[Ed. note: This post contains light spoilers for Black Sails and Our Flag Means Death]
Our flag means death has become a minor sensation, to say the least. The show continued to soar in popularity for weeks after its debut, both in terms of streaming metrics and the outpouring of fan art. That’s thanks in no small part to the romance between two men, Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, which captured the hearts of many, particularly among queer viewers who lacked on-screen representation. Even though queer portrayal has improved over the decades, with several ongoing shows featuring queer characters and subplots, it’s still rare for a series to focus directly on queer romance, especially in genre shows.
Maybe part of being in love comes from the how Our flag means death marketed his love story – namely not. These first trailers, teasers, and a handful of episodes focused on the comedy hijinks of Stede Bonnet and his inept pirate gang. Not even a longing look between Stede and Ed. For audiences more used to queerbaiting, or sometimes no inclusion at all, the shock that this show would truly embrace this romance seems to have been met with much enthusiasm, not to mention a viewership split between its debut and tripled her final . Even creator David Jenkins has spoken out on the matter; in conversation with The Rand, he said, “I guess I didn’t realize — because I see myself being represented on camera and I see myself falling in love with stories — I didn’t realize how deep the queer hate thing went. Being fooled by stories I guess. […] [L]To see how people were afraid to let themselves believe we were doing this was a surprise to me and it’s heartbreaking.”
Oddly enough, however, this isn’t the first time a queer pirate show has buried the lede. Though the shows don’t share channels, decades, or even sensibilities, the way they slowly revealed their protagonists’ weirdness shows how these two shows reflect the different climates in which they were released.
Black sailswhich premiered back in 2014, is a series that functions both as a prequel to the classic pirate novel treasure island and a mishmash of real history. Long John Silver meets real life pirates like Charles Vane and Anne Bonny. Despite any concerns you might have about his rudeness treasure island Take it, it’s a really thoughtful exploration of history and fiction. Of course, it has its fair share of gory violence and sex; it was seen that way game of Thrones on the high seas among critics. What it absolutely fails to do in advance is let the audience know that one of its main characters (arguably the main protagonist of the story), Captain Flint, is in fact a gay man and that his oppression and persecution by British society is at the root of his whole violent search.
in the Black sails This twist serves a purpose that is held back until halfway through season two. Initially an enigma to audiences and his crew, Flint is a larger-than-life character – an inscrutable, cunning, and ruthless pirate, much like the character first referenced treasure island. He is allowed to embody hypermasculinity, the archetypal bloodthirsty captain who will do anything for gold. The revelation that he is gay and that his mission is to rebel against the British Empire, to create a nation free from its rule, complicates everything he has done and will do, turning him from a mercenary into a revolutionary .
The fact that Black sails and Our flag Both sneak queerness into their narratives, which becomes all the more interesting when you consider the real-life parallels between the characters. Both shows play with our ideas of history and well-known personalities. Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard really hung out, and the show just jumps as to why that might be; Jenkins has specifically said that he is interested in treating recorded history only as a starting point. After all, it’s unclear how much he even reads into their relationship. To this day, there is much debate as to how much queerness has been exorcised from records and accounts, either by omission or by individuals’ own necessary discretion.
Retelling familiar stories rather than queer stories means bringing back to our past what was erased from her. As Black sails Co-creator Jon Steinberg said to Den of Geek Regarding the show’s historical figures, “There’s a certain freedom in that moment when you realize that the historical record has been severely compromised in terms of what those people’s lives were like. They had a motive for lying, and so did the people of London. […] It gives us the space to try to tell a story that hopefully feels real. It probably won’t necessarily agree with the textbook on what happened, but I think we’d probably argue that the textbook is already a narrative that someone with an agenda put together a long, long time ago.”
Not that reading queerness into existing stories is difficult, even if the terminology and conception of the ideas were different at the time. Romanticized pirates have always been portrayed as encampments, an image perhaps inspired by historical figures such as Jack Rackham, nicknamed Calico Jack for his colorful outfits (who also appeared in OFMD
But the answer to why no one had done anything might be captured in the answer to Black sails‘ own journey into queer storytelling.
to be fair Black sails has odd characters from the start – two women, Eleanor and Max – but the first season generally presents them under a racy male gaze, apparently intended to excite general audiences. The show’s interest in the revolutionary qualities of queerness did not come into focus until its second season. While it garnered a fervent following among some queer fans, it also drew the wrath of homophobes, who felt betrayed by the revelation that half the cast was queer. Reddit is littered with scolds against the broadcastgay calendarby guys who thought they were getting a show “just about pirates,” all part of an outcry that even got Flint’s actor Toby Stephens into it comment. “Before the reveal, I had a huge following of guys, but once that happened it was like they got scammed. It was a sense of utter betrayal and I wasn’t surprised because I knew it was going to be a massive thing.” The uneasiness among men that just by being gay Flint was no longer holding to their rigid standard of a male icon held is hardly anything that has disappeared.
In the present, however, the TV landscape has changed a lot since then Black sails aired. Streaming services have taken over and broken the monoculture, and the pandemic has only shaped that further. Black sails had to compete The cable, The sopranosand game of Thrones to earn his place at the table. To the Our flag means deathwhich is much more comedy than drama (and not an epic genre TV series at all, although there are still plenty of old-fashioned stabbings), things are a little different.
While the special effects (the revolutionary StageCraft developed for The Mandalorian) that allow Our flag means death Seeming as taking place at sea would have been reserved for much higher budget shows just a few years ago, they’re a bloom for a series largely taking place on small sets. It could have been a tiny budget sitcom a decade ago. That smaller scale may have allowed it to take risks that sadly still feel daring in 2022. It’s not just a romance between Stede and Edward, but a whole cast full of queer characters — an oddity that feels largely unremarkable in its own context, with the crew remaining quietly tolerant and respectful of one another throughout the series.
Things have evolved in recent years, but even so, both shows have had to operate in the exact conditions they critically see. While America and Britain both ramp up homophobia and transphobiaWith Legislation targeting these vulnerable groupsthe stories of Black sails and ohYour flag means death are not interested in purely historical stories. They are stories from the here and now. Pirates are a way of re-contextualizing those who keep “other” company, who are made outcasts and marginalized by the mainstream. The shows invite us to question why anyone chooses to live on the edge, unpacking their stories and motives until their popular image is vanquished. Taking the most prominent pirates and recasting them as traumatized queer outcasts is not intended as a historical rewrite, but as a refutation of the idea of a history written by the conquerors.
The British Empire, present in both stories, is presented as an entity that is at worst all-consuming barbarism and at best all-consuming barbarism backed by a veneer of civility. It is an entity that not only destroys reality but distorts it around itself, reshaping history into its likeness.
In our present, queer people are once again being miscast as villains and boogeymen. In a way Black sails and Our flag means death Always dance on the edge of tragedy. Either they achieve the same goals as their historical counterparts, or we see the bittersweet truth of stories written from history twisting their actions into evil. By offering that different perspective, by proposing a different account, these shows are a rallying cry for queer people searching for their place in a world that doesn’t want them to exist in the first place – and a reminder to all who oppose us ask which side of history they are on.