Review: A Swashbuckling Romance!

Fans have been celebrating this as a kind of queer epic for weeks, and I was a sceptic, to be honest, that the show was really going to be capable of pulling off a fun pirate romp and an effective, central gay romance at the same time, especially seeing as neither is easy to do alone, and goodness gracious have I never been happier to be wrong. This is funny, clever, and, for me, shockingly touching.

In the earlier episodes I don’t think I was seeing what lots of other queer fans were seeing, but boy, was I wrong about that too. Not only has it now been explicitly consummated on screen, but in retrospect, that coyness in earlier episodes was an effective way of exploring the closet of societal pressures and hidden feelings, even from oneself. And, credit due, even while the main relationship was slow-burning, we’ve had so many well writing queer side characters since the beginning that there’s really no complaining either way. Those secondary relationships feel just as significant to the story, rather than being contained to individual “talking about our emotions” scenes.

The definition, of that central relationship, is crystal clear and incredibly engaging. They’re a classic odd couple: one’s as ordinary as they come, the other a legend; one represents ordinary life, the other is a fish out of water; one’s a master of the adventure inherent to the genre, while the other’s still an eager learner. And in all their contrasts you see what attracts them to one another, why they travel together, and how they complete each other. It’d be too simple to say that each represents what the other wants but can’t have. This is a smarter story than that. The two of them love what they themselves bring out in the other. And so this becomes as much a story of self-love as it is their mutual love, as all coming out stories must in some way be.

Because I’ll hear nothing to the contrary: this isn’t just a ‘coming out storyline’ in an adventure show, like some backgrounded character arc, only ever engaged in for weekly “characters talk about their feelings” scenes. The whole storyworld, here, the whole shape of the narrative is and always has been about that internal experience of coming to terms with one’s sexuality in a cultural context that makes it so hard. The show itself is set in a sort of bubble of acceptance, where our central cast of friends are a safe space for openness, but it would have been a mistake to let that mean avoiding the struggle of coming out altogether, as that’s something so internalised that it’s a realisation for the characters themselves, rather than a secret they’ve kept. Grounding the story in the context of privateering, specifically, is genius: the open seas are an analogous to that ‘safe space’ where society’s standards can be breached, but the threat of retribution is ever-present.

It also feels like the story really gets how to narrativise backstory. It’s never felt like naval gazing for its own sake, and has always been strictly, dramatically relevant, with no need for long, drawn out explanations where brief, emotive flashbacks and visual associations do the trick. And when we do return to a character’s backstory in the show itself, it’s always in a way thoroughly and effectively related to the drama in the present. Even the gargantuan sea-monster we were teased is ultimately a metaphor for character. Even though it never existed, it remains narratively and symbolically important.

It would have been easy, I think, to have the nature of the Pirate genre undermine the themes of the central relationship. Focussing too much on how cool swashbuckling and the pirate mythology is would have played into preconceptions about gender, and so, instead, intelligently, the story operates on this very Doctor Who-y logic of using theatre and drama instead of outright violence to win conflicts, which is such a clever way of tying together the heroes and the myth-making legendary pirate. And where there is violence, while the characters’ actual culpability is a little hazy, it is always made to feel momentously important to them personally.

The hierarchy of power in the crew, as running joke, plays on these expectations on genre and gender roles in a way that informs the dynamic of tender sparring in their relationship. It’s fun, and it’s funny, but it’s also genuinely gentle, such that we got the sense, really quite early on, that the two of them make each other better, and that nobody makes them happier.

I was personally thrilled with a period story confirming and foregrounding a non-binary character, too, whose gender is neither a very special episode pressure on the narrative, nor easy to miss or incidental to the broader context of the story’s world. Folding it in around the genre tradition of pirate gender farce was smart, but so was discarding that premise once the character was established and letting them just be without much fuss. Again, the show’s done a great job of having its cake and eating it, too in balancing its modern politics and period setting.

And while I’m hardly the person to talk about this, I think the handling of race walks the same line: the realities of racism are never disregarded, and occasionally come crashing into the narrative with full force. But the actual world of the stories, this team of travellers on their ship, are a kind of loving bubble that keeps the overall tone of the story in place.

And speaking of that tone, this is funny! Not the funniest thing on TV, but everybody is charming enough, and the central relationships and setting are compelling enough that you don’t really mind. The show gets in all the pirate gags and bad puns you’d expect and more, and trope-y subplots like the third wheel guy are a little played out, but the real highlight is in the combination of smart plotting and shock comedy.

It plays fast-and-loose with exposition, but I personally think under-explaining things and letting the audience catch up is far better than monologuing at camera to explain what’s going on in endless breathless spiels. The episodic plot, and the nuances of how, mechanically, everything works, is very much secondary to the emotional story on centre-stage (rather than being relegated to Emotional Conversation Scenes) which is where the real heart lies, but it’s still clear and interesting enough to really enjoy. The villains’ motivations are clear and relatable, and it’s good that the story actually engages with them, instead of avoiding complicated moral questions; the show has a clear and confident, progressive, interrogative outlook, and it develops on it well.

But these are all just words, and the real review is this: there’s a kiss in this story that made my heart explode. That should be enough. I can’t wait for series 2.

9/10 — Our Flag Means Death is my favourite TV of the year so far.

In unrelated news, Doctor Who was fine, I guess. Convoluted, paper-thin plot, background romance based on a dramatic question so inert that The Husbands of River Song skewered it in one title card, and every single one of the most exciting moments were in the 10 second trailer at the end. I liked the scene where they were under water. That was nice.

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