It’s easy to look at HBO Max’s pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death and immediately type it as “Taika Waititi’s latest project.” Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, executive produced the show, co-stars in it, and directed the pilot. And that pilot in particular feels notably close to a version of What We Do In The Shadows, with pirates instead of vampires. The humor, built around a foppy, pretentious wannabe pirate captain and his crew of oddballs and misfits, falls directly in line with one of Waititi’s favorite themes: the mildly tragic, often hilarious conflict between the way people envision themselves, and the way everyone else sees them. Like virtually all his best humor, it’s wholly deadpan and utterly ridiculous at the same time.
But ultimately, the series is more the vision of creator, showrunner, and writer David Jenkins. And after that setup, he takes the series in directions that people expecting a Waititi comedy might not expect — directions that make the show authentically memorable and admirable, instead of just the light, disposable sitcom fun that the first episodes tease. Waititi certainly isn’t a stranger to heartfelt beats or big drama, but the more the show builds throughout its 10-episode season, the more it comes from a completely different distinctive, specific voice. Which is why it might be a good idea to skip the premiere and wait a week before watching it, until enough of the series is available that you can binge it and get a better idea of what really makes the show worth the investment.
It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with the opening episodes of the show, which introduce “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet and his crew, and set all the crucial gears in motion. Stede, played by Rhys Darby (a longtime partner of Waititi’s, and the head of the “werewolves, not swearwolves” pack in What We Do in the Shadows), was an actual 18th-century plantation owner who abandoned his family, commissioned a ship, and declared himself to be a pirate captain, in spite of his complete lack of experience at sea. Darby plays his incompetence to the hilt: His version of Stede is a chipper, prissy soft boi who’s inept with weapons, sailing, and command. He’s more suited to garden parties and lace-shopping than for boarding actions or weathering storms, and it’s immediately evident in everything he says and does.
His crew is dubious about him at best, but they aren’t exactly killer material either: The lineup includes cannibal nudist Buttons (Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner), apathetic lutist Frenchie (In the Earth’s Joel Fry), sneering lunk John Feeney (Game of Thrones’ Hodor, Kristian Nairn), gangly doofus Swede (Nat Faxon), and wannabe mutineer Black Pete (Matthew Maher). Only soft-spoken Oluwande (Samson Kayo) and mute knife enthusiast Jim (Vico Ortiz) seem competent and capable, or at least willing to tolerate a situation where they’re paid regularly and don’t have to risk their lives on actual ship-to-ship fights.
But with so many characters to introduce, the pilot in particular is light and goofy, mostly centering around Stede inveigling his reluctant crew into a contest to sew the best pirate flag for the ship. And the kickoff doesn’t do much to suggest what’s coming later, when Stede meets the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Waititi, in a striking, standout performance). The show follows the broad parameters of Stede’s life enough that his Wikipedia page could be considered a series of major spoilers. But what’s missing from the history books is what drove Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship, and that’s what Jenkins is looking to fill in with the show. Once that process starts, Our Flag Means Death fully finds its footing, its heart, and the drama underlying all the wacky characters and straight-faced comic banter.
The show introduces Waititi’s Blackbeard early on, along with initial hints about other elements that will become significant to the big picture, including Stede’s feelings about his wife Mary (Claudia O’Doherty), Jim’s secrets and backstory, and Black Pete’s fannish hunger to be seen as a real pirate. But the pieces don’t entirely come together until around episode 4, when Jenkins starts revealing his bigger intentions. Before that, the series is a perfectly amiable collection of absurdist setpieces built around enjoyable guest stars, like Leslie Jones and Fred Armisen as a bar-owning couple, or Rory Kinnear as a stuffy British navy man. There’s a lot of Waititi-style humor, with one type of character being oblivious, self-important, and full of their own self-mythologizing, and another type being sloppy, strange, and prone to failing upward.
When the setup is finally done, though, Our Flag Means Death becomes something much tenderer: a story about identity and friendship, about how difficult it can be for anyone to figure out who they really are, when being alone and being around other people both have their traps and distractions. Throughout the full 10-episode run provided to critics, Jenkins’ series never loses the slapstick angle or the lowbrow humor — Bremner proudly running around bare-assed, spitting invective in a near-impenetrable heightened Scottish accent, is a gag that just keeps getting bigger throughout the show. But the story finds some real resonance in looking at how people romanticize their place in the world and miss out on the connections they could have made in reality, and how relationships are a constant negotiation, as the needs and desires of the people involved keep shifting as they grow.
And in particular, Darby and Waititi’s performances just keep getting better and more nuanced as the show unfolds. In the opening episodes, Stede is a one-note-joke of a man, a repeating bit that starts to grate early on. That’s unquestionably by design, but his purposeful, intentional shallowness doesn’t make him any less shallow. And Blackbeard similarly starts out more legend than man. Once the show moves into deeper waters, though, both men put so much charm and nuance into these characters that the series would be worth watching just to see them interact. Waititi has always been as much of a draw onscreen as he is behind the camera, but here, as a man who keeps showing new layers in every episode, he’s particularly compelling and exciting.
Obviously, it’s possible to watch the opening episodes of Our Flag Means Death at launch, and then come back later for more. But there’s so much content out there these days, and it’s so easy to start a show and then lose track of it amid all the other competition — especially something that starts off as episodic and sitcom-y as this series, without the kind of obvious mystery that makes for appointment viewing. And with a series that relies this much on turning early gags into later drama, and on piecing together big emotions out of small beginnings, the binge experience is likely to be a lot more compelling. Maybe give Our Flag Means Death a pass this week. And then don’t miss out when you have a chance to get the full impact.
Episodes 1-3 of Our Flag Means Death are now streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes arriving per week on Thursdays.