Archives on TV: Our Flag Means Death, "Act of Grace"
Author's Note: Spoilers for Our Flag Means Death!
You all need to go watch Our Flag Means Death. Seriously, go. Do it right now. I'll wait.
I know we're here to talk about archives and whatnot, but I just want to take a moment to say how much I loved this queer as fuck pirate romantic comedy. It's one of those shows that feel almost effortless in its execution: the writing, acting, directing, etc. all coming together in a way that never feels forced. There's so much talent on display, in front of and behind the camera, and it shows in the final product. I don't think I've smiled so much while watching a television show in a long time. Not even laughing out loud, which I did, but genuinely smiling because the characters or the scene made me happy to watch. And then the show ripped my heart out, but that's major spoilers and I'm not a monster.
And before we get into the meat of it, I want to applaud the show for its willingness to go there when it comes to addressing issues of race, gender, and queerness within its historical setting because you can't talk about pirates without any of these topics. Pirate ships and the crews manning them were spaces capable of enforcing or dismantling pre-existing cultural norms. Pirate ships were proto-democracies where crews voted on who was captain based on performance and success. They also voted on whether to mutiny, which the show frequently displays. Pirate crews were predominantly male and racially diverse in their makeup because piracy was literally the only option available to Black men, men of color, and lower class white men who couldn't or wouldn't serve their country. There are also numerous examples of women dressing as men to seek fortune and adventure or simply to flee the confines of being assigned female in the 17th and 18th centuries. And as is what always happens in isolated spaces occupied by a single gender, identities blur and new spaces emerge because - surprise - heteronormativity is not in fact the norm!
Okay, okay, to business, I guess. Our Flag Means Death, created by David Jenkins, is an historical fiction romantic comedy set during the Golden Age of Piracy. The show is centered on the mostly true adventures of the very real Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby) and his ragtag crew aboard the Revenge as Bonnet attempts to make a name for himself as the "Gentleman Pirate." However, when Bonnet joins forces with Edward "Ed" Teach, aka Blackbeard (Taika Waititi), the lives and hearts of the crew will never be the same.
From the beginning of the show we're keyed into Stede's evolution as a pirate and a captain through the log book kept by Lucius (Nathan Foad), the ship's record keeper and scribe. The majority of Lucius' scenes in the first three episodes always include the log book as he reluctantly follows Stede, writing down his dictated actions and thoughts for posterity. Though there was that brief moment where Frenchie (Joel Fry) was in possession of it while Lucius was imprisoned in a trunk below deck...because reasons. The log book is the audience connection to Stede's mindset - a man who is determined to create a name and fashion himself as a pirate, chronicling his adventures in the hopes of transcending his cowardice and failures. The log book is initially the only means Stede has to escape who he is by fabricating an alternate narrative in which his escapades are exciting and noteworthy.
Obviously, that doesn't mean the accounts written down are entirely accurate. In the pilot episode, Buttons (Ewen Bremner), the ship's helmsman, informs Stede that the crew is ready to mutiny, which Lucius writes down in the log book. Panicked over the reality of a mutiny, and that his crew doesn't like or respect him, Stede tells Lucius to stop writing and rips the page out of the log book, throwing it off the ship. It's the best summation for how Stede assigns authority to the log book and the written record. Whatever's in the log book is reality. If there's no mention of a mutiny, then a mutiny never happened or was even considered. It's sound logic that everyone follows within the show because you're dealing with a time period in which the only "authenticity" came from either the written record or word-of-mouth. And even then, verbal evidence depended entirely on reputation and status.
As I said in my article about Star Trek and the archives, ship's logs, historically, were essential to the daily operations of naval vessels. Logs recorded environmental data, crew activities, and events of note, which have been utilized in maritime studies and archival collections going back centuries. A lot of what we know about life at sea comes from those records, but one always has to wonder what wasn't written down.
The culmination of Stede's status as the Gentleman Pirate comes during the penultimate episode, "Act of Grace," where Blackbeard invokes King George I's decree of pardoning pirates if they willingly surrendered to the British as a means of saving Stede from a firing squad. Under trial by Admiral Chauncy Badminton (Rory Kinnear), for the death of his twin brother Nigel (also Kinnear), Stede believes he's part of the Act of Grace until Badminton claims he's not even a real pirate - just a man playing pirate and therefore not eligible to be pardoned. It's worth noting that Badminton reads the "account" of his brother's death in the log book - after the crew fails to throw it overboard and has a very meta discussion about fanfiction - which is a revision of events as Stede or Lucius imagined them, in glorious gory detail.
The log book, however, comes through for Stede as Lucius and the crew claim that their captain is, in fact, a pirate because it's written down and they have proof. Exhibit A, the log book account:
June the 3rd, an excellent day. Raided a commercial vessel after overwhelming the hardy crew. We claimed a prize of lush vegetation in conquest.
Lucius then shows an illustration of a small plant, the sorry looking fern Stede "looted" from a two-man, unarmed fishing boat in the pilot and is then joined by Oluwande (Samson Kayo) with the same plant as evidence of their spoils. Also worth noting, the plant has grown lush and green since we first saw it, much like the Gentleman Pirate over the course of the show.
Everyone other than Badminton agrees with the evidence and Stede is included in the Act of Grace along with Blackbeard. It's a triumphant moment for Stede and the crew all thanks to the agreed upon reality presented in the log book. It's such a good payoff for moments established in the pilot; watching the same crew who'd plotted mutiny only a few episodes back working to save their captain from certain death and Stede's imaginative retellings of his own deeds working in his favor. Plus, Blackbeard putting himself in front of Stede as a shield against the firing squad!
Like I said, genuinely smiling through the whole series.
So, yeah, I didn't expect to write about a log book being pivotal to a show about queer pirates, but here we are and I'm happy to do it! Mostly, though, you should just watch Our Flag Means Death because I need a season two, like, right now and if HBO Max doesn't renew it, then we riot. Also, the show has a fantastic soundtrack that includes Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," which immediately earned my undying love and loyalty.