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Our Flag Means Death Review: Plundering Meets Blundering in Taika Waititi's Pirate Comedy

The HBO Max series is still getting its sea legs

Tim Surette
Rhys Darby and Nathan Foad, Our Flag Means Death

Rhys Darby and Nathan Foad, Our Flag Means Death

Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

Most of the chatter about HBO Max's pirate comedy Our Flag Means Death will mention its director-producer-actor Taika Waititi, but the real influence behind the new series is creator David Jenkins, whose big credit is the extraordinary, heartfelt, funny, and, sadly, under-watched 2016 comedy People of Earth. (It's streaming on Hulu, and definitely worth your time.) That show featured a group of people on very particular fringes of society who bonded through unusual circumstance (they were in a support group for alien abductees), forming charming and unexpected connections because of a shared belief that the series used as its strength. Jenkins' Our Flag Means Death repeats the first part of that formula (they're pirates!), but not as much of the second part, instead plundering pirate life and riding the high seas for jokes. 

It's a trade-off that's good for gags of varied quality, making Our Flag Means Death a sillier show that steers closer to shallow shores and doesn't dive into the depths of its many characters and excellent cast. Maybe it's unfair to compare People of Earth — a true ensemble comedy — to Our Flag Means Death, which focuses mostly on Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), a pirate who was historically infamous not for being feared, but for being a man of British high society who ditched his family for a pirate's life. It's a premise gift-wrapped for a comedy writer, and Darby, harnessing his knack for blissful incompetence (his Murray from Flight of the Conchords is a gold standard of that type of character), is still winning as a wannabe pirate wearing frilly clothes but not quite willing to get his hands dirty. 


Our Flag Means Death


  • The cast (led by Darby) is great
  • Pirate setting is unique


  • It should be funnier than it is
  • Side characters aren't fleshed out
  • The early episodes are rough

But Stede is constantly surrounded by his shipmates, who are unconvinced that he's the man for the job. (He even calls himself "the Gentleman Pirate," an oxymoron not suited for the type of work typically associated with barbarism.) And at least early on, aside from a few exceptions, many of these other pirates blend together rather than forge their own selves as they would in other workplace comedies. To be fair, it's hard to establish so many characters quickly (critics were sent five episodes of the ten-episode first season). But even the characters who are distinguished from others become blips on Stede's journey, which is sadly not enough to keep things afloat on its own, as his growth is slow and his triumphs are accidental (his first murder is a mishap). 

Things perk up when Blackbeard (Waititi) and his crew show up, providing a necessary contrast between actual pirates and the ragtag bunch we start with, but their stronger personalities only underline the fact that the original crew is undersketched. And as Blackbeard and Stede form a friendship (a variation of which happened in real history) toward the middle of the season, there's an improved blueprint for what the show might look like moving forward.

What's less encouraging is the overall humor, which doesn't seem to take full advantage of all the piracy going on. Most of the jokes are based around the fact that Stede is a bad pirate, which, fair. Rather than boarding Spanish galleons and slaughtering everyone on board, Stede would rather have his pirates sew flags. Instead of guzzling barrels of rum, Stede tends to his ship's library (despite the fact that only two people on board can read). Stede's foppishness plays better when he's forced to do something out of his comfort zone, which sadly doesn't happen enough, as his impenetrable ignorance doesn't allow the reality of situations to hit him until it's too late. Thankfully, the end of Episode 5 promises extreme discomfort headed his way, so perhaps the slow start to Our Flag Means Death is just a case of a comedy finding its sea legs. 

Premieres: Thursday, March 3 on HBO Max
Who's in it: Rhys Darby, Kristian Nairn, Rory Kinnear, Taika Waititi
Who's behind it: David Jenkins (creator), Taika Waititi (director, EP)
For fans of: Silly seafaring shenanigans
How many episodes we watched: 5 out of 10