I love tropes. Probably to a ridiculous degree. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I am completely obsessed with how tropes are used in Our Flag Means Death.
Usually, when people talk about tropes, the bad ones come to mind first: burying your gays, fridging, queerbaiting, etc. But tropes aren’t always bad. A lot of the time they can be quite fun. Like, who doesn’t love a well-done Meet Cute? Or a Happily Ever After? Or maybe you’re just a sucker for Heartwarming Moments. There are plenty of positive tropes out there, too, and you probably enjoy quite a few of them without even realizing it.
Since I’m currently fixated on everyone’s favorite pirate romcom, I started matching some tropes to certain elements of the show. Queer media tends to carry a lot of negative tropes with it, but this one delivers a lot of absolutely wonderful ones. They’re the kind of tropes we usually only get in fanfiction. We’re typically left wanting by canon and have to write it out ourselves if we want to enjoy them.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There is still plenty to explore in fanfiction about Our Flag Means Death, and we’re churning out a ton of it. I’ve written several! But it’s nice to get some fun romance tropes canonically, too. We’re really blessed.
Early Romantic Tropes Between Ed and Stede
When it comes to same-sex pairings, we usually expect to be queerbaited. What usually happens is that we get a bunch of tropes leading us to believe a romance is playing out between characters, but the romance never actually comes. We’re left wondering if we read too much into things. Do we just have romance goggles on? Was none of this real?
But this time something different happened. All the cues that we usually see lead to nothing actually led somewhere. To quote the renowned scribe Lucius Spriggs, this is happening. So let’s talk about those cues we may have dismissed because we couldn’t believe we were actually getting a romance.
Romantic Tropes in 1×04 “Discomfort in a Married State”
The end of 1×03 “A Gentleman Pirate” saw Stede and his crew in rather dire circumstances. In the final few seconds of the episode, one of my favorite romantic tropes gets triggered and we are carried through 1×04 “Discomfort in a Married State” with some of the most romantic overtones imaginable.
Our dynamic duo first meet face to face through the use of this trope. For a while there, Stede only knows him as Ed, the guy who rescued him, knew him by his Self-Applied Nickname, and works for Blackbeard. This allows the very early stages of their romance to blossom without the baggage of Blackbeard’s reputation. Of course, this isn’t the only reason Ed and Stede fall in love, but it’s an excellent start to the romance. Their interest in each other only deepens from there.
Other wonderful ships that begin this way are Shion/Nezumi (No.6), Liu Qingge/Shen Yuan (The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System), Han/Leia (Star Wars), and Ned/Chuck (Pushing Daisies). It’s a pretty solid place for romance to start. The best ships use it as a launch point to dive much deeper into their dynamic as the plot moves forward.
After Ed rescues Stede (Distressed Dude), he watches over him while he recovers from his injuries. This is a common trope, used notably with Amy/Rory (Doctor Who), both Rei/Shinji and Asuka/Shinji (Neon Genesis Evangelion), Gwen/Jack (Torchwood), and Mulder/Scully (The X-Files). It’s not always romantic, though. Caitlin watches over Bran in Game of Thrones, for example. There are many different types of love and this is an excellent trope to explore that.
Any place with people that care about each other and there’s an element of danger is susceptible to this trope. So it’s perfect for pirates. We get a lot of it in science fiction and fantasy, too. It’s become a genre story mainstay. It often goes hand in hand with the Hurt/Comfort trope, which is basically my favorite trope of all time.
We see clips of Ed going about the ship doing other things, so perhaps you can dispute the ‘unbroken’ nature of it (I think it’s close enough, personally). However, he definitely converses with Stede when he’s passed out, asking ‘who is this Mary then?’ as Stede chatters away in his sleep. This conversation is brief, but it absolutely counts towards the Converse with the Unconscious trope.
This trope is one of the first things Ed and Stede do together. Right after Stede says that he wishes he could be Blackbeard (I Just Want To Be You), they decide to ‘do something weird’ and swap clothing. This doesn’t have to necessarily be a romantic trope, but the way this particular instance of it unfolded definitely was.
Ed ends up keeping Stede’s tie and wearing it throughout the rest of the season. It’s most visible when they’re treasure hunting in episode 1×07. Since he walks around without his usual leather jacket, it contrasts with his purple shirt much more obviously.
It becomes a variation of the Boyfriend Jacket, basically. Even when he seems to have cut everything that would remind him of Stede out of his life, the tie remains wrapped around his neck. By the end of the season, it’s actually a rather tragic symbol.
Romantic Tropes in 1×05 “The Best Revenge Is Dressing Well”
We continue to drown in romance tropes in the following episode. In fact, there are so many romantic tropes present here that, had they not become canon, we would have probably pointed to this scene as some pretty terrible queerbaiting. But, again, we weren’t baited this time! All the wonderful tropes paid off later in the season.
David Jenkins, I owe you my life.
After Stede puts the red silk in Ed’s pocket, they end up holding each other’s gaze for quite a while. Their expressions made my heart skip a beat, I swear. Props to Taika Waititi and Rhys Darby for creating an absolutely incredible Held Gaze moment. The expressions here are incredibly powerful. Like David Jenkins, I owe you two my life.
This trope is extremely popular in traditional romantic stories, especially in Disney films. Tangled, The Lion King, Aladdin, and so many more have this one. It’s one of the best ways to explain in shorthand that two characters are completely head-over-heels for each other.
It’s hard to say if there was going to be a declaration of love here (I’ve theorized when I think Ed realized he loves him over on Twitter), but at the very least a kiss was about to happen. Ed is clearly going in to kiss him and for a moment it looks like Stede is going to reciprocate. But then Ed pulls back last minute.
I don’t think either of them were ready for a kiss or a love confession at this point. I certainly love fic that explores the ‘what if’ of what could happen next if Ed actually had kissed him here and I will read literally every fic that tackles that canon divergent plot thread. Canonically speaking, though, the slow burn of it all was wonderful and I’m glad this scene played out like it did.
Romantic Tropes in 1×06 “The Art of F*ckery”
This episode begins with a Falling-in-Love Montage narrated by Izzy. He flat out says he thinks Ed is being seduced by Stede, but again, a lot of us would have brushed that off as baiting at that point. We see them chatting, smiling, laughing, and then sparring (with a Flirtatious Smack on the Ass via sword). This transitions into the stabbing scene, which is the episode’s Chekhov’s Gun – or Chekov’s Gut Stab, in this case.
This trope reoccurs later, though, in a very different format. In a way, the second reinforcement of this trope puts this first usage in a new light. Oh! They actually were falling in love. Wow!
Romantic Tropes in 1×07 “This Is Happening”
These two tropes work in tandem with each other quite a bit. In our specific case here, Stede knows Ed likes his tea with a dollop of milk and seven sugars. It’s played off casually and it’s incredibly sweet (just like Ed’s ridiculous tea).
Oh my God, it’s happening.
This is a slight variation of this trope since Ed’s face is obscured by his beard. However, he gets some snake caught in said beard and Stede lovingly reaches out to get it. This trope is so powerful, that it makes Lucius realize these two boneheads are actually falling in love.
Recurring Tropes in Episodes 1×04-1×08
Oh, Ed. You just can’t help yourself with this one, can you? You are absolutely besotted. Ed always seems to look at Stede like he’s the most fascinating thing on the planet and he can’t possibly look at anything else. And honestly, I get it. Stede is amazing.
This is the trope that tends to get fans queerbaited the most. Sometimes actors seem to play this trope when there’s no romance written on the page and we end up disappointed when it never materializes. Taika Waititi was very intentional here. He gave some powerful pining expressions and the story delivered.
Their theme is Gnossienne 5 by Erik Satie. I’ve talked all about the music from Our Flag Means Death before (a bit excessively so, if I’m being honest). If you’re going to learn just one important thing about the show’s use of music, you should know this one.
Their love theme is first introduced when Ed picks up Stede’s rather exquisite cashmere, and then becomes a recurring theme – or leitmotif – whenever Ed has happy positive feelings around Stede. We hear it again when they share marmalade, again when Stede tells him he wears fine things well, and again during the kiss.
There are a lot of examples of Love Themes throughout media. Going back to Disney for a moment (because they love tropes), “Beauty and the Beast,” “Can You Feel The Love Tonight,” and “I See the Light” are some of the most well-known. Like Gnossienne 5, however, they don’t always have lyrics that outright convey the purpose of the song. Han and Leia have a one, for example. Roslin and Adama from Battlestar Galactica have one too.
“We need to be a lighthouse!” / “Co-captains?”
This one is pretty straightforward.
Our Pairing Means Tropes
The dynamics of Ed and Stede as a pairing (aka ‘BlackBonnet’) is, in and of itself, one of the most popular shipping tropes ever known. No wonder we all embraced it so fast!
These delightful tropes are all very similar and the names are pretty straightforward. In this case, we have our cheerfully wide-eyed blond-haired, gold-hearted friendly pirate and a hair-trigger-tempered, dreaded, leather-wearing scoundrel with a dark and troubled past falling deeply in love. Light and dark. Grumpy and cheerful. Quite simply, an absolutely amazing combination.
If I’m honest with myself, this trope is present in at least 90% of the things I ship seriously. Here are a few stellar examples: Loki/Mobius (Loki), Dean/Castiel (Supernatural), Crowley/Aziraphale (Good Omens), Akira/Ryo (Devilman Crybaby), Will/Hannibal (Hannibal), and April/Andy (Parks and Recreation).
In fact, that last ship has lines that have become emblematic of this trope:
April: Someone will die.
Andy: Of fun!
This has now become a common meme template when this trope is found in other ships. Indeed, I’ve seen this quote edited over BlackBonnet images already. It just fits!
Stede Bonnet’s Character Tropes
I outlined some of Stede and Ed’s tropes in the previous section, but Stede is such an interesting blend of tropes I want to dive into a couple further. On the one hand, he uses some pretty common ones, but not quite in the way they’re usually used. On the other hand, he’s pulling from some rather unique tropes that we really don’t get enough of, especially in queer media.
What we get is a really fascinating character who could have very easily fallen flat if these tropes hadn’t been used like this. They were used in a way that enhanced him and I can honestly say he’s one of my favorite characters of all time.
I’ve seen some discussion on social media that Stede could fit this trope. This trope is often brought up in a negative way. Manic Pixie Dream Girls tend to be a bit flat because they rely too much on the trope and don’t give them adequate character development on their own.
I don’t see it as a negative thing with Stede, though. They made sure he didn’t fall flat. We had three full episodes of Stede alone before Blackbeard even showed up. Introducing him first was pretty clever in this way because we get all the fun things that come with a Manic Pixie Dream
Girl Pirate, but a ton of backstory that fleshes him out.
This, combined with the acting choices Rhys Darby makes with this character, has made him the most emotionally deep Manic Pixie Dream
Girl Pirate I’ve ever encountered. I adore him.
This one is a specifically queer trope that just isn’t that common at all. The only one I personally know (though more are listed at TV Tropes) is Rosa from Brooklyn 99. I appreciate seeing something that just isn’t common in the small amount of queer media we do get.
I know ‘coming out’ may not fit as this universe hasn’t yet shown that hiding homosexuality is required. The only negative sentiments we’ve seen have come from Izzy, but homophobia may or may not be his motivation. I have other thoughts about him that I’ll share in his own section in just a minute. He’s a fun one to look at in regards to tropes.
But back to the Late Coming Out trope. Even if we don’t have a ‘coming out’ scene and everyone seems cool with it, it’s still a character making this realization about themselves later in life. Up until now, he’s been stuck in obligatory heterosexuality, which obviously wasn’t satisfying for him. Overall, I’m going to say Stede fits this trope regardless of the context of the world this show has created.
Secondary Character Romance Tropes
We’ve got some fascinating characters supporting our main pairing. Romance tropes aren’t just confined to the two characters who are falling in love. In this case, Izzy and Lucius carry a lot of weight in their developing relationship. They’re also opposites in how they function in relation to the ship. They’re kind of the angel and devil on their shoulders through most of the season.
I have such a love/hate relationship with Izzy. If he were a real human, I would absolutely hate him. He’s a major jerk and tried to kill my favorite character and just hates joy. However, as a fictional character, he is absolutely fascinating. There’s a lot going on there and I hope we get a second season so we can explore him further.
Quick disclaimer: I don’t name these tropes. I hate the use of the word ‘crazy’ like this, but that’s the name of the trope. With that clarified, moving on…
Izzy fits this trope perfectly. He sees Ed finding happiness with Stede and is not having it. In fact, he straight-up tries to Murder the Hypotenuse (Stede) to prevent it from happening. He’s Ed’s Poisonous Friend, which ultimately pushes Ed towards his unfortunate transformation in the tenth episode.
Other characters that fall under this category are The Joker (Batman), JJ (Fake). Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (A Song of Ice and Fire), and Hannibal Lecter. Most of these are characters I hate, except for Hannibal. So that’s two Crazy Jealous Guys that I’m fascinated by, I guess. The rest? Meh.
He tries to ruin Ed and Stede’s budding relationship repeatedly. When he relays the ‘go suck eggs in hell’ line, he lies and says he told Stede exactly who he was. This backfires, though, and Ed is even more intrigued by a guy who would tell Blackbeard off. Izzy also tries to convince Ed to kill Stede, and when that doesn’t work, he tries to kill him himself. This kind of shipping torpedoing continues for pretty much the entire first season.
Other characters who fit these tropes include the Mother Gothel (Tangled), Michael (Queer as Folk), Xander (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and Eponine (Les Miserables). They aren’t often well-liked by fans, and they can vary in how deep their motivation for hating on the main pairing can run. Sometimes it makes sense. Sometimes it’s clearly just being used for plot reasons. In this case, I think Izzy is pretty well-rounded and interesting in this role.
Why does Blackbeard like that fancy little man? Why?
This is spelled out pretty clearly when he straight up tells Stede that he doesn’t know why Ed ‘adores’ him. Stede’s expression at that moment seems to imply that he wasn’t quite aware of Ed’s feelings. So, again, Izzy’s actions backfire miserably. He is really bad at torpedoing this ship. And we’re all grateful for his incompetence.
This is the closest trope to how Izzy seems to react around Lucius. A lot of his behavior towards Ed and Stede has less of a homophobic tint to it and more jealousy and confusion. However, he seems to very intentionally puff up his feathers around Lucius, who is openly flamboyant with not a hint of any shame. It’s like Izzy sees something he wishes he could be and reacts with hatred towards those specific attributes.
I think we can all agree, Izzy probably needs to get laid. Lucius even sort of offers (“have you ever been sketched?”), but that just infuriates him more.
As I mentioned previously, this show doesn’t have overt homophobic elements in it. At least not so far. People don’t seem to bat an eye at same-sex love at all. But this behavior is pretty close and I think it deserves to be analyzed within the context of this trope. Whether or not you agree that it fits can be up for debate.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Lucius. While Izzy is trying to rip these two lovebirds apart, Lucius wants to push them together. And quickly. Because it’s getting very annoying.
While Izzy was quite accidentally a Love Informant when he revealed that Ed adores Stede, Lucius very intentionally takes on this role. He also falls under the Shipper on Deck label, though he’s very reluctant about it. Lucius recognizes that they’re in love, but both of them are too boneheaded to do anything about it. He pushes them together knowing he could get stabbed in the face for his efforts. And, indeed, he does eventually get chucked overboard.
“You’re very cool and you wear leather so maybe you won’t understand this, but everyone is worried all of the time whether they’re interesting or adventurous enough for you, and that bizarre little man over there likes you very much, and you like him. And if you can’t get over yourself long enough to realize that you’re going to end up another leather-clad middle-aged sad sack dying alone in a puddle of his own piss.
“You can stab me in the face now.”
Going to have to be real with you, here. This trope has nothing to do with romance. But we are all in denial about Lucius’ death and this trope fits our current state of being perfectly. This trope is us. Lucius isn’t dead! He’s hiding in one of the secret passages or he’s been rescued by Stede or he’s a mermaid or something. This trope fits so well that we’re even cited in the examples section on TV Tropes.
But anyway, back to the romantic tropes…
Tropes in “Wherever You Go, There You Are”
Stede has done this twice. First, he left his wife and children to become a pirate (Grass Is Greener). Then he left Ed to go back to his family, becoming a Stranger in a Familiar Land. Really, Stede, you have got to stop doing this.
That second use of this trope was obviously a mistake, and he realizes that. The inclusion of this trope near the end of the season has provided a significant amount of angst, which has greatly increased our desire for season two. We want to eventually have a Happily Ever After, but this trope derailed it for now.
HBO Max, please give us a second season? We absolutely can’t leave this here.
Stede didn’t know what love is because he’s never been in love before. As a result, the epiphany was quite belated. The “his name is Ed” scene has become a fan favorite because of how beautifully these tropes play out in that moment. Of course, because of how he left things with Ed, it’s also quite a bit heartbreaking.
This is the second use of this trope, but it’s used pretty differently. We get a montage of Ed and Stede’s romance as Mary is describing how love feels. While the first one was used more traditionally, this one is used retrospectively. We get it as a way Stede reflects on everything that happened previously. Some could argue that maybe it’s a Lost Love Montage instead, but I’d argue that it was too joyful to fit that trope.
This isn’t common in slow burn stories, but it makes sense here because of the First Love / Belated Love Epiphany trope. It’s wonderfully done.
When Stede leaves to find himself, he stands Ed up. And that leads to…
The woobification of Blackbeard.
Characters become ‘woobies’ when an audience feels extremely sorry for them. In this case, Ed clearly fell into a deep depression as he tries to deal with Stede standing him up at the dock. When fans write fanfic that woobifies a tough character, we’re usually called out for writing OOC. But we can’t be called out for it this time because the story itself woobified him for us.
This trope gets a bad reputation. It’s often seen as something that destroys what was previously an incredibly strong character. People view men expressing raw emotion as a weakness (Men Don’t Cry). If we feel sorry for a character, they can’t possibly be the badass character we grew to love, right? That seems to be the general vibe I get from this trope’s detractors, anyway. I thoroughly disagree, though.
Seeing a masculine character experiencing depression – complete with a Corner of Woe and Cradle of Loneliness – is honestly refreshing. I mean, it’s really heartbreaking to watch, of course, but it’s nice to see a story actually go there. Heartbroken Badasses who can actually express their sadness are extremely rare.
Ed throws all Stede’s belongings (except that tie) overboard. Stede isn’t around for the ‘berate’ part of this trope, but that’s because Ed was stood up, remember? Though it’s possible when they finally meet back up later, we’ll get a belated berating to match our defenestrating. I think it has a similar emotional impact as the more traditional use of this trope, so I’m counting it.
Other couples that have gone through this include Dean/Lindsay (Gilmore Girls), Rachel/Paolo (Friends), and a really weird body swap version of this with Mulder on The X-Files.
Just to clarify again, I don’t like to use the word ‘crazy’ when it can be avoided. I especially don’t like using this in relation to Ed as I spend a great deal of time thinking about his mental health in a very serious way. But this is the official title of the trope, so I’m using it here for accuracy.
Ed initially reacts to Stede’s departure by moping around and being depressed, but Izzy manages to trigger something in Ed and we get a dramatic personality shift. Other characters who have experienced this trope in a similar fashion include the Doctor (Doctor Who) in both the episode “The Deadly Assassin” and “The Waters of Mars,” and Shinji (Rebuild of Evangelion).
Once he becomes this destructive, you’d think he’s no longer classified as a woobie. But no, friends, there’s a subtrope of woobie. I would like to introduce you to Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. And that’s basically where we left Ed at the end of season one.
If you’ve enjoyed learning about tropes, you might enjoy the following websites:
If you’re like me, this is going to suck you in for a while. Have fun!
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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