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Sleeper hit ‘Our Flag Means Death’ left us hanging. Season 2 would ‘reorient’ things

A man lovingly holds another man's cheek
Rhys Darby, left, and Taika Waititi in “Our Flag Means Death.”
(Aaron Epstein / HBO Max)
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The following contains spoilers from Season 1 of “Our Flag Means Death.”

The little pirate show that could, “Our Flag Means Death,” has turned out to be anything but little — in terms of both ambition and viewer appeal. Part romantic comedy, part period piece, the series is surprisingly large in scope, and it’s swiftly emerged as a sleeper hit: Since its premiere on HBO Max last month, it has emerged as a rival to the likes of “Peacemaker” and even “Ted Lasso,” according to Parrot Analytics.

Created by David Jenkins, the series stars Rhys Darby as self-proclaimed “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet and Taika Waititi as Blackbeard/Edward Teach, with whom Stede forms a deep romance over the first season’s 10 episodes. (Waititi is also heavily involved behind the scenes as both an executive producer and a director.)

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That groundbreaking queer representation — not to mention the series’ beautiful visuals — have fans clamoring for more of their favorite band of pirates with the trending hashtag #RenewOurFlagMeansDeath. (At press time, the streamer hasn’t heeded their call.)

The Times spoke to Jenkins and Waititi about that emotional bathtub scene, the strong ensemble of side characters and what’s next for Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship. The following interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

We surveyed The Times TV team to come up with a list of the 75 best TV shows you can watch on Max (formerly HBO Max). And yes, your disagreement is duly noted.

June 2, 2023

Fan engagement with the show has exploded online, with hashtags, dedicated accounts and fan art. What has it been like to see such a passionate fan base develop, and why do you think it’s resonating?

David Jenkins: It’s exciting to have people take the show and reinterpret it [through fan art]. People are so talented, way more talented than me, so to see somebody take something that’s in your head and then run with it and do amazing things with it, it’s an indescribable feeling.

Taika Waititi: The relationships are really what does it. There’s a slow burn between certain characters in the show, and it pays off in such a beautiful way. There’s actually something that resonates a bit deeper than just a comedy about pirates.

It goes without saying that the romance between Stede and Blackbeard is the main throughline of “Our Flag Means Death.” Can you talk about their dynamic and why it’s so important to the show?

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Waititi: It’s a romantic comedy in the best sense of the word. The romance is also the drama, and the comedy is what it is. So, tonally, it’s right in my wheelhouse — this is the kind of the balance of tone that’s with everything that I’ve ever made. Also, what I love about the show is that none of the characters talk about being gay. It’s never treated like, “Oh my God, it’s two men.” [David] never mention[s] it in that way.

Jenkins: I thought it would be better to just skip that. It’s just accepted. You can get to different places more quickly. That’s one of the benefits of not having it kind of dominate the narrative. The thing about being seen that really touches me, when people say that, is it’s the core of the show. Ed sees Stede and Stede really sees Ed, and they are maybe the only people in their lives who have seen each other on that level. I think you want to honor and make everyone feel accepted, but it’s so much more about these two people just negotiating each other. And the fact that they happen to be the same sex, it’s not incidental, but it was very conscious on my part, to not make it the focus of the show.

One example where it’s working effectively is during the emotional bathtub scene in Episode 6.

Jenkins: I’m curious Taika, since he raised it, what was going on for you when we did the bathtub scene? Because you were ready to go that day.

Waititi: I felt like that was a good sort of gear shift with those two and especially for Edward. With every character, you kind of have to be able to relate to something. I was raised just by my mother and barely knew my father, and there’s a lot of things in that character’s journey that I was like, “OK, well, I can relate to that.” I wouldn’t say that I’m going to use it and say, “Yeah, that’s exactly mine, I’m just bringing my childhood trauma to this role.” I don’t like doing that, it’s too traumatic. [Laughs]

Jenkins: He played it so straight, and Rhys listened. His listening is really beautiful in that scene. I was just trying to find what Blackbeard’s voice is when he’s not being theatrical. The day that we shot it we actually moved it up because Taika was like, “Hey, I’m ready to do this.” It was really like, “Oh, the show’s going to win because I believe in the relationship.”

A group of men on the deck of a pirate ship prepare to throw someone overboard
The ensemble cast of “Our Flag Means Death.”
(Aaron Epstein/HBO Max)
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There is a vast collection of intriguing supporting characters (and actors) that serve as a lively complement to Stede and Blackbeard’s back-and-forth. What does the rest of the ensemble bring to the series?

Waititi: I’ve been a fan of a lot of these actors before meeting them on the show. For me, the strength that you gain from having actors from various disciplines is exciting. People who are just straight-up comedians, who never really dare [to] do any drama, and then straight-up dramatic actors who would be treading water trying to improvise or do anything funny. And then, there are people in between who can do everything. I think everyone from either camp learned a lot from the others.

Jenkins: I think the trick is, how do you support them and not defang anybody and not take away their superpower? For me, it’s just fun to mix and match them with each other and then to mix and match them with Taika, particularly. The scene just goes differently when he is playing it with Con [O’Neill, who plays Izzy Hands] than when he is playing it with Rhys. I love that we have all those different flavors in the same world.

The look of the show is striking. David, can you talk about why the visuals of the show were so important to nail down?

Jenkins: I thought, if it looks like a regular pirate thing we’re going to be bored, because it’s been done so much. The big thing from the gate: How do we make it feel like it’s its own thing with its own tone? I really talked to [costume designer] Christine [Wada], [production designer] Ra Vincent and [director of photography] Mike Berlucchi. The four of us talked about, “What should this look like?” I stayed away from pirate movie images for visual references and looked more at Spielberg movies like “Jaws” just for our color palette. [I] wanted something that felt kind of classical, but maybe not in a pirate sense.

Taika, what was it like for you to take on the character of Blackbeard?

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Waititi: This show actually made me fall back in love with acting. Sometimes you put on costumes, and it does nothing for you and you don’t feel anything. And I put this one on and instantly, my body language changed. You just start feeling kind of like — I don’t usually talk about this sort of stuff that a lot of actors talk about but — it’s almost like “Oh, I’m like an animal.” But you really are like a f— hammerhead shark in that tight stuff because the way you walk, you are kind of just swaying around almost like you’re just waiting to feed. When you start getting that feeling, just from putting the clothes on, and then when you add to that the beard and the wig and everything, it’s sort of like half the job is done.

At the end of the finale, Blackbeard and Stede are not on the best of terms. Can you talk to me about what their relationship looks like moving forward?

Waititi: Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m waiting to find out too because this is all in David’s brain. I just look forward, if and, hopefully, when we go forward again, to see that time when they are in the same room together again. All of those little social nuances and details that we all relate to, I want to see that stuff. It’s like the opening of “Grease” after their summer fling.

Jenkins: I think watching Blackbeard try to put himself back together and Stede try to put himself back together and both reorient themselves. This is their first love, which means that it’s the first time that Blackbeard’s ever been hurt this badly. You’re rocked when that happens. You go into a crisis.

What’s the update on a second season renewal?

Waititi: I don’t know anything. I just think that they should because it makes sense. Also, I need to know what happens next. [Laughs]

Jenkins: It’s a rough one to not pick up on after what happened at the end of it. It’s a particularly rough one. I hope they figure it out. I hope they want to do more. I know everyone in the show wants to. Just to go on [social media] and see it trend for like two weeks feels unreal. It’s so gratifying, even not knowing if you’re renewed, to see that people liked it that much.

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