With Halloween just around the corner, it seems only natural to ask David Jenkins to name his favorite horror movie.
“Favorite horror movie,” he says, musing for a moment. “Favorite horror movie. The Thing is pretty good. Pretty terrifying movie.”
Asked to clarify if he’s referring to the original 1951 version or John Carpenter’s 1982 grisly, over-the-top remake, he doesn’t hesitate. “The Carpenter version! Very good, very scary. Also, Alien. I would call that a horror. Some people view that as an action movie. But that’s a horror movie.”
We’re not here to talk about things from another world, however. We’re here to talk about pirates. Specifically, pirates in the throes of same-sex love. Jenkins, you see, is the creator and showrunner for Our Flag Means Death, which just concluded a second triumphant season on Max.
The romantic comedy stars Rhys Darby, brilliant as Stede Bonnet, a British aristocrat who abandons his family and position in society for a life of stealing treasure on the high seas.
Bonnet, whom history dubbed The Gentleman Pirate, eventually served alongside the infamous king of all pirates, Blackbeard, portrayed with extraordinary depth in the series by Darby’s fellow New Zealander, Taika Waititi.
What’s not quite documented by history is the actual relationship between these two pirates. Jenkins, however, is fairly certain that they were romantically involved — or, at least, that’s how he likes to interpret it — so his show throws everything we think about pirates overboard and gives us an entirely new viewpoint. Albeit one with enough killing and savagery to ensure the reality of pirates is maintained.
It’s not unlike what Waititi and his collaborator Jemaine Clement achieved with vampires both in the film and series What We Do in the Shadows. But Our Flag Means Death, for all its comedic beats, is deeper than Shadows.
It’s not as wantonly loopy in its humor, and it’s focused more intently on relationship building across all the crew members on Stede’s ship, The Revenge. Over its two seasons, the show has grown into a white-hot romance with all the conviction, passion, and tenderness that any viewer could wish for.
The show revels in its queerness — and not just the romance between Blackbeard and Stede, but other pairings in the ensemble as well, most notably Matthew Maher’s wonderfully sensitive Black Pete and Nathan Foad’s semi-effete Lucius.
The queer spectrum is on rich display with nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz as Jim, who comes into their own romance this season, and Con O’Neill’s showstopping turn as Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel “Izzy” Hands, who inevitably reveals his true inner-self without abandoning what makes him one of history’s most fearsome pirates.
Our Flag Means Death upends traditional notions of masculinity but never sacrifices the pirate aesthetics from which that false, pumped-up bravado springs. There is plenty of pillaging and killing, and yet the crew becomes more soft and pliable with each passing episode. Jenkins likens the series to a workplace show — a Grey’s Anatomy set on the treacherous seas.
To call Our Flag Means Death one of the best shows currently on television isn’t overhype. Its narrative is meticulously crafted across two seasons, and the performances are, across the board, each a wonder unto themselves.
The core cast, along with a veritable treasure chest of guest appearances by Minnie Driver, Bronson Pinchot, Selenis Leyva, and Kristen Johnston, portray not caricatures but deeply realized, full-bodied personas that captivatingly inhabit this carefully fashioned fantasy pirate world.
Our Flag Means Death has also proven — especially in its brilliant second season — that it is among the queerest shows on TV. If Heartstopper, for all its innocence, is for the younger members of the LGBTQ community, Flag is for adults who prefer a richer passion with their same-sex love stories. It’s a comedy fraught with underlying meaning and an honesty that strikes the heart with the force of a cannonball.
Jenkins, who previously created the TBS comedy People of Earth, knows he’s landed on something truly unique and special with Our Flag Means Death, and as he awaits word of whether or not a third season is in the offing, he is content that he’s at least helmed a series that not only celebrates same-sex unions in an unexpected genre, but also celebrates all walks of humanity.
“In this world, I think piracy is a stand-in for being an iconoclast and an outsider and queer in some ways and just different,” he says. “In the world of Flag, the characters are running from a kind of oppressive normalcy. You can get behind them and root for them when you identify it like that.”
METRO WEEKLY: I have to start off by saying that, prior to watching your show, I had no idea that Stede Bonnet was a real historical character and that he and Blackbeard were potential companions. To be honest, I never really followed pirates all that much.
DAVID JENKINS: [Laughs.] Me neither.
MW: So can you talk a little bit, briefly, about the genesis of the show and how it evolved into a romantic comedy?
JENKINS: This American Life did a story on Stede Bonnet, and just his story alone is interesting. It was like, “Oh, that guy — that could be a show.”
Then, when you look at his Wikipedia, there are all these holes in his story — and it’s a pretty interesting story. He essentially had a midlife crisis and became a pirate. That’s already good. Then he’s bad at it, which is pretty funny. Then he almost dies immediately, which is pretty funny. He had decided to attack a Spanish galleon. He was very new at pirating, and they almost killed him. Then, in real life, the actual Blackbeard, the best pirate, somehow found this guy while he was stabbed up and, for whatever reason, took him under his wing. But there are all these gaps. Why did Blackbeard do that? What was it about this guy, who was like a dilettante and an amateur, that was so appealing to this other very seasoned pirate?
Apparently, they would see Stede on the deck of his own ship in a silk gown reading a leather-bound book while Blackbeard had assumed captaining it. And then they had a falling out. Then Blackbeard marooned his crew and burned his ships. There was no explanation as to why. It’s like these guys were together. That’s stuff you do in a relationship. These are all relationship beats.
So, very quickly, the story of Stede Bonnet became inseparable from a love story to me, and I wanted to know why these two people were together and why they fell in love. We do all that in the first season of the show. All those beats were very usable.
MW: I have no reason not to be honest with you. When I stumbled upon the show’s first season last year, I thought, “This looks interesting.” I’m a big fan of What We Do in the Shadows and of Taika Waititi’s work in general. At first, I was not certain about it. It got off to a very slow start with the first four episodes. But I kept watching. And when Blackbeard came into the picture, it started to evolve into something unexpectedly queer. That was very clever on your part. You eased us into the romance.
JENKINS: It is specifically how that first season was designed — and I am mixed on whether that was the right attack or not. I’m very proud of the show, and I love it. I love the production design, I love everybody’s performances. But in creating the show, I didn’t want to make a niche show. I didn’t want to make a queer show where it’s like, “Oh, this is a specialty show. This is for people who are queer.” It’s like I wanted to make a mainstream, four-quadrant romance. I think it was important to me in conceiving it to sneak up on it, but also just to invest in the world of the show, invest in these characters. I liked the idea of this slow-burn romance happening.
In hindsight, I didn’t realize that the audience was going to be made up of people who felt disappointed. They expected there to be a romance and there wasn’t one at first. That surprised me. I felt like, “Oh, well, maybe it would’ve been better to telegraph that earlier, that that’s indeed what the show is.” The first season does make you wait for it a bit, and it does make you say, like, “Oh, my God. Is this happening? Where is this going?” So I think it benefits from a rewatch when you know how the relationship’s coming together.
MW: When I recommend it, I tell people to stick through the first four episodes — don’t tune out. It clicks in big time once Blackbeard arrives. But I don’t think audiences have patience these days. They’ll watch an episode or two and if it’s not immediately gratifying, they move on.
JENKINS: I mean, I watched the first episode of The Bear — it’s a great pilot. But I don’t think it’s representative of what that show does, like most first episodes. I left it being like, “That was fun and very stressful.” Then I didn’t go back to that show for a year and a half. I finally came back and was like, “Wait, this is great!”
I know that’s how TV is built — it happens with my own stuff. Even when you know that’s how it works, it’s very hard. There’s just so much stuff and you really do move on quickly. It’s how it works. It takes a minute, though, to find out what a show is.
Especially with a comedy. Usually by episode four, a show in its first season really clicks in. All the cylinders are firing and everybody knows what the thing is. But when you’re on set making it, no one knows what it is in the first season. You can’t point to it and be like, “Hey, here’s the show.” It’s all in your head and then you’re all just trying to find it as a group.
MW: I loved the first season, but I loved season two even more. In season two, we’ve got everything established. So, it really is about Stede and Blackbeard’s relationship, its ups and downs. But it’s also about all the other pairings. You embrace so many different kinds. There’s all this violence and killing, but at the same time all these blossoming romances between really tough people — but the series draws out their tenderness and gentleness. It completely upends what we think of pirates.
JENKINS: In the second season, it was great because we know it’s a romance and we can lead with that. It’s a workplace show essentially. I wanted it to be more in the vein of early episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or something where there are all these relationships on those shows. That’s what you’re following — relationships and friendships that are taking place in a hospital, procedural. That’s Grey’s Anatomy. This is less procedural for the pirate stuff — and you need the pirate stuff.
But I’m like you. I’m not a big pirate person. In general, it’s a big creaky genre that’s hard to budge, but I think the show benefits from we can pull pirate stuff out when we need it. Ultimately, yeah, I want to see these different relationships and perspectives on different relationships. Then it’s fun to plug it into an overwrought genre.
MW: Pirates really are a creaky genre, with the exception of the Disney franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean. But yours uses comedy in a way to poke fun at it. I have to say the marriage scene cracked me up. I laughed so hard when the officiator said, “I now pronounce you mateys.” That was so perfect.
JENKINS: The literal term for marriage among pirates was matelotage. So it is like you’re mated. It comes from an actual term that they had.
Pirates of the Caribbean, those movies are great. That’s not necessarily what I hunger to see, but in that genre, it’s great. You’re not going to beat that, especially on something that’s lower budget. We’ve seen a lot of this stuff, so it’s fun to take it then and don’t do any of that stuff.
But then looking at it and even films like Master and Commander — that’s an amazing movie and one of Taika’s favorites — it’s all pretty whitewashed, and I think it’s pretty straight-washed, too. The fact that there was a term called matelotage among crew members says that marriage between crew members of the same sex happened. The fact that we don’t see a lot of that in any genre stuff for pirates is weird to me. It naturally belongs there, I think.
MW: It actually makes sense. I mean, they’re all on the ship and they’re going to form attachments.
JENKINS: They’re outlaws and they’re poor. There were a lot of people that were privateers and they got screwed over by their government and then they got mad. But there are also people that didn’t fit in and wanted to create their own society. We’re inventing a lot of things, but sometimes I think that some of the stuff that we’re inventing might not be that far off from what was happening at that time.
MW: As a writer, what was the basic challenge of making us love people who are pillaging and killing? Because you really do make us love every one of these characters.
JENKINS: Well, it can’t be really about the real people, because any real pirate is a murderer, probably a rapist, probably a slave owner, among God knows what else they were doing, which is a little bit like writing characters you love in a Western: Anybody that was a cowboy or a bank robber — maybe not the best person. So we invent our own version of pirates that we can get behind. You don’t want to see them punch down. You don’t want to see them do terrible things to people who don’t deserve it, which is not what they really did. So, in the show’s world, I think piracy is like a stand-in for something. I think it’s a stand-in for being an iconoclast and an outsider and queer in some ways and just different.
MW: You also add quaint touches to soften them as people, like one of them knitting, giving them little moments of almost absurd tenderness that works as a dichotomy to what we think of as pirates. But it’s lovely and it warms us to them. The British are just depicted as evil and hateful.
JENKINS: Yeah, I mean, the British are there to be Stormtroopers, or Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie. I mean, they’re in there to die essentially.
MW: Which, by the way, that slaughter on the beach in the final episode of season two was just brilliant.
JENKINS: Director Fernando Frias really, really made that work.
MW: Let’s talk about the chemistry between your two leads, Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi. It’s remarkable. The conviction of their kisses alone — there’s so much passion. You feel every bit of heat between these two. You feel their love through everything that they do together, and the pain and anguish they go through when they’re separated from one another.
JENKINS: Yeah, they’re so lovely together. I mean, they’ve known each other for twenty years, but they’ve never acted together in this way. The chemistry was there immediately. They made the other one feel safe.
You write these things and you cast it. You go through the process of what it takes to get these things into production, but you don’t know what the result will be. On the day we shot one of these [kissing] scenes, it could have been like “Uh-oh.” But immediately, it was there. Rhys has a wonderful vulnerability. He’s a very good listener, and I think it makes Taika really comfortable. Taika gets very vulnerable and they’re just very sweet with each other. I love to watch them play scenes together.
MW: They’re both straight, but you have a number of LGBTQ castmembers in the show. How important was it for you to cast within an authentic spectrum where possible?
JENKINS: The writer’s room is important to staff that way too. I mean, I have no business unilaterally writing about somebody going through what it means to be nonbinary. I can imagine, and I can contribute to that and we can talk about it and shape it, but I want to know that from somebody who’s experiencing it. You need to have more than one person who’s experiencing being nonbinary in the room so they don’t feel like they have to be the spokesperson for every nonbinary character.
Same thing across the spectrum of sexuality. It’s important to do a show in maybe a non-virtue signaling way, but also get these things right. The focus of the show is the relationships. If we’re getting the other things right, then great.
MW: It works. In this day and age, where we are fighting book bans, we are fighting drag queens being banned, we are fighting erasure of the transgender community, to have such a wide variety of LGBTQ characters in a show is fantastic. As a creator, though, does it concern you that we might be entering the nascent stages of a code period again in terms of film and television?
JENKINS: It’s easy for me to say I’m not worried about that because I am not queer. So, it’s easy for me to be like, “No, I think it’s going to be fine.” I think it would be very different if I was nonbinary and I was going through it. But I see it and I see the impact that it has on the people around me.
A part of me feels like this is what a side does when they’re losing, and when they’ve lost so totally that the only thing left for them to do is have a tantrum. That’s very dangerous. Tantrums are very dangerous.
But at the same time, there’s a reason that gay marriage became the law of the land. It’s because everyone is related to someone queer or they are someone queer. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum.
When push comes to shove, I think they’re losing the discourse on this. I think that side that’s trying to single people out, tear people down — I think it means they’re losing totally. I don’t know what happens. The more they lose, the crazier they get, but I don’t think this is going very well for them. I don’t think people want this. It’s again, easy for me to say that, but that’s how I feel.
MW: Your show is one that the LGBTQ community should come to with open arms. So, what is it about your life experience as a straight man that made you say I want to make this particular show and I want to make it abundantly queer.
JENKINS: I think it’s less a function of being abundantly queer — although I love that it honors that. I love that we explore those things in a way that makes people feel seen. I love that. I think it’s more interesting to me that I’ve never seen a love story like this in this genre, and you dream for that. Really, pirates, what can you do that’s different with pirates? Then it’s like oh, well, when you hit on something where it’s like, “Oh, I want to see why these guys fell in love.” I’m just a fan of the love story and I’m a fan of why these two characters would need each other.
To me, just imagining two people falling in love is a wonderful thing to base a series on when the characters are so interesting. That’s the exciting thing to me about it. There’s an oppressive masculinity that’s being performed by, again, that side that’s pretty thoroughly losing. It’s like when you look at Fox News and you see the way the anchors [and guests] style themselves. Then we’re supposed to look at Donald Trump as an avatar of masculinity when he’s basically mashed potatoes and skin. It’s like, “This is insane.”
What is this performative masculinity and why are we doing this still? I’m in my forties and I feel like nothing ever gets easier, but I see that so much more is accepted in high school and junior high, so many more ways of being is accepted. I do feel like we grew up in a time where we were pushed around and told, this is how you be a man and this is how you be a woman.
To me, to tell the story about these two men in this very hetero action genre, falling for each other and being tender and learning how to love and learning how to be loved, that’s very exciting to me. Just imagine two people finding each other and learning to love each other — that’s a very exciting thing for me to write.
[NOTE: MILD SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2 FOLLOW]
MW: Season two feels like a completion at the end. Whereas last year, we were left on a cliffhanger, season two ended with a sense that this could be the series finale. There’s no cliffhanger. Unfortunately, one of my favorite characters, Izzy Hands, is dead, which really was upsetting.
JENKINS: I love Izzy.
MW: His journey from the beginning of the series to growing as a person, but never losing the essence of who he truly is, is amazing.
JENKINS: The actor who plays him, Con O’Neill, is amazing. I knew where we were going with him in the second season, and I just wanted to give Con everything. Yes, he can do everything. I think he does such beautiful work in it.
As the season goes, it was important that if we don’t get to make more of these, the show doesn’t end in a dour way like the first season. Because a lot of times, if there’s a queer romance in a genre thing, the characters often end up being punished for it and it ends up tragic or unrequited. I think it’s important to give these characters a happy ending.
MW: If you are renewed, you can just find a way to bring everybody back together for a new adventure.
JENKINS: Oh, I think there’s a great arc for a third season. I mean, to me, the continuation of the show is… I don’t think it’s necessarily a given that Stede and Blackbeard are going to be able to run an inn. I mean, yes, they moved in together, but how’s that going to go? It takes a lot to make a relationship happen.
That’s the fun of this love story to me: you can go to the thing where, oh, they kissed and they’re together, but then they have to still evolve beyond that and they are two very damaged people. So, I think there’s a lot more story left to tell.
MW: Do you have any indication whether you’ll get a third season?
JENKINS: None. Would love to do a third one. I’m so glad we got to do these two seasons. Max has been really great to work with. Yeah, I’d love if we could do one more of these.
MW: Is it difficult as a creator to not have control over a show’s fate? To have to wait to see whether you’re going to be making more or not?
JENKINS: It’s part of the gig. This is pro ball here. If you don’t like being tackled, don’t play football. This is what this is. We’re all adults. We work. We’re compensated at a high level, we work at a high level. We get to work with very expensive toys, and it’s not a given. I mean, you serve at the pleasure of the people who are gracious enough to give you the financing. So, to even have this show taken up by this fan base and celebrated in this way, it’s already a huge success. So, yeah, I’d like to make more, but I think you have to be present and you have to enjoy making the season that you’re making. You have to get everything you can into the season that you’re making because it’s not a given you’re going to be back.
MW: Are there any other genres you’d like to explore?
JENKINS: All of them. I love all of them. I love a genre. I rarely see a genre I don’t want to subvert.
Both full seasons of Our Flag Means Death are currently streaming on Max. Visit www.max.com.
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