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Our Flag Means Death: Healing Us One Nudge at a Time

Image courtesy HBO: subject to copyright

Content Warning: Domestic Violence, Depression

Mild spoilers

So. Like many of my peers (and from the looks of it, the entirety of Twitter and Tumblr) I just binge-watched Our Flag Means Death in two days, and reader, I am enchanted. Entranced. Equal parts giddy and weirdly emotional.

Last night, after finishing the finale, I tossed and turned for two hours because the show invigorated and energized me so much that I wasn’t able to sleep afterward.  This morning, I took to my phone like a coffee-fueled PR flunky and texted/messaged half my friend group to insist that they watch it immediately. “Hot, goth pirate who’s a secret cinnamon roll – ‘nuff said,” I told one friend. “It’s the most queer, diverse, heart-wide-open show I’ve ever seen,” I told another. To another still, I raved about the brilliant cinematography of THAT scene (you know the one. Nudge, nudge).

Despite my shallow gushing, what really touched me so poignantly about this show, beyond the obvious – how deeply, beautifully inclusive it is, how queer, how silly and hilarious and utterly breathtaking – is that Our Flag Means Death is healing. Not since Schitt’s Creek have I felt such utter restorative joy in a television show. OFMD is for those who have often felt invisible, maligned or abused in society – the LGBTQ community, people of color, the neurodivergent, the disabled, the misfits and the outcasts, and especially those whose lives intersect at multiple points on those spectrums. Those who have always lived outside the lines, known and felt as “other” unless they mask their identities to placate normalcy.

Image Courtesy HBO: subject to copyright

Our Flag Means Death isn’t really for me – I mean, it is to an extent, as a bisexual neurodivergent woman, but ultimately as someone who is cis, white and in a heterosexual relationship, I am not the target audience, and rightly so. Women like me have no shortage of platforms to make our opinions known, but I still want to talk about what this show means to me in my personal space. Because this, this is something different. Something desperately needed. Something new and beautiful. No queerbaiting, no wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, promising representation only to deliver caricature and stereotypes. It’s honest, real, raw, beautiful, and it delivers.

Our Flag Means Death is a balm, and what I’m seeing is so many wounded people thankful for the healing ointment it provides.

I’m one of those people.  

Me in Coromandel, New Zealand, 2002. My “fake” smile.

In late 2002, or maybe early 2003 (just shy of twenty years ago), I was walking down Newmarket Street in Auckland, New Zealand, on my way to work. Barely out of my teens, just-arrived, I was a country-bumpkin fish out of water, transplanted from rural North Georgia to one of New Zealand’s biggest cities. I was awkwardly and messily dressed in just-bought black slacks and a mauve button-down hastily purchased from The Warehouse (New Zealand’s answer to Walmart) the day before. I was just starting a new job at a solicitor’s in Parnell, the swaaaaanky part of Auckland. As I walked alone along the sidewalk, the heavy wind whipping my hair to-and-fro, the salty twang of the sea setting up permanent residence in my nostrils, I was terrified.

Terrified because before that point, I’d only left the States once. Because I’d never, ever lived abroad. Because I, fresh out of high school with no motivation or money for college, full of trauma with no prospects on the horizon, feeling like a burden and a loser, had thrown caution to the wind and accepted a plane ticket to New Zealand from a man I’d only been dating for six months. And thus had thrown myself into a world that, while utterly bewitching — a literal paradise on earth — was completely and totally foreign to me.

I was terrified because I was completely intimidated by this fancy new job in this fancy new place where I definitely didn’t belong, as a post-9/11 American in a progressive, outspoken country just as talk of WMDs was ramping up, but also too afraid to go back home, wherever that was now, and admit defeat.

Terrified because home had already become a war zone.

It hadn’t taken long. The abuse began before I ever left for New Zealand, when my ex-husband briefly lived in the States. He meticulously played his cards just so, careful not to trot out more than verbal and emotional blows until I was safely ensconced in Aotearoa. It was only then, when I was isolated from family and friends and drowning in jet lag and the awkward unease of someone who knows they’ve made a mistake but can’t admit it, that he finally put his hands on me. And for the next four years, those hands made my body a comfortable home for themselves. A human stress ball, if you will.

This nightmare had just begun that windy morning in Auckland, as I walked down the street in Newmarket, nervous butterflies fluttering in my belly, my Walkman pounding in my ears the lyrics to Audioslave’s “I am the Highway” (a song I love to this day because it reminds me of the first kernel of hope I had that I might get away. The hope took root early, but it took years to water it and let it bloom). But anyway, Auckland: as I walked, I passed a large theater. It’s been many years and I forget the name, but it was swank, with huge, glossy posters hanging on the outside of the building. I would analyze those slick movie posters on my walks, and dream about living lives within those films. I especially loved the independent local films, films that helped me to understand the beautiful culture I was now immersed in; films that made me feel like I was home. Anything to anchor me to a place where I felt increasingly adrift.

At some point a year or so later I became aware of an up-and-coming young director named Taika Waititi and his new short film Two Cars, One Night. To this day I remember the look of that black and white poster, stark and simple, and the feelings it invoked in me. For a moment there, Taika was all they could talk about on the news; young Maori-Jewish director who wrote sweet, short films that portrayed the beautiful simplicity of New Zealand indigenous life. I can’t remember how or when I eventually saw the movie for the first time, but I loved it. A short-and-sweet little story about how tenderness can come from unexpected places and people, about how common ground can be found anywhere, should you care to look, and the innocence of childhood.

Two Cars, One Night, Directed by Taika Waititi

From that point on, I followed Taika Waititi’s career. Everyone was going on about Lord of the Rings, but I was more interested in Taika. Along with everybody else, I knew he was going to be a big deal one day. He was just that talented. And as the years went on, living in a silent hell contained within a Russian doll of paradise; as the abuse worsened; as I developed health problems and inflammation due to stress; as I became agoraphobic; unrecognizable to myself in pictures I don’t like to look at to this day; as I started to consider ending my life, I clung to the precious New Zealand art and artists that gave me a welcome I’d never felt at home. Writers like Alan Duff and Witi Ihimaera and Janet Frame and Keri Hulme; musicians like Fat Freddy’s Drop and Salmonella Dub and Crowded House; directors like Taika Waititi. In the low, dark times, the art was all I had to cling to, a small lifeboat in a desperate churning sea that I knew would eventually drown me, one day or another, one way or another. It was only a matter of time.

Another fakery. Or “fuckery”.

After a couple of years, we moved from Auckland to Taupo, then to Rotorua, aka “Rotovegas”, a place I loved. I got a job working as a receptionist at a large, multi-national corporation.  Somehow, I kept falling upwards into these opportunities despite no belief in myself whatsoever; it was a blessing, too, because failure was not an option at home. My ticket was not free, and a fist reminded me when my own sub-conscious didn’t.

I was terrible at this job but I loved it, in part because of my supervisor, a middle-aged man named Hemi with whom I shared a small, dusty, grease-stained office. On my very first day, he pushed his books and papers aside and offered me his dingy desk, his smile wide with pleasure at his own generosity, and for months, he’d stand in the corner going over paperwork rather than take my seat. The two of us were weirdly sequestered in a different part of the building than the rest of the staff, but neither of us minded. We were both outcasts. Hemi was of average height, with a shock of dark hair that fell over his forehead, deep, warm brown eyes and a mouthful of endearing Maori colloquialisms: “Chur”, “Choice”, and “you right?”. He was a terrible boss and I was an awful employee: neither of us got anything done. We were too busy chatting, laughing, and tip-toeing around each other, both of us too polite to be assertive. It was the happiest time of my years in New Zealand, living in Rotorua and seeing Hemi every day. He was everything my husband wasn’t: kind, deliberate, funny, self-deprecating, unfussed, humble. One dreadful day, a colleague of ours was killed in a terrible, violent accident. Even though the man had been on Hemi’s crew for years and I barely knew him, Hemi spent that morning comforting me, after he told me what had happened in a voice wavering with swallowed tears. He thought nothing of crying in front of me.

In my head, an elaborate fantasy world formed in which Hemi and I ran away together. He was twenty years my senior, married, and a gulf wider than the Pacific lay between us in terms of culture, life experience and circumstances…but for that year, he was the only person I had. He might have flirted occasionally, or perhaps I only distorted our friendship; I was young, and such was my need for positive attention. For comfort. All I knew was that Hemi’s warm brown eyes twinkled when I entered the office every morning, and that he was thoughtful in a way that no-one had ever been toward me before. When I talked of growing up in the States, he listened, interested. He didn’t mock my southern accent like my husband or question me about why my home country sucked. At a company barbecue, some co-workers prepared a hangi, where food is roasted underground, cooked by thermal energy. I’ll never forget Hemi putting extra kumara (New Zealand sweet potatoes) in the ground for me, knowing I was a vegetarian. Nor will I forget my relief when my husband called and said he had to work late and wouldn’t be attending. Over cans of Tui, Hemi and I talked until after dark.

Whangara.

Hemi wasn’t only a friend to me; he was a lifeline. Nothing romantic ever happened between us, and though I wanted it at the time, now I’m deeply grateful to this man for the move he never made. He was a good guy. And I imagine he knew that I was a damaged, vulnerable young woman who would have only been hurt even worse, and I was already bruised beyond repair. I like to think Hemi saw me for who I was, all of it, and was happy to simply give me what I needed, which was a friend who saw me clear.

By the end I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t like pictures and I still don’t like to look at these. But I was lucky to have one friend who saw me and liked me for who I was.

There’s something else Hemi gave me: an example.

My white, cis-male ex lived his life beneath an umbrella of privilege. Oh, he ticked the right boxes and said the right things in mixed company, but in his heart, he was angry, embittered, and desperate. For most of our four years together, he took those feelings out on me. Undiagnosed and untreated mental illness only added to the chaos. His barely disguised disdain and resentment for me drove almost everything he did. While he delighted in “teaching” me about his country and his culture, the way he spoke of those he saw as inferior rankled. One of his favorite things to do was ironically quote Jake “the Muss”, an abusive man played to perfection by actor Temuera Morrison in the film Once Were Warriors, to me. “Cook me some fucking eggs, eh Beth?” He’d screech and laugh, the amusement never reaching his eyes. The only things he ever had to offer about Maori culture were at best, casually racist and at worst, full of spite. Diabolical, yet equal-opportunity in his cruelty, he’d sometimes bring me home leaflets and flyers about how to leave an abuser, knowing I didn’t have the courage.

It wasn’t just him. Seeing the way his friends and colleagues behaved; the way they talked about women, immigrants and indigenous populations, and the entitlement they often showed, I began to assume that everyone must feel this way, that I was the odd one out. That this idea of New Zealand as a liberal paradise must be pure propaganda. That this was just life now.

But then I met Hemi. And I realized that there were men like him all over New Zealand, and the world, probably. Men who are kind, intelligent, interested — secure enough in their masculinity that they don’t need to prove themselves to themselves through violence. Men who can – and do – love openly, without fear.

And god, how I clung to that. How, once I finally was able to escape with my life and come back home, I continued to cling to that.

I left New Zealand abruptly, so quickly I didn’t even realize I was formulating my own escape until I was already out, and never got to tell Hemi goodbye. I mourned and grieved, not only for New Zealand, a place I didn’t want to leave, but had to if I didn’t want to die — but I also grieved for the one friendship I’d had that felt real, and good, and safe.

East Cape, New Zealand. IMO, the most beautiful place on earth.

So for years, I listened to my Fat Freddy’s Drop and watched my New Zealand films and talked everyone’s ear off about Aotearoa and how much I missed it, as they laughed about my pseudo-New Zealand accent and how goofy it sounded (that has now worn off, and I just sound like a hillbilly). I got a Kia Kaha (“stay strong”) tattoo with an unfurling koru, to remind me of my second home, and began the slow, arduous task of trying to move on. I wrote two fiction novels based on my time in New Zealand, featuring a leading man named Hemi, which I self-published. I thought telling my story, even cloaked in fiction, would be the final step in healing. It worked, for a time. But letting people see behind the mask wasn’t a comfortable place yet. Friends would tell me how much the book triggered them; how much it hurt them, how sad they found it. I felt exposed, and guilty. My story was hurting people. I didn’t want them to feel what I had felt for so long. I eventually took them down.

It’s amazing how twenty years can go by in a flash. At the start of 2022, I began to realize, with some horror, that I was coming up on the 20-year-anniversay of moving to New Zealand. It had been 20 years since I scratched out my signature on a hastily produced marriage certificate and signed a deal with the devil, no honeymoon or happy marriage to follow; only pain. Twenty years…shouldn’t I be over this? I thought I was. I thought I’d healed. And yet. As the much-argued-over F. Scott Fitzgerald says in my favorite novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, I realized I was sailing backwards yet again, like Stede Bonnet, into the open sea with no idea how to captain a ship. Back into the icy waters of unresolved trauma. I was walking underwater; in slow-motion, just waiting for the inevitable day that I’d finally run out of breath and drown. My recent asthma-flares, leftover remnants from a bout with COVID, only made the feeling all-too real. I was drowning. We all were.  

Image courtesy HBO: Subject to copyright

“It’s just fucking hard sometimes, you know? You ever feel trapped, like you’re just treading water, waiting to drown?” – Edward Teach

I wondered: should I speak about this? Break down the barrier I’d erected and talk openly, or throw a few more stones on the pile? I truly had no fucking idea, but inside, a fire roared. Outside, the water crept higher.

And all y’all kept tweeting about this damn show. Our Flag Means Death. Following Taika’s pursuits, I was aware of the show and planned to watch it, but being so busy, I kept putting it off. You know how you become so accustomed to a routine you start automatically pushing things away, knowing you’re causing your own burnout? But y’all kept tweeting, and sharing your fan art, and finally, unable to resist the sweet temptation of a pop culture moment, I succumbed.

And this goddamn show healed me.

Staring at this beautiful, ridiculous, silly love story between two goofy-ass pirates, one of them a secret cinnamon roll concealed by a goth leather getup and salt-and-pepper beard; the other a fancyman with delicate curling blond hair and musical laughter (his hand gently resting on a railing that looks like a koru), both complete and total buffoons, I began to feel something like joy. I laughed out loud. My heart soared at the diversity of the beautiful cast, the delicate-but-realistic relationships between the characters. The way Ed stares at Stede with something like awe in his soft brown eyes, the way the characters touch each other with tenderness and familiarity; without pause, without fear.

That scene. That nudge. Oh, my.

After the finale, I turned off the TV and just sat there for a moment, breathing. Then, the hugest grin broke out on my face. My heart was beating in my chest, exhilarated, as I realized what I’d just seen.

Image Courtesy HBO: Subject to copyright

All the things that people love about this show are there for me, too. The diversity, the celebrating of queerness, of neurodivergence, of love-in-all-it’s-forms – fuck tolerance, fuck acceptance, we’ll have nothing less than CELEBRATION – but also, the quiet tenderness of a man learning to feel his feelings and treat others with kindness, respect and love. The journey of Ed. Watching it, then digesting it, I began to realize why I’ve always loved Taika Waititi.

He reminds me of my old friend Hemi.

Waititi’s portrayal of Ed makes it clear. The soft brown eyes. The weighted, carefully thought-out words. His hardness and roughness, his undeniable masculinity that will flip on a dime and turn into tentative, deliberate loving when he’s with Stede. That use of touch – both the touches that happen and the ones that don’t – all careful, meaningful choices. The musical lilt of his Kiwi accent, always-ending-on-a-high-note; bright. The way he marvels at the feelings he’s experiencing, rather than shying away from fear. Even after things go pear-shaped and Ed resumes his Blackbeard persona, that man is still in there, behind the now tear-filled warm brown eyes. And we understand that he’s able to cry now. That he hasn’t lost everything.

This show is so important because it takes every stupid trope we’ve ever been sold on masculinity and turns it upside down. Shakes it loose, and casts it aside. And good riddance to it.

These characters – Stede Bonnet and Ed “Blackbeard” Teach and all their crew – beautifully embody the millions of different ways one can be a man, be a woman, be non-binary or something else entirely. This show is all about celebrating that feeling of being comfortable in one’s skin, and being loved unconditionally by the people that matter. Found family, love without conditions, without masking. A world where differences are interesting and even enchanting. Where friendships are affectionate and loving. A world in which pronouns are adopted easily, kisses are shared openly, and two ridiculous, silly men can express all the love in the entire world with one sexy wink and a foot nudge.

God, I needed that. We’ve all needed it for so long.

Being a survivor comes in waves. You have good days, bad days, then good years, bad years. As time goes on, the good becomes more frequent and the bad shows up less often. Some days, even twenty years on, I feel like I’m Ed’s Kraken – doomed to hurt myself and everyone else with the pain that’s pulling me under – but what’s different now is that I have the skills to talk about my experiences, work through my trauma, and come up for air. I’m not drowning anymore; I am my own rescuer, buoyed by art and music and writing and breathtakingly fresh and beautiful shows like Our Flag is Death for the days that are hard.

There’s no need to dread an anniversary. Twenty years since…nah, forget that. What it’s been is twenty years of healing. Twenty years of working, of writing, of creating a family, of celebrating new friendships, of milestones and successes and dreams and realities and wonderful television shows with cute goth boys loving soft boys.

Image courtesy HBO: Subject to copyright

“What if it’s not a death? What if life just begins again?”

What if, indeed. There’s not enough thanks or flowers in the world to give Taika Waititi, David Jenkins, Rhys Darby and the rest of the cast, crew, producers and writers of this beautiful, much-needed piece of art. Our Flag is Death is a masterpiece of television and with it, you are healing people, one belly laugh and nudge at a time. Kia Ora, mates, and thank you.

By lillahlawson

Author of Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree (Regal House, 2019), and the Dead Rockstar Trilogy (Parliament House, 2020). Georgia Author of the Year Nominee. Poet, Essayist, Genealogist.

2 replies on “Our Flag Means Death: Healing Us One Nudge at a Time”

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