The position of a Captain in any capacity is fraught with stress and trying times. Whether you’re trying to lead your squad to glory in the World Cup, the Model U.N., or just trying to convince people your cereal doesn’t lacerate the inside of their mouths, the role of a Captain is perilous. All eyes are locked in on you, waiting for you to falter.
What if that amount of scrutiny resulted in mutiny? An event so rarified and special, it takes a team to plan for what the leader should have been excelling at in their sleep: keeping the machine oiled.
In Our Flag Means Death (HBO Max), we’ll see that even though inexperience and ineptitude are white-hot ingredients for any justified overthrow gives us an overview into two things required for any legend: Moxy and loneliness.
Isn’t the Captain supposed to go down with his ship?
The year is 1717, and Piracy is having its golden moment. Gold, ha! That’s what Stede Bonnet’s (Rhys Darby) crew is dearly missing. As they are regaled with the dulcet shanties of Frenchie (Joel Fry), the crew sits down to a nice game of cards. Black Pete (Matthew Maher) has a problem, not with the game, but rather because the operative word is “nice.”
Oh, the crew isn’t bereft of treasures due to failed raids on enemy ships. Stede, wealthy in his own right in the flurry of a mid-life crisis, decided to capsize his life of unearned privilege and become a pirate. That’s right, a pirate. Nope, not a privateer sanctioned by the Government. A fucking foul-ass, grog swilling, blood-shedding god among the high seas. There’s only one problem- he isn’t.
He pays his crew a salary! There’s no hunger for earning your pay when you’re just biding the time in a ship outfitted with a fully stocked library (though if I were on that crew, soo much excitement is to be had in having my proboscis in a good read.) It doesn’t help that Stede rocks bespoke garments while his crew is draped in piecemeal coverings.
Though morale is not a complete loss, avast! A plundering is afoot, but not even the announcement of a vessel approaching by his Chief Mate Buttons (Ewen Bremmer) can wrest the wind from the sails of the crews’ excitement, as it’s but a small fishing boat. Even Stede’s boarding has the crew embarrassed with the spoils of war from a dropped cannonball (which Stede considers a warning shot) resulting in a fucking plant.
In his quarters, Stede narrates to his secretary Lucius (Nathan Foad) the adventure of the day for posterity. His whole approach to lawlessness is pirates don’t need to be as salty as the water they tread, so he basically created a floating Club Med. This includes a proto-tennis court, a bathroom (where you can shit while another bathes not a foot from you), a zoo, a ballroom (for cleaning cannon fodder), a jam room (for when you want to take out your aggression with mellifluous sounds instead thoughts of bygone carnage) and the library (though Lucius is the only literate one).
In his daily address to the crew, he wants elevated energy in his mates. Gee, I wonder why rolled eyes and sighs are the height of their aggression. These guys live for the high, and Wee John Feeny (Kristian Nairn) calls bullshit on the whole operation. He points out they don’t even have an identity in the form of a flag. Craft time!
With this huge supply of materials, everyone is to create a flag that will be held to a vote as to which will fly. Though most of them don’t know how to sew, save for Roach (Samba Schutte) who had sewn his own shoulder up, and Wee John, who used to make dresses for his mother. Though Roach and (Nat Faxon) get into a small scrap over a large sheet, a calm and expressive time was had by all through creativity. It’s a very My Fair Lady Moment, without any moment of Stede looking at his crew as lesser than.
Black Pete isn’t having it and wants to kill the Captain, which has Buttons’ ears burning. A mutiny is in play, and Black Pete is at the head of it, though it sounds like he was only a contract worker on his crew and much like the world of today, loyalty isn’t guaranteed, so you could be ‘let go’.
Lucius has informed the crew that the Captain was notified, but he wants in along with Roach and Wee John.
Mr. Buttons has permission to speak freely, and it seems, the crew he conscripted wants it as such. They want a leader whose belly won’t tear open at the tickle of a feather. Oluwande (Samson Kayo) has no beef with the captain, as he reads them stories at night and there’s one story they haven’t finished yet.
The thing is nobody can truly be Captain if they kill their own, except for Jim who is a mute. It really is the least of Stede’s worries, as he’s Spy-Glassed out a really nice looking vessel. If it’s excitement and pillaging they want, the ragtag group shall be granted their wish.
Growing a bit of growl in his nethers, Stede promises a nice haul and a nice day, which promises action, adventure, and fire. As the various weaponry is prepared and sharpened, including Jim’s knives (which have an alarming accuracy) Captain Stede has second thoughts as to what carnage can occur in a no man’s land of open water. The amount of wanton bloodlust takes us back, back in time.
A young Stede experiences his first butchering of a fowl, splaying his and his father’s face with blood. The blood that gives us life. To wear that is honor among warriors, to know that it’s either eat or starve, but he’s a sensitive soul. He would rather pick flowers, but his father immediately cuts to the chase and tells Stede he will be soft and will forever be in the favor of good fortune- not because he earned it, but because he didn’t. It’s the type of toxic masculinity that’s permeated so many, but now, faced with a hardcore situation, he’s having flashbacks.
This causes him to bunker up after the big raid, thinking he ain’t got the GUTS to see it through or worse yet, get his crew captured and/or killed. Oluwande and Jim both check on him to ensure he’s ready for the battle. Jim shows him all the cuts, with samurai precision in a few seconds, Stede opts for something more of an incapacitated touch, which they inform him, occurs at the back of the head.
Both Jim and Oluwande know he’s not cut out for this, as exemplified by them saying it’s not out of love but out of necessity. Stede’s just a fucking rich man wanting to play out fantasies. They see through him but before he can make a true breakthrough of his idiocy, a warning shot’s been fired.
It’s a Naval English warship and at this point, they have no time for pests. A fleet of that nature could take over an entire enemy with just a warning shot, but Officer Wellington realizes that because the vessel has no time to move, it’s Captain Badminton (Rory Kinnear) move to obliterate them before he notices that Stede is on it.
Sending out a tender, an invitation is demanded, not extended, to come aboard. Captain Stede has no choice. This gives him and his crew enough time to put on airs, raiding his closet for the deception, which Black Pete thinks is weak. This grants him the opportunity to host someone he’s not seen since boarding school and just enough time to give his crew posh backstories for the sake of face.
At dinner, the crew, the raw dogs they are at sea, hate Badminton’s douchey energy. Stede’s crew is subjected to ridicule and mockery but not more than himself, with Badminton’s regaling of Stede’s torture in the privileged childhood, including torturous bullying at Badminton’s hands, gaining his nickname of ‘Baby Bonnet.’
With Captain Badminton wanting a tour of the ship he feels so sorry for, he dearly wants to mock it, but tensions are rising among the non-existent ranks. They are starting to rally behind such a gentle and benevolent soul, but it’s not grown to aggression yet. It’s more a reflection on them as well as him, though aimed at the most polarizing backgrounds within a crew.
With his childhood nemesis enamored at the silliness of his seafaring craft, Badminton doesn’t think the scuttlebutt of Stede is true. It can’t be in his mind that someone so ‘soft’ and ‘fey’ can be the Captain of a group that would leave his wife and children for murder for gain.
With a thunderous laugh, all of Stede’s trauma from him suffering at the command of his school cronies at someone so defenseless has Stede actually contemplating a knockout with a brass whale at the base of his dome piece, but relents.
At the dining table, though Black Pete is cocked and aims to the other guy’s, well, cock as the flags are finally revealed. Each is cute and represents death to the designer. This is getting the real tough guys riled up. Don’t fuck with our psyche.
While Badminton shits on Stede in his own quarters, push has come to shove and the sea never looks out for you… until it wants to.
When Officer Wellington calls Frenchie a slave, a knife is driven through his hand. Hey, pirates gonna pirate and they have the impetus they need for making the blood flow fast. This is inclusive to Stede, who bashed the guy on the other head with pretty decent results.
Turns out, in trying to incapacitate, he killed, making the Captain fall on his own sword (ha!) through the fucking eye and into the brain!
With I guess his brain-trust now, both Lucius and Oluwande have a fun mess to clean up, also telling him to claim the kill as his own, earning the crew’s faith.
With that, and an ever crying Wellington to take back something funny, the crew has their first hostages. Though he’s a terrible leader, Oluwande knows that they’ll be paid and fed. It’s not the best under the crew’s noses, but the subterfuge can last for a little bit… and least they were able to be read to bed among the lapping waves with the reading them Pinocchio.
With the added twist of Moondog’s “High On A Rocky Ledge”, we realize that Stede truly misses his family and his big mistake was choosing adventure for what adventure was in front of him- his former family.
The last note was that Jim isn’t really Jim at all…