“Is it just me, or does the energy around here seem off?”
So asks a pirate halfway through “Our Flag Means Death” Season 2, in a rather percipient observation for a one-time pyromaniac who’s now knitting a sweater he’s already wearing. Wee John (Kristian Nairn) is referring to his discombobulated crew, who’ve been thrown for a loop by a series of swift changes aboard their ship, the Revenge, but he may as well be summing up the similarly flummoxed second season. While “Our Flag Means Death” follows through on its first season’s promise to explore the relationship between Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and Ed “Blackbeard” Teach (Taika Waititi), it flattens its overall story by lumping too many characters into the same lovestruck boat.
For a half-hour comedy just starting its second season, “Our Flag Means Death” has already gone through a significant realignment. What started as historical fiction inspired by The Gentleman Pirate — a real-life figure who left his family and forfeited his riches for a (very brief) stint on the open ocean — shifted into an opposites-attract love story between Stede and his initial nemesis, Blackbeard. By the end of Season 1, audiences weren’t as hung up on whether this very nice, very prim aristocrat could hack it as a swashbuckler on the high seas, so much as they wanted these two smitten sweethearts to sail into the sunset together.
The pivot worked to the show’s advantage, as critics appreciated the renewed focus and fans fell head over heels for their new favorite ‘ship. Season 2 stays the course, picking up not long after Blackbeard’s perceived abandonment and Stede’s re-commitment to piracy. Let’s start with the latter. Stede and his crew (rescued from the desert island Blackbeard dumped them on) are saving to buy their own boat by working at The Republic of Pirates. Specifically, they work for Spanish Jackie (Leslie Jones), with Stede as the bar & grill’s host while most others wait tables, do dishes, or provide other forms of service. (Nat Faxon’s “Swede” joins the ranks of Jackie’s many husbands.)
Not long for life on the land, Stede & Co. cross paths with a copycat — another wealthy man of means who hears about The Gentleman Pirate and decides to follow in his booted footsteps — and a Pirate Queen who’s gone and “conquered China.” Played by Ruibo Qian, Susan has been steadily assembling a team of reasonable, like-minded pirates who support each other. “Historically men have a harder time fitting in here,” she says to Stede’s crew, “but we decided to take a chance on you because your energy is…” “Tender?” Oluwande (Samson Kayo) offers. “I was going to say ‘soft,’” Susan counters.
Despite finding the ideal partner in crime, Stede can’t stop thinking about his partner in life. Blackbeard comes to him in dreams, dominates his memories, and dictates his decisions. Stede wants — no, he needs to find his beloved Ed, and little things like discovering a once-in-a-lifetime business associate (who’s also amassed an enviable army she’s ready to share) can’t distract our benevolent buccaneer from his one true love.
Except… Ed doesn’t exactly remember Stede with the same buoyant passion as Stede feels for Ed. Suffering from abandonment issues, Blackbeard has regressed to his old ways of ruthless robbery — only worse. He’s snorting Rhinocerous bones and drinking questionable rum. He’s stealing more gold than he can carry (or bury), and he’s treating his shipmates with such reckless disregard there’s a mutiny brewing. He’s hardly the man Stede fell in love with, and he’s certainly not the man who was ready to give up piracy for love.
A fight between a rom-com’s central couple carries the inevitable consequence of fewer laughs, though “Our Flag Means Death” does a fine job subsidizing Stede and Ed’s tumultuous stretch with additional pairings and steady (albeit dark) comedy. The cast remains sturdy, with strong work from Faxon, Ewen Bremner, and Joel Fry, plus a deliciously twisted guest turn courtesy of Minnie Driver. Waititi carries Ed’s dramatic weight with a convincing ease, and even Stede’s rough patch can’t dampen Darby’s dazzling energy, as the New Zealand comedian continues to prove just how deserving he is of leading his own sitcom.
Stede, and more notably Ed, grow considerably over the seven episodes screened for review (out of eight total in Season 2). Their relationship deepens as they — together and individually — get a better grip on who they are, what’s driving their decisions, and how they can find true happiness. It’s pretty much exactly what fans demanded, yet the focus on the love story has a way of flattening “Our Flag’s” other elements. For one, the vivid colors that lit up the first season are dimmed, as Season 2 swims through darker waters. Storm clouds both literal and figurative are omnipresent, which fit the mood but deaden the spirit. (Also nagging: Just because Ed and Stede’s romance is essential to their core selves, that doesn’t mean every character’s purpose has to be dictated by a special someone. Izzy’s arc, in particular, is confounding, despite the best efforts of the boisterous Con O’Neill.)
Still, what’s missed most amid Season 2’s fixation on flirtations is The Gentleman Pirate himself. “Our Flag Means Death” found some of its best laughs and distinct stories in Stede’s unique position as the nice pirate. In a world of thievery and murder, here was a prim and proper captain who paid his crew (instead of ruling with an iron fist) and proved reluctant to draw swords, let alone stab anyone. But now, everyone is nice. The Pirate Queen is nice. Spanish Jackie is nice. Blackbeard’s crew is too nice for Blackbeard! Antagonists do appear in Season 2, but they take far too long surface, which makes “Our Flag Means Death” feel more like pure fan service than its authentic self. What started as a subversive show is now fully submerged. Love is a great and powerful thing, and Ed and Stede’s relationship is worth savoring. But it doesn’t have to be the show’s only energy source.
“Our Flag Means Death” Season 2 premieres Thursday, October 5 with three episodes. Two new episodes will be released weekly through the finale on October 26.