When David Jenkins’ HBO Max pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death first premiered, the obvious question was whether it was going to find the audience it was clearly designed for. The series leads — Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and his frequent project partner Rhys Darby, as versions of real-life pirate allies Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard — are compelling reasons to check out the show. But Waititi doesn’t fully arrive until episode 4, and before he meaningfully enters the story and brings the big drama with him, the series is mostly a light comedy about self-important incompetents making fools of themselves at sea.
As the 10-episode series rolled out, though, it gradually revealed itself as an emotional story about re-invention and self-discovery. Word of mouth rapidly spread over social media, as Stede and Blackbeard seemed to be edging up to a romantic moment, and a vocal, invested fandom wondered if they were being teased and baited. As the moment of truth came closer, fans started creating tender fan art of Stede and Blackbeard, and rooting for their relationship to go further. The season’s final two episodes do resolve that question — and then wrap on a cliffhanger that openly invites speculation about the future. Polygon recently spoke to series creator, writer, and producer David Jenkins about what went into the series, and what’s next. Spoilers ahead for the first season of Our Flag Means Death.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and concision.
I think everybody who watches the finale is going to have one major question: When do we get season 2? How are the prospects looking for HBO greenlighting the next installment?
David Jenkins: I think they look good. I think we’re so lucky. It’s been so heartening to see how many people are responding to the show. Just in the last week, the fandom exploded — just to see it on Twitter, to see the fan art, is so gratifying. And people are so smart! I checked out some threads, people writing while the show was on, and it was like they had been in the writers’ room. They understood what we were doing, and they were having the same conversations we had. So the fact that that’s happening, I think, is really a good sign, and bodes well for season 2.
If you’re planning on continuing to follow Stede’s life as closely as you have been, that limits the prospects for how long the show could go.
[Laughs.] Yes, it does.
What’s the ideal version of this series like to you right now, in terms of how long it should run for you to tell the story you want to tell?
I think three seasons is good. I think we could do it in three. I mean, I don’t know — your perception of what the story really is changes so much in the writers’ room. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong. Because you’ve got all these other super-smart writers who have their own life experiences, and you talk through the season with them, and then you’re like, “Oh, man, there’s all this other stuff there.” But right now, I feel like we could probably do it in three. The thing that fascinates me about this story and makes me want to write the show is asking who is Stede to Blackbeard, and who is Blackbeard to Stede. To me, that’s the through-line that cuts across the entire series. And I don’t know that you want to see that go on for five, six seasons.
You don’t even start telling that story until episode 4, though. That’s a response I’ve seen over and over from people — that episode 4 is where the show’s plan really starts to come together. What went into the way you structured the season?
We were breaking up the story into acts. We needed to see Stede on his own, to see how that went for him, which is badly. And then seeing how he changes once he meets the love of his life — to me, that seemed important, to see how badly he was doing on his own. And we needed to get a sense of the ensemble. Once Stede and Blackbeard get together in the first season, they eat up a lot of story, and we don’t get to learn as much about our crew anymore. We don’t get to see them do things as much as I would like, because there’s just a finite amount of time.
So we needed to give the first act a little more breathing room, to establish the tone of the show, who the characters are, who they are to each other. And then having Stede run into this terrible thing where he’s stabbed. I like to see a man get arrogant. And he did get arrogant, and he paid for it in a very serious way. To me, when you see him get stabbed, and the blood runs through his fingers, it’s like “Oh, no, the clown got stabbed! And not comedy-stabbed, he got stabbed stabbed!” That to me is cool. And then having Blackbeard find him as the end of what would be the first act of our story felt good to me.
You’ve got this story coming out in the middle of yet another national moment around visibility and rights for queer people, from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and Disney’s response to a new wave of proposed oppressive legislation. What’s it like bringing out a passionate gay love story in the middle of this moment?
It’s unfortunate timing in that it’s happening at all, and it’s great timing in that Florida’s saying “Don’t Say Gay,” and HBO Max is saying “Our Flag Means Death.” That’s fantastic, I think. The goal for me was to create a show that didn’t feel niche. It had these relationships and these characters, but it’s mainstream. I wanted to create a four-quadrant — I hate that phrase — a four-quadrant hit that still has these relationships, because “Of course, this is life.” We aren’t saying, “This is a gay pirate show.” This is a pirate show, and that’s it.
I think that’s a strong move, and a simple move. We’re just saying [casually], “Yeah, OK, we have queer and non-binary characters.” The fact that it’s lining up with this national moment means I feel good that people can watch the show and see themselves, and feel like, “Yes, we are mainstream. We’re not being shuttled off to the side.” It’s not a specialty show. It’s for everyone. It makes me so happy that it’s been received that way.
Were you on set for Taika and Rhys’ kiss scene?
What was it like shooting that moment, working with them and the directors?
I wanted a closed set that day, I just wanted a very focused, closed set so Rhys and Taika could play the scene. And they do such a good job of running it. By the third time they ran the scene, it was clicking, it was working. Taika is fascinating to watch, because he directs himself — he’s used to directing himself. He’s really good at [saying] to a director [surprisingly accurate Taika Waititi accent], “Tell me where you want me, tell me what you want me to say.” He’s the actor I think he wishes he would have, he would be directing. I see this renowned director with his director-brain still working as he’s acting.
So it was interesting to see them play these scenes over and over, to see how they took shape for Rhys and Taika. They did such good listening to each other in that scene. They were very kind to the script — they did every word that was written. And then they brought in such a comfort with each other that I was like, “Just let them run it. Let them run. No adjustments, no ticky-tacky notes. Let’s just see what comes out.” And they led each other to a really beautiful place. And [episode 9 directors] Bert and Bertie did a fantastic job of getting that entire scene set up the way it was.
Imagine you’re kissing your platonic friend of 16 years. It’s awkward! Making anybody kiss their friend would be awkward to a certain degree. Romantic scenes, in general, are weird in a work environment. So there’s that level of it. At the same time, You’re like, “We’re just gonna kiss, it’s fine.” So the closed set was important because they really got to focus and drill down on the scene, but it’s also like, “It’s just kissing. It’s not a big deal. Everybody who’s done a high-school play has done that.” I think an equally intimate scene is the one where Blackbeard is in the bathtub saying he was gonna kill Stede and burn his face off and take over his life, but he doesn’t want to send him to doggy heaven. The listening in that scene was so beautiful. It’s such an intimate scene. They’re very much alike. There’s no kiss in that scene, but it’s equally as intimate, and just to watch them open themselves up to each other like that, it’s a joy. And since they have known each other for so long, you can get the scenes to these places much more quickly than you would get them normally.
When we’re with Blackbeard in the finale in particular, we’re in dark, dramatic places, but whenever we’re with Stede, we’re back in a broad comedy. If you do get those next two seasons, exactly as you want, how much would you want to lean back into big comedy vs. drama? What would the balance look like?
That’s a really good question. I think the last three episodes of the season are really working. There’s ridiculous fun, with Will Arnett doing stupid stuff with a bullwhip, and the crab-fighting. It’s great, the stories are really popping. There are like four different stories going on there, which to my mind is like “Eughhh, it’s a lot!” But it flows really nicely. I think the fun for me in constructing this show is to have moments that are really violent, because pirates are criminals, and moments that are really broad and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and then moments where we really just settle in and get to see people feel. As long as all those three things are alternating, I’m happy. One might take precedence in an episode, but if all three are there, it’s healthy and it’s working.
I think Stede and Blackbeard are going to remain the focus of the Our Flag Means Death fandom. But as you say, there are a bunch more stories going on. Where do you most want to direct viewers, other than your central pairing? What do you hope people are focusing on in their rewatches, or are wondering about for the future?
Oh boy. It’s such a great cast. I just enjoy everyone, you know? I think Con O’Neill does such a great job. He’s such a complex character, and it’s such a tortured relationship. And that’s a love story too, between him and Blackbeard. It’s a very dysfunctional story, but it’s fun to watch. Watch that maybe, on a rewatch, looking where their relationship ultimately goes. And I think a lot of it for me is just really enjoying the ensemble. Ewan Bremner is in there, being amazing, playing things with such size, and they’re grounded. I love that. It’s an embarrassment of riches. There are all these different flavors of acting.
So I think it’ll hold up to a rewatch for the main story, to see how Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship comes together, but also to see what the crew is noticing, and how they interact with each other. All of those things are fun to see.
Season 1 of Our Flag Means Death is streaming on HBO Max.