Welcome to Close Reads! In this series, Leah Schnelbach and guest authors will dig into the tiny, weird moments of pop culture—from books to theme songs to viral internet hits—that have burrowed into our minds, found rent-stabilized apartments, started community gardens, and refused to be forced out by corporate interests. This time out, Leah wrestles their mental Krakens to talk about the surprising religious imagery in Our Flag Means Death.
We all express our gay pirate brain rot in different ways. Some of us write fic, some of us create ridiculously, absurdly, incredible, swooning, adorable, art, some of us break out the chalk, some of us break out the cocktail shakers, some of us get tattooed, and some of us—like, a lot of us—bake cakes.
Me, I write thinkpieces.
(Spoilers ahead for the Our Flag Means Death.)
Maya Gittelman talked about the way the show questioned masculinity and tradition in their incredible essay, but one aspect of it I found especially interesting was in the subversion, or really outright rejection, of the patriarchal religion that would have been the default of the 1700s.
To start, it’s worth noting that we only see three religious authorities in the ten episodes. One is Nana, who is a knife-wielding, vengeful nun who’s totally cool with Jim’s pronouns, and with the idea that they’re shacking up with Olu. She also finds it hilarious that the local priest was crushed by a tree.
Nana’s the best, mostly.
Later, Jim themself stands in for a priest (the one who was crushed, perhaps?) in order to hear Geraldo’s confession before they take him hostage to negotiate with Spanish Jackie. (Sidenote: never thought I’d see an enby priest on a pirate show? Sometimes I’m glad I’m alive?)
The last is a Protestant minister who officiates Stede and Mary’s wedding. He delivers the traditional platitudes that make marriage sound like a death sentence, delivers a sermon that ties religion, duty, and society into one untangle-able knot, and seems cool with the status quo of marrying two people who have barely met. (He also lives on an island in the Caribbean but doesn’t know how lighthouses work.)
And the wedding gifts? Stede and Mary receive gravestones from their families—a reminder that while you only have this one life, it’s to be trudged through, not enjoyed.
But as with all things OFMD, the important stuff is the deep sea of emotion that lurks just beneath the surface.
Throughout the show, Stede is rock solid in his belief that he deserves to die for the crimes of accidentally killing Badminton and abandoning his family. He repeatedly says, “I deserve this” and “the bill’s come due” when Admiral Badminton catches up with him. This is an understandable response to breaking the laws of your society—at least, if you’re a soft boi like Stede Bonnet and live with guilt and anxiety as your default setting.
What’s more interesting to me is Stede’s—and the show’s—relationship to Hell. When Badminton’s ship catches up with them, the crew explicitly asks if they should “blow them to Hell”. Not blow them up, or blow them out of the water, but “to Hell.” The following episode, that deals with Stede’s guilt over kinda sorta killing Badminton, is straight up titled “A Damned Man”. And yes, at one point Stede tells Pete and Olu that they have to “get their damned men back” (foreshadowing???) but I think we’re also meant to see the “damned man” as Stede, at least in his own mind. Chauncy Badminton plans to “ride the cat bandits straight to Hell” when he plans his vengeance, and when Chauncey finally kidnaps him, Stede once again thinks he deserves punishment and death.
More than that, Stede seems to believe that he deserves Hell. When he gets stabbed up by some Spaniards, he takes Hell as a given. He hallucinates Mary at his bedside, but she doesn’t forgive him—she tells him to “enjoy Hell” while his father laughs at his terror. He then sees Blackbeard as a flame-eyed demon stabbing him with a trident/pitchfork. (And if you want to cry again, remember that while he’s hallucinating, the real Ed is watching over him as he sleeps.) The throughline is that Stede is wracked with guilt. Some part of him thinks that the only possible outcome of leaving his family and breaking with his society is death and, ultimately, flames.
Which tracks pretty closely with the experience of queer people who are told they’re going to Hell for who they are, no?
But where things get even more interesting is in Ed’s story, and the way Stede intersects with it. The first thing that Ed and Stede connect over is their shared love of fine fabrics. We learn in “The Best Revenge is Dressing Well” (in a flashback that happens right after an upperclass officer calls Ed a “donkey”) that Ed’s mother was in service to a family called Carmody, and brought a scrap of their silk home to her child. Ed was fascinated by it and loved it enough to keep it all those years (and presumably hide it from his father, who would never have allowed any son of his to have something so swish). He associates it with his mother, and in most stories it would simply be a sentimental keepsake, the one thing that the gruff violent brooding man keeps to tell us he has a heart under all that leather. Or, it would be just a symbol of aristocracy, and the fine things he can’t have, while he watches his mother exhaust herself for their survival.
But what he remembers when he holds the silk is his mother telling him: “It’s not up to us, is it? It’s up to God. He decides who gets what. We’re just not those kind of people. Never will be.” This is what he’s meditating on as he gazes at his “tatty” old silk. The idea that he was worthless didn’t just come from class, or society, or the fact that he and his mother are multiracial—his place is woven into the fabric of reality. His mother doesn’t even soften her words with the “uplifting” narrative that noble poor people who suffer on Earth earn their reward in Heaven. It’s God Himself who has decreed that there’s an order, that Ed Teach is at the bottom of it, and there is no escape.
It would be easy to see this as “Christianity is part of the larger power structure of the colonizers of the 1700s” until you think about Ed’s reaction to it. First, his comment on the Spaniards dramatically “blubbering for their God” as they die. (As ever in this show, it’s important to note the use of “their”.) Given that the Spaniards’ God is the same as his mother’s, with this one line Ed makes it clear that he’s separated himself from the God, and thus the cosmic order, that his mother raised him in.
A bold choice!
An episode later, Stede unknowingly takes him a step further. When he folds Ed’s silk, tucks it into Ed’s pocket, and tells him “you wear fine things well” he’s transforming the silk from a symbol of degradation to a symbol of love, untethered from hierarchy. He’s also rejecting God’s order. He’s telling Ed that having fine things isn’t up to God at all. Ed rejected the traditional religious order by removing himself from it; Stede rejects it by saying God is wrong.
Now, Stede doesn’t know this—but I’m pretty sure he’d make with the pocket square even if he did. And the important part of the scene is that Ed does know, and in (eventually) accepting Stede’s compliment, he’s pushing back against everything he was raised with in a new, and more positive, way.
This is complicated by the following episode, “The Art of Fuckery”. When Ed tells the story of the Kraken killing his dad, he doesn’t use gendered pronouns for the beast. He tells the story, the crew is shocked, he swings straight into talking about weaponizing fear. When Stede and the crew ask for a lesson on this, Ed’s reply is odd: “But be careful what you ask your God for. She might just answer.”
Who’s the God in this scenario? Ed? Ed in Kraken persona? Because if it’s that, Ed just referred to herself with feminine pronouns.
Ed and his crew demonstrate a fuckery, and Stede’s delight becomes the final straw for Izzy—which is where the two cosmological threads suddenly entangle. Izzy demands that Ed abide by his “No Pets On Board” rule, and kill his pet, Stede, in the same way that Fang had to kill his dog. From that moment on, Stede’s murder is framed as Stede being “sent to Doggy Heaven.”
Except Stede doesn’t think he’s going to any heaven, let alone the best possible one.
Stede, when he thinks about such things at all, thinks he’s damned, and Stede’s entire society agrees with him.
This all comes together in the bathtub, when Ed allows himself to cry in front of Stede, and admit to his first murder: the Kraken didn’t kill his dad, he did—he is the Kraken. The thing that scares him the most. The thing at the root of the weaponized fear of the Fuckery. Which means…he’s the feminine God they should be careful of, right?
But the Kraken isn’t automatically feminine.
Leviathan, a creature mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, is sometimes feminine. Tiamat, one of the primordial Babylonian deities, is always feminine, and often the mother of the rest of the pantheon. But the Kraken isn’t, necessarily. One of the most famous pop cultural versions, from the 1981 and 2010 Clash of the Titans movies, were actually given female sacrificial victims a lá King Kong, and I don’t remember Davey Jones discussing his pet Kraken’s gender in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. So if Ed is identifying with the Kraken, and telling the crew to be careful of what they ask for because “She might just answer”—he has created a primordial feminine god in order to overthrow the violent, abusive patriarch who terrorized him and his mother. The man who was the head of the house, who had to be obeyed under an order decreed by God.
In order to murder his father, free his mother, and reject the order of his society and his society’s oppressive male God, Ed didn’t just become “The Kraken”—he became a feminine divinity.
After he confesses his murder to Stede he tells him: “You don’t belong in Doggy Heaven”. (He is, of course, making a gallows humor commentary on his own plot to kill his friend, but I think it’s worth pointing out that In Ed’s eyes, Stede going to Heaven is a given.) Ed can’t bring himself to use the same terrifying identity that murdered his father against a person who has opened a new world up to him, but he can’t keep lying to him, either. I have to assume that he makes this confession assuming that this will be the end of their friendship. In Ed’s world, not so far removed from that of his violent father, and his mother’s oppressive religion, a betrayal like this is met with retribution, punishment—Stede’s immediate forgiveness and understanding are unthinkable to Ed.
But Stede, who already merrily catapulted over one God’s rules, isn’t horrified by the Kraken. He’ll love Ed even if Ed’s a sea monster or an aspect of the Primordial Feminine Divine. For all that he thinks he’s cosmically wrong, and will be punished for it eventually, as long as he’s alive and captain he’ll be the one who decides who deserves fine things.
This imagery gives us a series of subtle but insistent pokes that add to OFMD’s overall thematic tickle fight. Landlocked society, with all its rules and dogmas and norms, is crushing. Toxic masculinity attempts to destroy Stede’s spirit, and traps Ed and his mother in an abusive household that seems to have been approved by God. The hierarchical, patriarchal religion that Stede’s society lives by forces people into loveless marriages and threatens them with Hell.
The world of pirates pushes back on that with images of canine paradises and feminine gods. A bloodless minister only too happy to yoke a pair of strangers together for eternity is overshadowed by a vengeful, loving Nana, who accepts her grandchild for who they are, and has cake and oranges for everyone. A rote confession to a fake priest is countered with a true, heartfelt conversation between two equal men, Ed huddled in a bathtub, sobbing under his boyfriend’s robe; Stede forgiving everything—not because he has to, but because he understands how an abusive father and an oppressive society can twist a person into terrible shapes, and he wants to offer Ed true compassion, and a different kind of life. Instead of a dreary life and the threat of Hell, the pirate world offers fuckery and blood and fire and, ultimately, Doggy Heaven.