Our Flag Means Death, Season 2 Back

*This review contains plot spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the television show Our Flag Means Death.*

The long-awaited and much anticipated season 2 of HBO’s Our Flag Means Death finally aired this past October 2023. Despite being just 8 episodes long, OFMD’s newest season packs hefty narrative punches that forward the romance-plot between beloved ship-‘mates’ Ed ‘Blackbeard’ Teach (Taika Waititi) and Stede Bonnet, ‘the Gentleman Pirate’ (Rhys Darby). Season 1 saw Blackbeard confess his love for Stede through a tender first kiss that solidified the queer pairing many fans suspected. As the BSECS review on season 1 details, the historical figures of Bonnet and Blackbeard actually knew each other in real life, serving together aboard the renowned Queen Anne’s Revenge.[i]

Fans devastated by Stede and Ed’s separation in season 1’s finale will be happy to find that the wait was well-worth the angst. Where season 1 was a quirky queer romcom, season 2 turns up the volume on all things ‘Romance’. The long-awaited teaser trailer opened with overt declarations of love, as Stede’s voiceover reads the contents from his ‘message in a bottle’, which he is seen dramatically tossing into the sea: ‘Dear Ed, I love everything about you. I love being near you, breathing the same air. I think of you often, hope you’re thinking of me as well’.[ii] Despite Stede’s soaring love note—set to the powerful, melodic cries and electric guitar riffs of Prince’s ‘The Beautiful Ones’— it’s clear Blackbeard has fallen into despair over the split. Believing Stede has rejected his declaration of love, audiences see Ed transform into the villainous ‘Blackbeard persona’ he once decried. Can these two lovers, torn apart, endure the heights and depths of new love’s despair before happily reconciling in each other’s arms? While this season takes darker turns through themes of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, toxic relationships, and trauma, it also takes its romance seriously, pairing up many of the secondary characters and—to many fans’ delight—provides plenty of steamy kiss scenes between Stede and Ed. But what of the show’s attention to the historicity of seventeenth and eighteenth-century piracy? What can scholars of the period expect coming to this newest iteration of pirate media?

Continuing in the spirit of last season, this season offers plenty of quips and moments that eighteenth centuryists will enjoy. There are a host of references to the exotic plants and animal trade: from Blackbeard snorting rhino horn powder to the discovery of a chest of ‘blue dirt’, commonly known today as the valuable commodity indigo.[iii] More historically accurate moments occur toward the finale, with the presence of British, French, and Spanish navies suppressing piratical presence in the Caribbean to the historically accurate usage of the legal term ‘mateys’, or matelotage, in the heartwarming marriage between Lucius Spriggs (Nathan Foad) and Black Pete (Matthew Maher).[iv] In particular, the ‘Gentlebeard’ breakup plotline is potentially canon. According to Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724)—a text celebrating its 300th anniversary this year—Blackbeard truly did maroon Bonnet and his crew sometime in the Spring of 1718. Shortly thereafter, Teach began a heightened string of attacks by capturing and ransacking vessels outside of Charles Town Bar, South Carolina. There his fleet remained anchored, preventing any ships from entering or leaving the harbour until medical supplies were secured from the colonial government in town.[v] This heightened string of attacks following Stede’s departure from the Revenge is reflected in OFMD through the identity crisis Teach undergoes between season 1 and 2. Season 2 continues to plod through Ed’s conflicted relationship with ‘Blackbeard’, the violent piratical alter-ego he views as a distinct, alternative version of himself. In season 2, Blackbeard becomes the stereotype of himself that he previously condemned, donning an armory of weapons and terrifying black makeup that fulfill Johnson’s sensationalized description of Blackbeard as ‘altogether such a figure, that imagination could not form an idea of a fury from hell, to look more frightening’.[vi] Show writer David Jenkin’s representation of the ‘fearsome Blackbeard’, if we are to believe Johnson and his illustrator, is a fairly accurate depiction. But fans of the show know better than to ascribe this alter-ego any weight: beneath the metal and makeup lies the real Ed. Teach’s assumption of his own stereotype is more a signal of his vulnerability and distress over his breakup with Stede than it is of the ruthless masculinity that male pirates have come to be associated with. 

Perhaps season 2’s strongest representation of historical accuracy is found through the inclusion of other famed pirates from the Golden Age: Benjamin Hornigold, Edward ‘Ned’ Low, and three of the most renowned female pirates: Mary Read, Anne Bonny, and Zheng Yi Sao. The representation of Read and Bonny is thrilling because, despite their fascinating histories, these pirates have received much less attention than their male counterparts in pirate media. In episode 4 of OFMD, Bonny (Minnie Driver) and Read (Rachel House) appear as a hardened, retired pirate couple, bored by the humdrums of running an antique shop on the mainland who get their kicks out of stabbing/poisoning each other.[vii] Read, according to Johnson, dressed in menswear from a young age to prevent discovery in a list of traditionally male professions. It wasn’t until Bonny ‘took [Read] for a handsome young Fellow’, that Read ‘let her know she was a Woman also’. Their ‘intimacy’ in fact disturbed Bonny’s then ‘Lover and Gallant’ Captain Rackham, though only until he was let in on the secret as well.[viii]

Like her eighteenth-century counterparts, Zheng (Ruibo Qian) is based on a real Chinese pirate queen from the nineteenth century: Zheng Yi Sao (born Shi Yang).[ix] Debatably one of the most successful pirates in history, Zheng led the Pirate Confederation—an army comprising over seventy thousand pirates—that plagued the coast of Kwangtung Province between 1795 and 1810.[x] In the show, Zheng runs a tight, all-women ship that temporarily takes Bonnet and his crew as prisoners. It’s clear from the get-go, Zheng is everything Bonnet is not when it comes to being a captain: organized and respected, sharp and lethal. When Bonnet and crew escape, Zheng becomes a temporary antagonist and serious adversary, going head-to-head with Bonnet in an anti-climactic sword fight toward the series’ end, where Zheng comes out as the obvious winner. From her introduction as the Pirate Queen who ‘conquered China’, it is clear that Zheng is phenomenally skilled in both combat and strategy, and she effortlessly captures other ships and threatens their captains into joining her pirate army, recruiting throughout the season.[xi] Alongside brutal women like Read and Bonny, Zheng’s inclusion in OFMD highlights this season’s breakthrough depictions of female piracy in contemporary media. Not only is Zheng’s character treated like any other (male) pirate in the series, with intentional historical inaccuracies and arcs of both violence and romance alike, but she also stands in a minority space long lacking any historical pirate representation at all. OFMD does not shy away from Chinese-inspired visuals and designs for Zheng’s crew, and it avoids most of the pitfalls of exoticism that many re-imaginings of Zheng—such as ‘Mistress Ching’ in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’s. Rather than being alienated or treated distinctly foreign, Zheng is portrayed as on equal, if not better, footing with other pirates around her.

However, this rendition of Zheng, with her perfect English and American-colloquial slang, may have some viewers wondering if she has been assimilated to the point of becoming white-washed for the sake of palatability. Zheng is seen to write in Chinese but she never speaks the language nor acknowledges it. This character aspect proves questionable when compared to another pirate character, Jim, who is proudly Latine and speaks bilingually with Spanish accent, all without being exoticized or culturally censored. It is reasonable to see, though, that OFMD had a difficult choice to make: giving Zheng an accent or having her speak Chinese on screen may have potentially felt like a more prominent and perpetuated stereotype that the series may have wanted to avoid. Another interesting paradox is that some may find Zheng’s all-woman crew to be an insult to her historical counterpart, who led thousands of men in the Pirate Confederation. It is hard to say whether this change makes the Zheng of the OFMD look incapable of leading men, or if a woman leading women is just self-perpetuating misogyny, but this directorial choice is, at least, an undoubtedly logistical win for the women actors hired for the background roles. Nevertheless, Zheng’s portrayal in regard to contemporary conceptions of female piracy in media is groundbreaking. After her deal with pirate-hunter and British prince Richard Banes (Erroll Shand) is ultimately betrayed and leads to a devastating attack on the entire Republic of Pirates, the series amps up to an exciting finale where Zheng stands alongside Bonnet and Teach, banding together to fight off the British army. As Zheng slices them down, and Teach runs toward the murderous fray screaming at the soldiers to die, Bonnet makes sure to shout after them, ‘For Love!’[xii]

If you liked this review or are a fan of Our Flag, we encourage you to check out #RenewAsACrew, to petition for a third and final season.

[i]Charles Johnson, ‘Of Chapter Stede Bonnet and his Crew’, chapter 4 in A General History of the Lives, Murders and Adventures of the Most Notorious Rogues, (rprt. British Library 2021, originally published London: 1724), pp. 91–112.

[ii]HBO Max, ‘Our Flag Means Death Season 2 Teaser’, (30 August 2023), retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0z6AeVbES0.

[iii]David Jenkins, Alyssa Lane, Alex Sherman, “Impossible Birds” episode 1 in Our Flag Means Death Season 2 (5 October 2023).

[iv]According to B. R. Burg, ‘matelotage [was]…an informally accepted system of mutual obligations…recognized between master and matelot and included the sharing  of all property and [t]he common ownership of goods even extended in most cases to inheritance’ (Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean, 2 edn. [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1995], pp. 128–9).

[v]Johnson, pp. 72–3.

[vi]Johnson, p. 45.

[vii]David Jenkins and Eliza Jiménez Cossio, ‘Fun and Games’, episode 4 in Our Flag Means Death Season 2 (12 October 2023).

[viii]Johnson, ‘The Life of Mary Read’, pp. 157–65.

[ix]Zheng Yi Sao, born Shi Yang, became Zheng Yi Sao (meaning ‘Zheng Yi’s wife’) when her husband died and she took over in his stead. For readerly ease, we refer to her as ‘Zheng’ throughout. 

[x]Dian Murray, ‘One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates’, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 8,3 (1981): 147–61.

[xi]Season 2, episode 2, titled ‘Red Flags’, is a direct reference to the historical Zheng Yi Sao’s squad in the Pirate Confederation, which, in its entirety, was composed of the six fleets that were based on the color of their flags—purple, black, blue, white, yellow, and red.

[xii]David Jenkins and John Mahone, ‘Mermen’, episode 8 in Our Flag Means Death Season 2 (26 October 2023).