February 28, 2022

Taika Waititi’s “Our Flag Means Death” Takes No Prisoners (Review)

If we’re talking about once-in-a-generation talents, Taika Waititi absolutely deserves to be in the conversation. From semi-dramatic works like Hunt for the Wilderpeople to straight comedies like What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok, there isn’t anything the man can’t pull off. It’s no surprise that his latest venture, the HBO Max period pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death, is another winner.

Waititi didn’t technically spearhead Our Flag Means Death — it was created by David Jenkins, he of the TBS sci-fi comedy People of Earth — but Waititi serves as executive producer, and stars as legendary and feared pirate Blackbeard. The series is very much in tune with Waititi’s comedic sensibilities, so this should tide over his fans before Thor: Love and Thunder hits theaters this summer.

It was to my shock that Our Flag Means Death is actually partially based on a true story. Stede Bonnet (played in the series by Rhys Darby) was a moderately wealthy landowner who grew bored with his mundane existence, and turned to a life of crime and piracy aboard a self-built ship with a crew of inexperienced buccaneers. With this fill-in-the-blank cast of characters, the series has assembled a vibrant mix of comedic talent from across the world, coupled with guest stars that include modern comedy icons.

Our Flag Means Death chronicles Stede facing his inadequacies as a pirate, with a crew that doesn’t respect him and the nerves of…well, a moderately wealthy English landowner from the 18th century. Darby plays him perfectly, and is especially gifted with hilarious facial expressions. On his travels, Stede meets Blackbeard (Waititi), who’s facing a similar crisis — he’s simply bored with being Blackbeard. I won’t say where it goes from there, but an unlikely friendship blossoms, and perhaps a mutually beneficial partnership will emerge. As of writing, I have seen five of the season’s ten episodes, and I honestly have no idea where it could go next. The characters are well-written and versatile enough that the story could go down any road it chooses, and it would make perfect sense.

While not always laugh-out-loud funny, this series doesn’t necessarily need to be. The humor is subtle, self-aware and weird, and fits the environment perfectly. Perhaps its best comedic trick is injecting modernity into the 18th century — present-day language and situations are used to great effect, not only making the characters more relatable, but it heightens the level of parody while not being over-the-top with it. That's a tricky balance, but Our Flag Means Death strikes it with ease.

As Stede sets out to become “the Gentleman Pirate” he so desires to be, we’re taken along for a ride we won’t soon forget. Our Flag Means Death is excellent both as a flawlessly stylized period comedy and a parody of the pirate sub-genre of pop culture (from which it smartly distances itself). I could have told you this before I even saw a minute of the show, but I’m extremely happy to report that this series is in excellent hands, with clever writing and a dedicated cast to carry it over any tidal waves that may emerge.

Let’s hope Darby’s Stede Bonnet doesn’t meet the fate of his real-life counterpart.

Our Flag Means Death premieres on HBO Max on March 3, with episodes airing on subsequent Thursdays.

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