Review: ‘Our Flag Means Death’ Introduces a Comedic, Yet Deeply Troubled Version of Blackbeard

Episodes four, five, and six of Our Flag Means Death have officially arrived on HBO Max. Through them, we’ve seen the official debut of Blackbeard after his soft introduction in episode three, the kind of relationship he has with Stede, and even a significant amount of backstory and elaboration about his motivations as a character. We’ve seen the introduction of a few new antagonists played by some familiar faces, as well as a few celebrity guest stars in comically heavy amounts of theatrical makeup.

In short, Our Flag Means Death is just getting better with each new episode, as we pass the halfway point for the first season of the show.

The biggest takeaway from episodes 4 to 6 of Our Flag Means Death is, of course, the introduction of Blackbeard. Previously, audiences had seen a handful of glimpses of the character in episode three, “A Gentleman Pirate,” though his brief conversations with his first-mate, Izzy Hands, offered some insight into the kind of character we can expect. (Rugged, larger than life, confident, and yet somewhat comedic in his mannerisms and wording—replying to positive news from Izzy with a cheery-sounding, “Nice. Very good. Love that.”)

With these three new episodes of Our Flag Means Death, we are offered a more complete insight into Blackbeard’s character, from his world-weary view of piracy to his infatuation with Stede’s upper-class origins. In many ways, Blackbeard becomes a focal point in these three episodes, with Stede becoming somewhat of a lesser focus in episodes 5 and 6—although his relationship with Blackbeard remains a key focus throughout.

Each episode does a fantastic job at exploring the different aspects of Blackbeard’s character, ranging from his current views on piracy and his own legendary status (episode 4), to his motivations and some of his backstory (episode 5), to his private confessions and his ultimate opinions on Stede (episode 6).

In episode 4 of Our Flag Means Death, we meet Blackbeard for the first time, seeing him much as the crew of The Revenge does—a grizzled, eccentric, unconventional buccaneer who looks like a ‘70s heavy metal guitarist dressed like Mad Max and whose reputation precedes him. Outwardly, he appears to enjoy his celebrity status, smiling and shaking hands with the starstruck crew like a well-known politician meeting an average supporter on the street.

Privately, though, as we learn from his conversations with Stede, Blackbeard is in fact hopelessly unhappy with his life and career in piracy—his reputation as a feared, merciless pirate having become so well known in the Caribbean, most sailors give up at the sight of his ship in the distance.

Bored and despondent over his position in life, he is a complete antithesis of Stede. (Stede having left his left of comfort and leisure behind for adventure on the High Seas as a pirate; Blackbeard wanting only to settle down and retire to a life of luxury, feeling his career in piracy has grown stale and tedious.) He admits to being tired having to be Blackbeard all the time, living up to the set expectations everyone has for him, and openly says he longs to be someone else—someone, it turns out, who happens to be incredibly outside the box when its come to their approach to piracy, like Stede.

Our Flag Means Death
Courtesy of HBO Max

The comparisons and similarities between the two don’t stop there, either—both men possess a certain childlike personality and enthusiasm, frequently trying to have “fun” in their respective careers, even amid pressure from their crew to act like more serious, conventional pirates. Noting how alike the two are, their onscreen chemistry and mentorship over one another (Stede teaching Blackbeard how to be an upper-class gentleman, and Blackbeard teaching Stede how to be a pirate) make for one of the major highlights of the three most recent.

However, Blackbeard’s inclusion in the series isn’t all comedy, illustrating Waititi’s ability to switch between eccentricity, confidence, and even a certain level of ruthlessness (such as ordering a man to be flayed alive with an escargot fork and then thrown overboard) to a much more sobering display of emotion as well.

In episode 5, we learn that Blackbeard grew up a poor young man in a financially struggling family, possessing little to any valuables whatsoever. His poverty as a child having cast a fantasized view of wealth and the upper class, Blackbeard grows up wanting only to enter into that romanticized world of money and privilege that he was never granted access to as a boy. Believing Stede will provide him the perfect means of entering that world, he latches onto him, asking Stede to teach him how to be a gentleman in polite society in exchange for teaching him how to be a proper pirate.

Our Flag Means Death’s exploration of Blackbeard and his role in the series has been remarkable to see so far. In episode 4, we’re led to believe he’s entered in a quid-pro-quo partnership of sorts with Stede, each person mutually helping the other. By the end of the episode, we’re left wondering whether Blackbeard is actually lying to Stede, and is instead planning to kill and swap places with him, with the world, therefore, assuming Blackbeard is dead.

However, over the course of episodes 5 and 6, we instead see the increasingly close friendship that develops between Blackbeard and Stede, as well as the more emotional side of Blackbeard (including his traumatic childhood, wherein he strangled his abusive father to death in order to protect his mother). It’s a master class in introducing a character whose motivations remain a mystery, gradually revealing his past little by little until we ultimately see where his feelings truly lie. Props to the writers on the series and Waititi’s acting abilities for pulling it off so well.

Stede himself may take a backseat to Blackbeard in these three new episodes, but we still see some added depth to his character, especially in the case of episode four, “Discomfort in a Married State.” As seen in the last few moments of episode three, Stede has been stabbed aboard the Spanish ship the crew had been lured on by Fred Armisen’s shifty bartender (acting on orders of Spanish Jackie), and was very nearly strangled to death before he was rescued by Blackbeard and company.

Taking place immediately after the events of episode three, “Discomfort in a Married State” opens with Stede dreaming about his wife, Mary. The product of an arranged marriage, it’s made evidently clear that neither Stede nor Mary have any romantic feelings for each other whatsoever, going along with the marriage solely due to their parent’s wishes.

While their marriage clearly isn’t an idyllic one, the episode really hammers in the point that Stede is primarily responsible for much of the family’s suffering. Mary may not be an altogether great wife—frequently shooting down Stede’s obsession with adventure and longing for escape—but really, she just doesn’t want the same things that Stede does, which is completely fair.

Unlike Stede, though, Mary at least tries to fulfill her role as a wife, something she encourages Stede to do as well (marriage being so much about compromise). Of course, Stede can’t, leading him to depart on his own in the middle of the night, leaving only a brief, business-like letter behind by way of explanation and goodbye.

As we see through his fever dreams, Stede is beginning to realize how much of a coward he was in the past, his guilt over killing Captain Badminton being replaced by the guilt he feels abandoning his family. In the beginning of the episode, we even see the close relationship he had with his kids—playing pretend pirates with them and generally having a great time. (Likely, he was only recalling the negative memories he had of them—namely, favoring their mother over him—in the flashback scene in episode 1 to justify why he left; alternatively, they might have grown older and becoming less interested in their father’s games, viewing them [and Stede by extension] as being childish.)

No matter the interpretation, the flashback scenes in episode 1 add a great deal of nuance to Stede’s character. We learn now that he didn’t leave entirely because of the mistreatment at the hands of his family, but because he wanted something more, to break out of the monotony of everyday aristocratic life, even at the cost of his wife and kids. It also shows that the personal guilt Stede feels because of this still plagues him to this day, even if in the form of a nightmare.

Aside from the narrative focus on Blackbeard and Stede, the three episodes all introduce a handful of new characters, as well as reestablishing some potentially troublesome villains in the future.

In episode 5, we’re introduced to Kristen Schaal and Nick Kroll as two French aristocrats, dressy in vibrant court outfits and dolled up in unsettling amounts of white paint and makeup, making them like a cross between the Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the evil aunts in James and the Giant Peach.

Our Flag Means Death
Courtesy of HBO Max

Humorous in their overly-flamboyant, exaggerated French accents, they play a fantastic role as passive-aggressive dandies who antagonize Blackbeard, and we can only hope they pop up again later in the series. (Although that’s incredibly doubtful, as they were last seen on a burning ship.)

Throughout all three episodes, we also witness the mounting frustrations of Blackbeard’s right-hand man, Izzy Hands, a strict pirate who loathes Blackbeard’s relationship with Stede and the lack of professionalism displayed by Stede’s crew.

After trying and failing to get Blackbeard to kill Stede, Izzy is finally banished from the ship, meeting with previous antagonists, Spanish Jackie and her barkeep husband with a “business proposition” in mind for the two of them.

At the end of episode 5, another antagonist is introduced as well, in the form of Captain Badminton’s twin brother, Chauncey Badminton (another British Naval officer). Pleading with the King to avenge his brother’s life, Badminton is given the full resources of the British Navy, hinting that he may end up the main antagonist for the overall series (if not him, then either Izzy or Spanish Jackie, anyway). With only four episodes remaining in this first season of Our Flag Means Death, though, we’re likely to find out the role Badminton will play very soon.

Our Flag Means Death is streaming now on HBO Max. The next two episodes, “This Is Happening” and “We Gull Way Back” are scheduled for release next Thursday, March 17.

More From Wealth of Geeks

This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: HBO Max.

Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).