The camp physics of Our Flag Means Death
5 min read

The camp physics of Our Flag Means Death

This is the only day that I can write this essay. Yesterday, I hadn't caught up on the HBO Max pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death. Tomorrow, the finale comes out. In the meantime, I'm trying to decide how gay the thing is. Soon I'll know the answer, but I don't want it yet; I want to luxuriate in the elegant heated box Schrödinger built for his Cat. There's a flask of poison and a radioactive substance in here, but that's also kind of what Our Flag Means Death is about. I mean, the two main characters are a flask of poison and a radioactive substance, and the question is whether they're going to fuck, and whether it matters.

Our Flag Means Death is a weird piece of television. For one thing, it starts out abjectly bad and then flies up a forty-five-degree slope towards greatness, and that's a remarkable arc for eight half-hour episodes. It speaks of something strange going on in the writers' room, or in the show's relationship with its producers – or else it speaks of an intentional feint, but a clumsy one.

The show is based on the story of "gentleman pirate" Stede Bonnet, a real person, and his relationship with Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, also a real person, but portrayed here as an intentional construct on Teach's part. Stede (played with a deft touch and sure instincts by Rhys Darby) is initially written as a one-joke buffoon. The joke is that he's too nice to be a pirate, and that his wish to be kind to his crew – whom he explicitly characterizes as traumatized people – is fundamentally wrong-headed, since they are bloodthirsty pirates who live for mayhem, etc., etc.

At least that's a whole sentence, which is more than the rest of the cast gets until episode 5. Let's see: there's a guy who tells lies, a gay guy, couple of weird guys, a guy who's secretly not a guy, and several other guys who are visually striking but don't have a trait between them – plus one (1) hapless straight man, played by Samson Kayo, the only actor who immediately rises above the morass. It's a guyball, a positive Rat King of guys, and it gives the impression that what the creators really wanted to do was work with the Muppets.

This goes on for a few episodes, and then it stops. There is something – I hate to use the term – hallucinogenic about the second half of Our Flag Means Death, once it wakes up, or maybe falls asleep. It's something heightened, candy-colored, like The Wizard of Oz. The show starts out cartoonish, but then it becomes a cartoon – with its own internally consistent nonsense-rules about physics, anatomy, character, fashion, anachronism, and the passage of time. To be cartoonish is to be silly without rules. To be a cartoon, by the standards that I've just made up, is to be silly with rules, and with dangers too. In a cartoon, the body can survive all kinds of things that should kill it, and that's not inherently a comforting circumstance. Mere cartoonishness shows no respect to cartoons.

The show also becomes very queer. Half of these guys are suddenly fucking or flirting, and the ship now has a vibrant, wittily satirical gay subculture. For another, the character who's disguised as a cis man – who has spent the entire show being seen and described as a woman in drag – is recast as a nonbinary person who has known themself as such since childhood, and who is unspokenly understood as such by the other heroes. Again, I cannot emphasize how weird the situation in the writers' room must have been, and how obvious a conflict there must have been between its queer and straight creators. All of this retconning happens 'round about episode five. It's not like this is the break between seasons two and three, or happened in response to fan complaints. They invented it all, reinvented it seconds later, but then didn't go back, only forward.

The most compelling reinvention surrounds Stede himself. It has everything to do with the show's abrupt acceptance that trauma is a real thing after all, and Stede has some. So does Blackbeard, who finally shows up at about this time to begin an off-kilter, surreal, and quite moving flirtation with Stede. Taika Waititi plays Blackbeard as a cross between Vincent Van Gogh and Dustin Hoffman in Hook; he answers a question I had no plans to ever give a shit about, which is "what if Captain Jack Sparrow had depression?" Bored, restless, and courting death, Blackbeard regards Stede's bizarre approach to piracy as a revelation, a reinvention of the art he loves. The unending quiet pleasure he takes from this allows Stede to come into his own as a captain. He also comes into his own as a gay man – although as of this writing, four hours before the season ends, that just means an increasing comfort with the role of middle-aged queen, rather than any open admittance that he wants to have sex with Blackbeard immediately. (The show takes some care to establish that Blackbeard has sex with men already; his self-recognition is very different.)

This is the part where I write an Isaac's Law that will self-destruct before many readers open it. I think, probably, that Stede and Blackbeard are going to admit they're in love at the end of the season. I think, probably, that this will be good, and subvert the kind of patronizing relationship modern television often has with queer fans who want something queer to happen. If a show isn't trying for some kind of advanced literary credibility, I don't want it to be shy with me about queerness. I don't want it to tease me, to give me breadcrumbs; I want it to tell the story it's actually telling, rather than assume that what I really want – as an adult and a writer in my own right – is a bowl of unripe subtext.

But I'm also not sure that Blackbeard and Stede need to say "I love you" for the subtext to be ripe. It's already a story about love, as expressed through beard-petting, wistful gazing, and casual homoerotic stabbing; it's already portraying the heroes as the last people on the ship who don't know they're married. It's also a story where being culturally queer – embracing style, camp, art, and a certain specific culture of emotional support – is what makes people queer, rather than the specifics of whether you're fucking and who. Stede's queeniness, which is quite lovely to see and seems to heal something in him, is queerness in its own right. The relationship with Blackbeard is secondary to the relationship with himself.

The definition of queerness in strictly cultural terms can be clumsy and offensive. It is definitely both of those at the beginning of Our Flag Means Death. It can be a way to neutralize queerness, to make it cute, to deemphasize the challenge it presents to society. But it also cuts both ways. Cultural queerness can throw down its own gauntlet, particularly in a cartoon universe, in which playacting, clowning, and camp are the elements of basic physics.

I don't doubt that Our Flag Means Death will fuck up again. But it also knows what it's doing, or figured it out very quickly. For these past several episodes, it has created something hyper-romantic and contradictory, pirouetting between farce and elegy – where both are about the same man in his forties who's beginning to understand himself for the first time. I'm enjoying this moment of being suspended in the air, waiting to find out what's coming, uncertain of whether my ride is going to plunge back into the sea or fly to heaven.