Why the Gay Pirates Hit Different
Spoilers for OUR FLAG MEANS DEATH on HBO Max
I love Taika Waititi, period queer romances, and ensemble comedies, so I was already primed and loaded to love Our Flag Means Death when it came out in March. However, I really wasn’t expecting to start crying in episode 5 and continue crying until I finished binging the show a few hours later. After my first watch-through, about a day after the show finished airing, I was having trouble articulating why it had affected me so greatly. It was inarguably a great show, with memorable performances and a solid script; that wasn’t it, though. It had hit me somewhere very few pieces of media had hit. It wasn’t until I rewatched it and started trying to convince all of my friends to watch it that I started to parse out what I was feeling. It was catharsis.
Now that more than a month has passed since the release of the show, the cast/creators and fans alike have talked about how OFMD is an antidote of sorts to the history of queerbait in TV and film. David Jenkins, the showrunner, and Taika Waititi have both spoken about the realization during the airing of the show that the fear of queerbait runs deep in queer audiences. I think, though, that it goes deeper than just not being queerbait. This show, whether consciously or unconsciously, actively deconstructs everything that mainstream media has beat into us for decades.
At first, I thought it was just that, the fact that I wasn’t queerbaited. Canon queer couples in popular media always get my heart a-fluttering, and this was a well-executed one that that. Incidental queerness (meaning queerness in a story that isn’t explicitly about being queer, I wrote a whole other piece about that) gets me even more excited, so having multiple canon queer couples as well as a nonbinary character in a show that was decidedly not about that would’ve been enough to sustain me for months.
However, OFMD went further than that. It was a slow burn strangers-to-lovers that did every single beat of a stereotypical hetero romantic comedy in a way that sent a giant middle finger to all creators who were too chickenshit to make their pairings canon for fear of alienating a supposed cishet audience. We (the audience who has watched any sort of media that even slightly hinted at the possibility of queerness) have seen every. single. one. of these beats done in other shows, that never delivered on the rom part of romcom. The long looks, the shouted “he’s my friend,” the jealous ex-“““friend””” that comes in to stir drama, the saving each other’s lives, the bedside vigils, the plans to run away together… I have seen every bit of Stede and Ed’s love story in other shows, but for the actual kiss they share.
After having finished the show and realizing that it was actually meant to be an explicit love story, I realized how much my jaded brain had managed to explain away from the show, even the more overt queer moments. The moment in episode 8 when Stede tells the crew that he and Ed are effectively separating, and the speech is written exactly as if they’re divorcing parents telling their kids they’ll still love them no matter what, comes to mind. I have seen that moment, hell, I’ve enjoyed that moment, in plenty of other media. I have always seen it played for laughs. In every queerbaity show, there will inevitably be moments when other characters confuse the pairing for a couple, and it’s either ignored or joked off. JD and Turk in Scrubs had their “guy love” situation and called themselves “basically married,” Emma and Regina literally fight over a custody of their shared son on Once Upon a Time, etc.
But then! It’s actually canon! The show isn’t joking around a bromance when Stede tells Lucius he thinks he and Ed are “done,” he literally thinks his boyfriend just broke up with him! In episode 7, everything that happens on the treasure hunting trip made me go absolutely feral upon a rewatch. Again, all of these moments are moments I have seen before: Lucius saying “oh my god this is happening” when Stede very intimately touches Ed’s beard has been done so many times before. I can think of five times off the top of my head from Supernatural alone, when Dean and Castiel hug or look at each other or do anything intimate like that, and a background character makes a face or has some sort of “oh” moment. But OFMD means it in the gay way! Homo intended!
The moment that stuck with me the most, for some reason, is the conversation Lucius and Ed have after the map burns up, when Lucius tells him to stop being a dick because Stede likes him, and Ed likes Stede too. I spent a half hour trying to articulate to my roommate why that scene had left me reeling on my first rewatch; at the end of it, all I could really say was “he meant it in a gay way!” It wasn’t the most articulate statement I’ve ever made, but it got to the crux of it: he actually meant it in a romantic way, he meant that Stede and Ed had feelings for each other. Based on my experience, I would have expected this to go in one of two ways: either it was meant in a platonic way, or it was more of the cheeky queerbaiting where it was meant to be a wink to the queer viewers who subside entirely on crumbs and morsels unevenly doled out by machiavellian showrunners. Despite, at that point, having already seen several episodes of Stede and Ed undeniably building towards a romance, my knee-jerk reaction was still to assume that, best case, the show was being coy about it, that Lucius meant it in an overall platonic liking-your-friends way.
That is ultimately the tragedy of queerbaiting: for every John/Sherlock, Stiles/Derek, Lena/Kara, Dean/Castiel, Geralt/Jaskier, and Buck/Eddie, there is not an equal and opposite Stede/Ed. At some point, we just come to expect disappointment in mainstream and popular media. Every time I see some baby gay on Tumblr get convinced that this will finally be the season whatever pairing becomes canon, my heart breaks a little bit. For the most part, if I’m getting into a new mainstream show without explicit proof that there is a canon queer couple, I expect that there won’t be. This also comes back to the origins of the term “queerbaiting:” it’s a marketing tactic. With OFMD as a glaring exception, trailers and promos for popular shows will usually be a significant percentage gayer than the show will be. That’s the bait, to get the gay dollar. Reel them in with the promise of gay rep, and deliver on nothing more than some lingering glances and maybe a meaningful pat on the arm.
Our Flag Means Death comes in, though, and delivers a perfect show with all the energy of Elle Woods saying “what, like it’s hard?” Throughout the show, there are several moments when a character will do or say something that forcibly remind you that it is, in fact, meant to be gay. When Calico Jack comes in (a classic romcom trope), he explicitly asks Stede if he and Ed are having sex, because Jack and Ed definitely used to have sex. There is no heterosexual explanation for that. It’s so easy to forget, with the amount of times we’ve been let down in the past, that we’re not stupid or naive for viewing this pairing as romantic. It’s a feature, not a bug.
I’ve been mostly discussing the romance here, because that is the main thrust of the show, but it’s certainly not the only queer thing that had me sending five minute long tearful voice messages to my friends. The character of Jim is a genuine game-changer; I cannot think of a single other piece of media that handles a nonbinary character this gracefully and nonchalantly. Jim could’ve easily been another woman-hides-as-a-man trope; instead, they say they don’t know if they’re a woman and that they’re still just Jim, and that’s it. There isn’t even a conversation about what pronouns to use, they just are what they are. When the crew goes to St. Augustine and they meet Jim’s Nana (who is a nun), she immediately starts using the new name and pronouns without a second’s hesitation. Jim just is.
I know that for all my talk about wanting media that makes queerness not a big deal, I am now making a big deal of it. I contain multitudes. In all seriousness, though, I’m hoping for a day when there’s no big deal to be made because shows like this are a dime a dozen. Today, however, when I can still feel like I’ve undergone a religious experience and come out the other side a different person after watching a pirate comedy, it needs to be discussed. Too many networks and creators are too scared to alienate potential audiences that they bait and wink and tease and nod but never deliver, and we are so accustomed to being forced to read several layers into media to see ourselves, will continue to take it.
I think that’s the biggest difference here: so many shows are meant to be understood as cishet on the surface, with occasional winks to queer viewers who continue to write 300k canon divergence fanfics to get the Big Gay Moments we want that the shows deprive us. There are also a number of gay shows where the gay can be easily edited out or skipped, and otherwise the show remains the same. OFMD is meant to be understood as queer, and there is no alternate viewing. It’s gay, or it’s nothing.