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Ed and Stede sitting in garden, with Stede looking startled and Ed crouching next to him with his hand on his face Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

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Know no shame: queerness in the golden age of TV and piracy

Both Our Flag Means Death and Black Sails go all in on queer pirates — eventually

[Ed. note: This post contains light spoilers for Black Sails and Our Flag Means Death]

Our Flag Means Death has become a bit of a sensation, to put it mildly. The show skyrocketed in popularity for weeks after its debut, both in terms of streaming metrics and the outpouring of fan art. That’s in no small part thanks to its centering a romance between two men, Stede Bonnet and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, which captured the hearts of many, especially among queer viewers starved of on-screen representation. Even as queer representation has improved over the decades, with several ongoing shows featuring queer characters and subplots, it’s still rare for a series to focus squarely on queer romance, especially in genre shows.

Perhaps some of the infatuation stems from how Our Flag Means Death marketed its romance story — namely, it didn’t. Those initial trailers, teasers, and handful of episodes focused on the comedy hijinks of Stede Bonnet and his inept band of pirates. Not so much as a longing glance between Stede and Ed. For an audience more often used to queerbaiting or sometimes no inclusion at all, the shock that this show really was going to commit to that romance seems to have come with much elation, not to mention a viewership which tripled somewhere between its debut and its finale. Even creator David Jenkins has commented on the matter; speaking to The Verge, he said, “I think I didn’t realize — because I see myself represented on camera, and I see myself falling in love in stories — I didn’t realize how deep the queer baiting thing goes. Being made to feel stupid by stories, I guess. […] [L]ooking at how people were kind of afraid to let themselves believe that we were doing that was a surprise to me, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Oddly enough, though, 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 the queerness of their protagonists reveals how both of these shows reflect the different climates in which they were released.

Captain Flint sitting at his desk while another pirate talks to him Image: Starz

Black Sails, which premiered back in 2014, is a series that acts as both a prequel to the classic pirate novel Treasure Island and a mishmash of real history. Long John Silver brushes shoulders with real pirates like Charles Vane and Anne Bonny. In spite of any misgivings you might have about its gritty Treasure Island take, it’s a genuinely thoughtful exploration of history and fiction. To be sure, it has its fair share of bloody violence and sex; it was seen as Game of Thrones on the high seas among critics. What it absolutely does not do upfront is let the audience know that one of its central characters (arguably the story’s primary protagonist), Captain Flint, is in fact a gay man, and that his oppression and persecution under British society is the root of his entire violent quest.

In Black Sails this twist serves a purpose, held back until halfway through the second season. Flint, initially an enigma to audiences and his crew alike, is a larger-than-life character — an inscrutable, cunning, and ruthless pirate, much like the character first referenced in Treasure Island. He is allowed to embody a hypermasculinity, the archetypal bloodthirsty captain who will do anything for gold. The reveal that he’s gay and that his mission is to rebel against the British Empire, to create a nation free of 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 smuggled queerness into their narratives is made all the more interesting when considering the real-life parallels of the characters. Both shows play with our conceptions of history and well-known figures. Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard really did hang out, and the show simply makes a leap as to why that could be; Jenkins has explicitly said he’s interested in treating recorded history as merely a jumping-off point. After all, it’s unclear how much he’s even reading into their relationship. To this day, there’s a lot of debate about how much queerness has been exorcised from records and accounts, either by omission or by individuals’ own necessary discretion.

Retelling well-known histories as queer tales is more about putting back into our past what has been erased from it. As Black Sails co-creator Jon Steinberg said to Den of Geek regarding the show’s historical figures, “There’s some freedom in the moment you realize that the historic record is severely compromised in terms of what these peoples’ lives were like. They had a motive to lie, and so did the people in London. [...] It gives us the room to try to tell a story that will hopefully feel real. It probably won’t necessarily match up to the textbook to what happened, but I think we would probably argue that the textbook is already a narrative that somebody with an agenda put together a long, long time ago.”

A close-up of Captain Flint Image: Starz
Vico Ortiz and Samson Kayo standing and looking into each other’s eyes in a courtyard Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

Not that it’s hard to read queerness into existing histories, even if the terminology and conception of the ideas differed at the time. Romanticized pirates have always been portrayed as camp, an image perhaps spurred on by historical figures like Jack Rackham, nicknamed Calico Jack on account of his colorful outfits (who also makes an appearance in OFMD). Mary Read spent a portion of their life under the name Mark Read, and whether it was simply a disguise or fluid gender expression or if they were even trans, it lends itself to storylines like that of Jim on Our Flag Means Death. Accounts of Blackbeard spending all of his time with Stede Bonnet can so easily be understood through a queer lens that it’s shocking no story put such a twist on these figures before Our Flag Means Death.

But the answer to why no one had might be captured somewhat in the response to Black Sails’ own voyage into queer storytelling.

To be fair, Black Sails does have queer characters from the outset — two women, Eleanor and Max — but the first season generally presents them under a leering male gaze, seemingly intended to titillate general audiences. The show’s interest in the revolutionary qualities of queerness didn’t take center stage until its second season. While it spawned a fervent following among some queer fans, it equally drew the ire of homophobes who felt betrayed by the reveal that half of the cast was queer. Reddit is littered with rants against the show’s “gay agenda” by lads who thought they were getting a show “just about pirates,” all part of an outcry that even got Flint’s actor, Toby Stephens, to comment. “Before the revelation I had this huge following from guys, but as soon as that happened it was like they had been betrayed. It was the sense of utter betrayal and I wasn’t surprised because I knew it was going to be a massive thing.” The degree of discomfort among men, that simply by being gay Flint no longer adhered to their rigid standard of a male icon, is hardly something that’s gone away.

In the present, though, the TV landscape has changed considerably since Black Sails aired. Streaming services have come to rule the roost and fracture the monoculture, and the pandemic has only further shaped that. Black Sails had to compete against The Wire, The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones to earn its place at the table. For Our Flag Means Death, which is much more a comedy than a drama (and not at all an epic genre TV series, though there are still plenty of old-fashioned stabbings), things are a little different.

Stede stabbing Ed, mid-stab Photo: Aaron Epstein/HBO Max

While the special effects (the revolutionary StageCraft developed for The Mandalorian) that allow Our Flag Means Death to seem like it’s taking place at sea would have been reserved for much higher-budget shows only a few years ago, they’re a flourish for a series that largely takes place on small sets. It could’ve been a tiny budget sitcom a decade ago. That smaller scale may be what allowed it to take risks that, sadly, still feel daring in 2022. It’s not just a romance between Stede and Edward but an entire cast full of queer characters — a queerness that in its own context largely feels unremarkable, with the crew quietly tolerant and respectful of each other throughout the series.

In the last few years things have moved along, but even still, both shows had to operate under the very conditions of which they’re critical. As America and the U.K. both ramp up in homophobia and transphobia, with legislation seeking to target those vulnerable groups, the stories of Black Sails and Our Flag Means Death don’t feel like purely historical stories. They’re tales of the here and now. Pirates are a way to recontextualize those who society “others,” who are made outcasts and fringe by the mainstream. The shows invite us to ask why someone would choose to live on the edge, to unpack their histories and motives until their popular image is vanquished. To take the most well-known of pirates and to reframe them as traumatized queer outcasts is not intended as a historical rewrite but as a rebuttal of the very idea of a history written by the conquerors.

The British Empire present in both stories is depicted as an entity that is, at its worst, all-consuming barbarism and, at its best, all-consuming barbarism propped up by a veneer of civility. It’s an entity that not only destroys but warps reality around itself, reshaping history in 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 meet the same ends as their historical counterparts or we see the bittersweet truth of stories that are written out of history, their actions twisted into something evil. By giving that other perspective, by suggesting another account, these shows are a rallying cry for queer folk looking for their place in a world that doesn’t want them to exist at all — and a reminder to everyone who stands against us which side of history they’re on.