Following a debut season that eventually found a loyal following of young, queer fans, Max’s sleeper dramedy “Our Flag Means Death” returns this week for more star-crossed pirate romance and distinctly Kiwi humor. Irreverent and charming, the second season of “Our Flag Means Death” delivers another dose of the offbeat humor that made the first season such a breakout hit while doubling down on the romance that made fans fall in love with it.
“Our Flag Means Death” picks up in the tumultuous wake of the shocking heartbreak of last year’s finale, following gentleman-turned-pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), as he sets out to win back the love and loyalty of Blackbeard, aka Ed Teach (Taika Waititi). As a brokenhearted Ed returns to his formerly murderous ways, Stede rallies his crew and joins up with a cunning Pirate Queen (Ruibo Qian) to retake The Revenge and win back his lost love.
The crew of The Revenge, having been caught in the (literal) crossfire of Ed and Stede’s tragic romance, begins the season split squarely in two with other couples like Jim (Vico Ortiz) and Oluwande (Samson Kayo) forced apart as a result of their former Captain’s epic breakup. As such, the front half of the season feels very much like a departure from the winning formula that made Season One such an unexpected hit—bucking the breezy, lighthearted structure for a serialized, character-driven approach to storytelling.
The big difference is that, unlike the late-game revelation it was in Season One, the Stede/Ed romance is the backbone of “Our Flag Means Death”’s sophomore voyage. From elaborate dream sequences to sweeping romantic revelations set to another delightfully eclectic collection of ‘70s and ‘80s classics, the series goes all-in on delivering a reconciliation that will sate fan fervor.
Luckily, Darby and Waititi’s sharp performances put some dramatic power behind the saccharine sensibilities of “Our Flag Means Death” and its attitude towards romance—Waititi, in particular, continues to do career-best work as the tortured and borderline manic pirate. As Ed reels from the whiplash of opening up for the first time only to be (as he perceived it) rejected by Stede, he quickly falls back into his cruel, violent habits as Blackbeard. Delving into Blackbeard’s sadistic side allows Waititi to ham up his violent, erratic tendencies and hint at the hurt and emotional vulnerability beneath the anger. In stark contrast to the ever-smiling, always-chipper Stede Bonnet, Waititi lends Ed the ability to flicker out of comedy entirely, accessing a powerful, incredibly compelling sorrow.
Waititi’s Ed is consumed by self-loathing (a recurring theme throughout Season Two) and excises that pain onto his half of the Revenge’s crew—Izzy (Con O’Neill), Jim, and Fang spend Season Two reeling from the cruelties he inflicts on them as a result of his inner pain. Though Jim’s story ends up veering into more romantic territory (especially once Oluwande re-enters the picture having gotten chummy with a Season Two newcomer), Izzy spends the season struggling to cope with his feelings for Ed and loyalty as first mate—what his fellow crew members solemnly tell him is a “toxic relationship.”
At times, this more heavy-handed approach to exploring subjects like mental health, queer identity, and unhealthy relationships through pirate metaphors gets exhausting. It’s as if the series doesn’t trust its capacity for emotional storytelling without spelling it out for the audience in the most shtick-y way possible. Thankfully, the inelegant edges of the writing are almost always balmed by the sheer charm of the (predominantly Kiwi) cast. Alongside Con O’Neill’s Izzy and Qian’s mysterious Susan, Season Two’s scene-stealers are Jim and Oluwande, whose bond is a consistent breath of fresh air to the ping-ponging between pirate antics and sweeping romantic melodrama. Ortiz’s Jim, in particular, shines as the ever-practical voice of reason—though one who (due to Ed’s actions) spends the season working through some serious trauma.
Once the pirate captains are safely in each others’ arms, “Our Flag Means Death” moves towards a welcome return to traditional form in the back half of the season. Returning to the decks of the Revenge and having the Ed/Stede relationship in a somewhat stable place gives the series breathing room to spotlight its wide array of guest stars. Memorable additions include Minnie Driver and Rachel House as Anne Bonny and Mary Read, respectively, a pair of real-life female pirates and old friends of Ed’s— episode five sees the Revenge’s crew popping by for a visit and some romantic parallels between their relationship and Stede/Ed’s. Episode six is another season-high point that speaks to the magic of the series when it’s not taking itself too seriously—Kristian Nairn and Con O’Neill give startingly earnest and immensely endearing performances.
Though it takes a couple of episodes to find the equilibrium that made Season One a breakout hit, “Our Flag Means Death"'s second installment elevates the show's ensemble comedy to new heights by shifting its tender queer romance front and center. With its unorthodox approach to comedy and romance, “Our Flag Means Death” continues to be a delightful surprise.
Seven episodes were screened for review. Season Two of "Our Flag Means Death" premieres on Max with three episodes on October 5th.