extremes, is a middle-aged version of both Westley and Buttercup: blonde, adorable, idealistic, dangerous, and disaster-prone. Stede’s crewmember the knife expert Jim Jimenez, played with electric precision and swagger by Vico Ortiz, is in part a twenty-first-century reimagining of Inigo Montoya. And movie and show share a sparing, tongue-in-cheek approach to the supernatural, which appears only at moments of great need and operates in unfinished ways that indicate it’s a single pillar in their wider structures. The Princess Bride is not, of course, the only place OFMD’s writers could have found this treatment. But it’s certainly actively in the mix; along with other film and TV models that favor errant, rather than consistent, use of the supernatural.
The show’s biggest internal enthusiast for this kind of errant supernatural-ish-ness, or chaotic plot-shaping fantasy pressure, has got to be the most feared pirate of all time. That’s Edward Teach, more famously known as Blackbeard, played with supple range by Taika Waititi. “You’re a fucking lunatic and I like it,” he says in Episode Four to Rhys Darby’s awkwardly genteel Stede Bonnet. At the time of this meeting, OFMD’s Bonnet looks more like a confused convalescent than anything else. Life has been weird lately. He’s run away from a mutually unhappy marriage, and a plush Barbados estate, to launch a new trademark identity as “The Gentleman Pirate,” and it’s been a lot. Also, he was stabbed and hanged by the Spanish Navy in Episode Three. (Occupational hazard.) But his famous rescuer and fellow-pirate, Blackbeard—who hasn’t admitted to the name yet—is undeterred in his enthusiasm for what he perceives as Stede’s wild originality. Leaning back in his Mad Max leathers on an upholstered couch in Stede’s bespoke captain’s quarters on Stede’s bespoke ship the Revenge, Blackbeard appreciatively points out the weird, thoughtful details of the room, which is bigger on the inside, like the TARDIS. Stede’s cabin is, in other words, a marker of a shaping fantasy. It participates in the impossible, and lovingly renders a personal imaginary in such detail that it seems luxurious, spacious, solid, and welcoming.
As such it’s very unlike Blackbeard’s cabin, which we glimpse at the end of Episode Three. That’s a crowded dark space littered with nautico-piratical curios, including an interpretively tempting pufferfish skeleton, and a carved human skull.  In its own way, it seems … tired. A little boxed in. If Stede’s quarters are all about finding and ornamenting personal space through the execution of the impossible—or, ornamentation as the construction and cultivation of impossible spaces—then Blackbeard’s quarters are all about playing a bit and doing so responsibly, even if you can’t really find a way to make it fresh anymore. Sure, other people still like the bit; in fact, they demand it! But you … what about you? Knock knock, Captain, how goes the night?
It would be a relief, in some ways, if Our Flag Means Death could be a show simply about Stede and Blackbeard as mutually admiring, team-supported fabricators of different types of goods-accruing fantasies. (Let’s not forget: pirates plunder.) But the show also wants blood and guts. When Blackbeard laments the tedium of his existence as the uncontested top predator of the North Atlantic seaboard—“there’s no drama, there’s no chaos, there’s no fucking life,” he says to Stede in Episode Four—he is also issuing a series artistic statement. In the first season, there will be drama, there will be chaos, and a lot of fucking life. How to get these things, though? Or: what sources, what springs, for its drama, chaos, and life will the show turn to? One source really does appear to be the broad outline of what can be known about Stede Bonnet’s and Edward Teach’s deeply weird, murder-and-damage-lashed eighteenth-century careers. If that were a possibility to be excluded, or at any rate minimized, the main characters’ names would be different. And this directly referential or citational move commits the series to the selective use of relevant received history, which is a very tricky thing to do well and fairly—always, but especially in this case.
Let me return to skulls for a minute. Blackbeard’s ship-skulls are probably, we think, for goth effect. They could be the actual bones of actual murdered people. But most of them are so identical and unremarkable, so clearly replica-skull-ish, that you can easily imagine the lanky Edward Teach or one of his devoted crewmembers picking them up in a pirate gift shop and deciding to take them back to the vessel so the lair will “look right.” And the show’s ontological ambiguity anent these skulls—real or not-real? being or non-being? —is a detail very relevant to the show’s major challenge, i.e., finding ways to navigate the storied histories of its main characters, and the geopolitical contexts they emerged from, without foreclosing the “unreal” or impossible or fantastical possibilities represented by comedy, creativity, love, reconciliation, and joy. OFMD needs to float, for the moment, between gleeful, forgiving gonzo humor, bolstered by speculative elements and strong VFX, and its own darker, more terminus-seeking currents, which involve things like recorded accounts of Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet’s separate, inglorious deaths in 1718, and the colonial history of the Caribbean. Likewise, the show’s protagonists float between variant versions of themselves. Is Blackbeard a cold-blooded killer, as we are told time and again before we meet him? Or is he a theater kid with a talent for well-executed jump-scares? Is Stede Bonnet a clueless, sweet-natured fop who just wants to have a nice pirate-vacation and help other people find their purpose? Or is he the reflexively murderous, selfish, plundering scion of the violent white Barbadian plantocracy that’s the source of his wealth? When the two men meet, which one of them should we be worried for? 
The power dynamics are not what they seem at first. Blackbeard rescues Stede in Episodes Three and Four, yes. And yes, Blackbeard is a celebrity at sea, which OFMD emphasizes with a meet-and-greet at the start of Episode Four, where the crewmembers of the Revenge fall over themselves to eagerly shake his hand. His legend strides through this floating world: an advantage, a burden, an asset whose value he must continually reassess and consider. But no matter how magnificent Blackbeard’s appearance and reputation, he is (as reimagined for this show) a man with Indigenous heritage trying to make his way in a racist society, and someone who’s been driven to piracy by a lack of viable life-options elsewhere.  Which, as the warily kind Black crewmember Oluwande reminds Stede Bonnet in Episode One, is the way things are for most pirates. “It’s a really dangerous lifestyle … [we] don’t do this because we like it. We do it because we don’t have any other choice.”
Blackbeard is somewhat awed by Stede’s ability to choose what he’s doing, and this imbalance between the two men—as well as others—will need to be addressed. Not yet though. Plenty of external threats surround their initial meeting. The Spanish Navy isn’t through with the Revenge, for instance! But the key relational question will recur—who’s going to get hurt here? For those who don’t know yet, the central plot of OFMD is about the relationship between Stede and Blackbeard, who is increasingly known to Stede as “Ed.” Once they’ve met, we see them quickly move through something like fan-crushes into active and hilarious infatuation with each other and then, yes, love. (Love! Something something “never did run smooth.”) You may have heard Our Flag Means Death described as “the gay pirate show.” Accurate. Of the four romantic couples whose courtships and challenges are featured in the action of this season, only one is straight—and the straight relationship does not take place at sea. For a minute, in Episode Two, we think we might be dealing with a “disguised woman” plot onboard the Revenge, which suggests, according to narrative convention, that there’s a latent cisgender heterosexual pairing to be figured out. But, friends, it is not so.
Well. Where were we? Episode Four, first meetings. I’d like to re-introduce, here, the topic of the impossible; which is also the speculative, the magical, the act of intoning or shaping new directions into being. The impossible is a good thing to have in a “1717”-dated show about famous pirates who really died in 1718, if you want to be able to hope for a happy ending. It’s a good thing, likewise, to have in a show whose plot is chronologically tethered to violent nautical action in the Caribbean and Eastern Atlantic seaboard during the early eighteenth century, and chronologically implies the presence of colonial wealth sourced in the labor of enslaved people. The possible isn’t going to help you, if you would like to (for instance) remain a romantic comedy viewers can enjoy. And so, very soon after their funny, odd, stealthily risky meeting-scene, Stede and Blackbeard are forced to figure out what a speculative door to their yet-undreamed-of future might look like. They must do this to survive: the Spanish are about to capture both the Revenge and Blackbeard’s ship, which one assumes is hove-to nearby. (These details, characteristically, are a little vague.) To evade destruction by three Spanish men-of-war, the newly affiliated pirate captains have to pull off an act of illusion—an act of magic—with the inspired help of their blended ships’ crews. I’m not going to tell you what the illusion is, but I will tell you that it works. Regarding Stede and Blackbeard’s convincing, visionary, improvisational work through his spyglass by night, the leader of the Spanish flotilla has this to say before turning away, beaten: “No puede ser!” (It cannot be!)
Whatever follows, then, the impossible is fully on board the Revenge.
Will there be enough of it, though? And can it fight the narrative currents of the historical material the show has taken on as part of its own matter? I’m going to continue this review with one instance that demonstrates how well the show can acknowledge and manage the tensions resulting from its historical setting. I will conclude the review with an example of a later scene where the balance was off, for me.
First, the resounding success. By the time we get to episode 5, when Blackbeard, Stede, Oluwande, and a fatalistic, guitar-playing Revenge crewmember named Frenchie dress up and gatecrash a posh French party at sea, the series is ready to plunge into some difficult material. It’s gearing up to examine Stede’s ability to confront the casual racism and classism of the white French aristocrats, which is on full display once they stop applauding Blackbeard as an exoticized, racialized novelty and decide to be cruel to him instead.
Here, at the midpoint of the season, is when Stede genuinely starts to become a pirate. And one of the many reasons I recommend watching OFMD is that Stede’s entry into the trade of seaborne pillage represents an actual troubling of the show’s emotional cross-currents and plot-possibilities. It is a big deal to become a pirate! Once you become one, you might start destroying things you would usually prefer to preserve, and you could become very dangerous, even to people you like or love! Instead of gleefully and one-dimensionally patting Stede on the back for living his dream, OFMD leans hard into the potential destructiveness of his trademarked piratical identity, which incorporates and manipulates colonial class privilege. The Gentleman Pirate’s true public launch as a true public danger is directly correlated with a potential unravelling of Stede’s new rapport with Blackbeard. Which is ironic, because what drives Stede to Real Piracy is the fact that the French are mean to Blackbeard in a way Blackbeard ultimately can’t handle by himself.
To summarize: the four men from the Revenge are at this party in the first place because Blackbeard wants to go, and is charismatic and adorable, and Stede already likes him so much he can’t say no. Blackbeard wants to see what the party is like because he is fascinated by the pageantry of aristocratic life, its manipulation of costume and ceremony, the way it bends reality to suit its own preferences—all of which is relevant to his own mastery (perforce) of theatrical illusion as a terrifying pirate, and his enthusiasm for Stede’s quarters aboard the Revenge. (Also, as befits a bloodthirsty (?) legend, he hasn’t quite officially ruled out the possibility of killing Stede and stealing his identity so he can enjoy the peculiar wonderland of the Revenge at his own leisure. Personal fascination intersects here with professional obligation.) If Blackbeard wants to “become” The Gentleman Pirate (is that what he wants? Or is it something else?) he must practice hobnobbing with fancy white people”
But it doesn’t go well, which is a kind of foreshadowing. Stede, who has been reluctantly hobnobbing with fancy white people his whole life, figured it probably wouldn’t. Somewhere deep down he knows that in these circles, someone is inevitably going to be a bigoted jerk to his new non-white friend, Edward. And that does indeed happen, when Blackbeard is least prepared for it, right as he’s sitting down to a formal dinner on the French ship. He’s tired; he’s been making a bit of a clown out of himself to entertain people who seemed to like it, in the weirdly big ship’s parlor (another Tardis?); he’s pretty tipsy and also, goddamn it, hungry (never a good thing, with Blackbeard) and now all these fucking forks, and … someone who was just flirting with him a minute ago is suddenly being horrible to him about his table manners. The fatigue of it—the sense of being a perpetual scorned outsider to rich white society despite his work, his plundered wealth, his necessarily secret accomplishments—catches up to him. It makes him as sad and angry as he’s ever been in his life. But the French aristocrats laugh at that sadness and anger, too. Enter Stede.
Stede’s missed this perilous juncture, because he was off elsewhere in the infinitely big party ship, trying to figure out what Oluwande and Frenchie are doing. (Answer: they’re bilking white French people of cash by pretending to be Crown Prince Azi of Egypt and his viceroy, who need liquid capital at present but are willing to guarantee a royal return on your investment. Samuel Kayo, who plays Oluwande, and Joel Fry, who plays Frenchie, are enormously fun to watch as they lean into this development, make allies, and inhabit their profitable courtly roles. “Don’t toy with this man,” Oluwande/Prince Azi says reproachfully to Frenchie/The Viceroy, casting a calming glance at a nervous French aristocrat who isn’t sure they’re going to let him contribute. “He’s clearly quite sophisticated.” [The stage direction here is, They take his money.]) He comes back to the dining room, only to find that his new best friend Ed is an emotional mess and is also preparing to re-enter the scene of his recent humiliation with one (1) blazing pistol.
Stede goes full pirate. I mean this in a fairly technical way. There’s a phrase scattered among eighteenth century legal prosecutions of pirates, “hostis humani generis,” or “the enemy of humankind”: a criminal identity assigned to anyone who turned to piracy as a profession.  If you were designated hostis humani generis, which is so say something on the order of “at war with every other human,” the limited protections of English common law—such as trial by jury—no longer applied to you, and once captured you could be hung or otherwise summarily executed forthwith. It’s a phrase the creators of OFMD know well and are interested in exploring. At a crucial decision-point for Blackbeard and Stede in Episode Eight, when Blackbeard is arguing with his old shipmate and possible ex, Calico Jack, he calls Stede “my friend.” Calico Jack, who’s a real prize, almost falls over laughing. “Pirates don’t have friends!” he says. “We’re all just in various stages of fucking each other over!” This is hostis humani generis with a vengeance, denying the possibility of even intra-piratical solidarity. Stede, on the other hand, mostly wants to be at war for Ed/Blackbeard.
Ironically, that first means accepting the awful, tumultuous French aristocrats as his own. “These are my people. I’ll handle this,” he tells Blackbeard, who stands down. Stede re-enters the French party parlor to play some games. The French, bored, bleary, inquire after the rules, and Stede says they’re going to play “Stark Revelations,” which is an exchange of questions. (In practice, it simply means he’s going to pick people to reveal compromising information about.) “So let me understand,” says the mannered aristocrat Gabriel—played with gusto by Nick Kroll, in smeared white makeup. “It is you versus all of us?”
“Exactly. Let us begin,” says Stede, and proceeds to destroy their lives.
You versus all of us; the enemy of humankind. Now he’s done it, now he’s a pirate. And Blackbeard is impressed, and in danger. He can hardly take his eyes off Stede in the boat on the way back to the Revenge. (The stage direction here is, In the background, French aristocrats cast themselves screaming into the sea from a fiery boat.) It’s hard to figure out what Ed is feeling, but he’s clearly feeling a lot of it.
Once back on board, the two captains exchange opinions about the course of the evening before saying a reluctant goodnight. Neither of them, clearly, wants to say good-bye; whatever the evening was, it’s been epic, and there’s more to investigate. But the risky potential for their situation to become haunted and unstable, a source of damage and loss, wells up in the language they use, which in Stede’s case unintentionally but definitely echoes the language used by Oluwande and Frenchie in their bilking of the deceivable French.
“I wasn’t ready,” says Blackbeard, of his attempt to “pass” as a gentleman.
“I don’t know,” says Stede. “I think you’re very sophisticated.” (Oluwande, you may recall, tells Frenchie that their mark is “clearly quite sophisticated” before they take him for all he’s worth.) And shortly thereafter, Blackbeard yields his heart like a stolen sum into Stede’s hands; the newly perilous hands of the moneyed, landed, colonial aristocrat-pirate, who may not be self-aware enough to control whom he takes precious things from, or even when and how he does so.
So the plot of OFMD advances and unravels. It gives (Stede’s dream of piratical adventure) and it takes (Blackbeard’s dream of love). One step toward a goal, and then often seven painful steps back to assess a new obstacle or challenge. If I tell you the season ends on a huge cliffhanger—a plank-hanger?—I hope you can see at this point some of the ways that might go. Throughout, there are a lot of laughs; shock-laughter, pratfall-laughter, joyful laughter, lovers’ laughter, hollow terrifying theatrical pirate-laughter, and the awkward sounds that accompany a wrong revealed. Throughout, the death-drive of regional colonial history is counterpoised against the speculative work of the impossible. If that doesn’t interest you, I don’t think I can persuade you to watch this show.
If it does, a) welcome, and b) it’s my job as a reviewer to point out where, in my opinion, the complex tensions of OFMD—which, like a system of ropes and pulleys, keep the show moving deftly and widely between registers—may falter or become unbalanced. For me, the note that rang false occurred in Episode Ten, where Stede returns temporarily to Barbados.
Barbados. In 1717.  Where the historical Stede Bonnet’s family wealth was derived from ownership of a plantation, which accrued heritable value at the cost of the lives of enslaved people. It’s harder to pretend that isn’t a connection, once OFMD’s Stede Bonnet is away from the sea and back on the land his pirate idyll derived its possibility from. It’s harder, once the show’s back on land, to keep the affective focus exclusively on the semihistorical character we’ve developed so much affection for—and some justified wariness about—over the course of the past nine episodes.
One of the show’s solutions is to keep the camera focus really, really narrow. The interiors of Episode Ten are particularly beautiful, and particularly … interior. Well, you can’t show the landscape. The landscape would reveal the plantation. And once you start thinking about this, you realize Our Flag Means Death is—as a production—very enclosed. Remember how Blackbeard and Stede met? Inside, in Stede’s quarters. Remember where their closer relationship began to be forged? Inside, on the French ship. Some of the coziest scenes in the show are limited shots of the entire blended crew, on the deck of the Revenge, listening to Stede and Blackbeard/Ed tell stories at night—there’s always a campfire feel to it, no wide panoramas; the listening sky, darkened, conceals its fearful vistas. Which it must, for the show to work. No aerial shots, no wide camera surveys. Outside the immediate interactions of OFMD’s spectacular Season One cast, their close surroundings, and their genuinely dazzling costumes, there’s a set of dangerous big conceptual problems just waiting to get enough room to stick a wedge into the show and bust it open. I don’t think they’re going to be allowed to do it. But without a lot of careful continued maneuvering from the show’s creators, they could.
For me, I saw the thin edge of something—a crowbar? An unsettling question?—break through OFMD’s beautiful wood paneling in Episode Ten, when a tired, melancholy Stede seeks temporary solace from his relationship difficulties at a Barbadian tavern. He’s lonely, he’s confused, his dissolving marriage is in the shitter. He’s also dealing with at least a “mild” case of PTSD due to murdersome events which have complicated and tangled up his recent history with Ed—and he hasn’t quite admitted to himself yet that he’s very gay and very in love. So for now, he’s drinking. And it turns out his new reputation as The Gentleman Pirate (The Real Gentleman Pirate) has preceded him among his peers in the wealthy, bored, white male plantocracy of Barbados. They want to ply him with beer, in return for stories of adventure.
Adventure? Murder. “You ever killed a man?” asks one of the tavern-goers, a man very likely to be a close contemporary of Stede’s; a comfortable fellow with regrets about his own narrow, unexciting life. Stede responds to this as if it’s a reasonable question, and in the affirmative. Perhaps we’re meant to see his answer as further confirmation that he is fully a pirate now, and the plantocrats of Barbados are no longer “his people.” But, for me, history came uncontrollably slinging back into Our Flag Means Death in the moment of that affirmation. “You ever killed a man?” Yes, thousands. Why, friend, haven’t you also? 
 Not romance as in “narrative fiction,” but romance as in somebody’s gonna get kissed and then there’s gonna be Setbacks and Challenges. The phrase “rom-com” has been slung around a lot about the series—I guess I am reserving judgement on that for now. [return]
 At the start of Episode Two, “A Damned Man,” the pirate Black Pete (played by Matthew Maher) recounts a tale of his own heroism, which he claims occurred while he was a member of Blackbeard’s crew. In an onscreen flashback, a supernaturally spooky Blackbeard with flaming eyes and smoke for a head tells him: “from this day onward you will be known as the Dread Black Pete, and my righthand man.” [return]
 The skull is one of many displayed on Blackbeard’s ship, and the first of many half-serious Hamlet references in the series. When Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet meet, they are both trying to decide between being and not-being. We hope, eventually, they might come round to the question of how to be. [return]
 An obvious riposte here, throughout, is “why not both?” We’ll see what Season Two has to say. [return]
 There’s little to suggest the historical Blackbeard was aught other than a white Englishman. OFMD has sparked a lot of really excellent online discussion of its fictional Blackbeard, and race; here is one of the most thorough and widely-circulated posts, by Luna de Maria. [return]
 I was introduced to this phrase by Hans Turley’s monograph Rum, Sodomy and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality and Masculine Identity (NYU Press, 1999). [return]
 “After 1650 sugar replaced tobacco as the agricultural mainstay of Barbados, and the increased specialization and capitalization required for the new crop meant small holdings were gradually reduced in number…Small plantations almost disappeared from the island, and slavery took over almost entirely from white labor.” (Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, Harvard University Press, 2010. p. 92) [return]
 I’m not going to quote mortality rates among enslaved people of African origin who were violently transported to the British West Indies in the eighteenth century. They were high. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend reading Brown’s chapter “Worlds of Wealth and Death,” pp. 13-59 in The Reaper’s Garden (ibid.) [return]