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The Hollywood Insider Our Flag Means Death Review

Photo: ‘Our Flag Means Death’

Ineptitude That Plays

After hilariously stealing essentially every scene featuring his character Murray in ‘Flight of the Conchords’, Rhys Darby is back in rare form as Captain Stede Bonnet in ‘Our Flag Means Death’, HBO’s brand new comedy streaming now. As Murray, Darby functioned as the main authority figure as the manager for Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s bandmate characters. In ‘Our Flag Means Death’, he is back in control of the situation, this time playing a pirate captain who has absolutely no business being a pirate captain. He is fantastic in the role of incompetent leader, leaning in to a lot of the skills he showed off previously as Murray and here again as Stede. 

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As Bonnet, Darby is at his best leaning into a completely over-the-top hyper-unaware character. Bonnet is a fun and mostly likable character, giving up his comfortable aristocratic life and trading it in to try and cut his teeth leading a pirate crew on the open seas. He tries to endear himself to his crew and those around him by using his high-status life experiences that ultimately fall completely useless to his hardened crew. 

The success of the show really hinges entirely on the character of Bonnet being both believable and comedically ridiculous at the same time. The show is loosely based on a real-life person who did this exact same thing of walking away from their life of comfort and tried to make it as a pirate which is mind-blowing as the premise feels almost too absurd to be made up. With the main role of Bonnet requiring someone capable of making the unimaginable believable, Darby is perfect in the part. He can easily float between the flamboyant and oblivious nature of the character, while also showing a real human beneath the surface. 

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‘Our Flag Means Death’

Some of the best storytelling and character development for Bonnet comes in the form of Darby’s monologuing to his assistant Lucius, played by Nathan Foad. Darby gives solid exposition in relaying the events of how he ended up becoming a pirate captain and going over the day-to-day events of the crew. As only Darby can, he delivers his description of the crew’s daily life and the opportunities he provides for them in a hilarious voiceover that plays over footage of the crew enjoying the creature comforts he has provided them. He inadvertently establishes the drastic divide between his difference in class and lifestyle from the crews, essentially setting up how obliviously unaware he is of the crew’s actual mindset at the time. 

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Human Motivation: Elevating the Idea

On its surface, the show would totally work as a goofy somewhat parody of this person’s real life. Although with all of Taika Waitit’s work, who serves as a director and producer of the series, there is much more emotion that lies beneath. The idea of someone with money deciding to become a pirate is a hilarious concept in its own right, but Stede Bonnet’s motivation for doing it is what is at the central core of what both the character and the show are about. This is what stands out so perfectly in the dichotomy of who Stede wants to be and who he actually is right now. He thinks he is providing for and giving his crew a great life, which to his credit he is, but his crew wants much more than what he is giving them. He sees pirating as a mindset, while the crew wants to live the actual pirate lifestyle. They are far more interested in stealing and fighting than reading books and playing tennis. 

A nice theme is established through flashbacks and Stede’s personal opening up that shows he is doing this to try and prove to other people he is someone of mettle. Everyone at every step of his life has taken his kindness for weakness, and after finally reaching a personal breaking point he has decided to take his life into his own hands and show he is tough and strong and all of the things they have always accused him of not being. His mental anguish and breakdowns allow the show to open up the character while also masterfully playing the scenes for comedy. There is a great amount of depth to the show and its characters, that helps unlock the comedy from within, chief among them through our protagonist in Stede. He makes himself, like David Brent or Michael Scott, an endearing goof. He is incapable of seeing the ways in which he is alienating the crew, and only wants to be accepted and beloved by them on his own terms. 

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A Format That Seems to Have Cracked the Code

While David Jenkins is credited as the creator and writer of the first episode, it is very difficult not to see Taika Waititi’s influence all over this project. The show follows the similar theme and format of all of Waititi’s best projects like ‘Reservation Dogs’, ‘Jojo Rabbit’, ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’. He has created almost his own sub-genre of comedy, in which he develops very complicated characters with a lot of emotional baggage that is somehow played for comedy. 

It really is an impressive feat, and why I personally feel these works resonate so easily with an audience. ‘Our Flag Means Death’ is the next in this line of entries that defies traditional genre labeling. It is in essence a comedy, but it also feels like so much more than what we are accustomed to getting from the genre. Waititi and his frequent collaborators have really changed the game and upped the expectations on what we should come to understand what a comedy is and can be. The quality of both television and filmmaking in the comedy genre has been greatly changed and improved through their masterful works. 

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A Ship Needs a Crew as a Cast Needs Support

As every pirate ship needs a captain and a crew, so too does a successful show need a supporting ensemble cast. One of the major highlights of ‘Our Flag Means Death’ is its awesome supporting cast that make up the crew under Stede Bonnet. 

A very diverse and varied group of pirates are at the employ of Darby’s captain Bonnet. With each crew member comes a different background and feelings about the captain. Some are fed up with his lack of leadership skills and pirate experience, while others are appreciative of his warm demeanor and the fact that they don’t really ever need to do much actual pirating as he pays them a weekly salary and provides them with great benefits aboard the ship. The crew and their unique relationships with Bonnet form the backbone and heart of a really awesome show.

‘Our Flag Means Death’ is a hilarious and compelling new comedy with its first three episodes now streaming on HBO Max that you will certainly not want to miss. 

Cast: Rhys Darby, Taika Waititi, Nat Faxon, Fred Armisen | Cinematography: Mike Berlucchi and Cynthia Pusheck | Editors: Christian Kinnard and Gina Sansom | Director: Taika Waititi | Producers: Todd King, Taika Waititi, David Jenkins, Dan Halsted and Garret Basch 

By Mark Raymond

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