David Jenkins, the showrunner for HBO Max’s hit pirate romantic comedy Our Flag Means Death, seems surprised when I tell him that I have never seen fandom engagement like I have for this show. The way that Our Flag Means Death’s writers, cast, and crew talk with the fandom, retweet fan art, post on social media, and support fan activities is quite possibly unprecedented.
Sure, Joss Whedon went on fan forums for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Bryan Fuller occasionally interacted with Hannibal fan art, but none of that was on the same level as Jenkins and the rest of the Our Flag Means Death creators. “Explain that to me,” he said during a recent chat with io9, curious and fascinated. “To me it doesn’t feel like being engaged as much as it’s just acknowledging that ‘oh, people have interesting ideas’ and you can go back and forth. Like, is that not a normal thing?”
Jenkins paused, thinking about this. He’s measured and thoughtful, and seems genuinely interested in learning about weird fandom politics that most people who aren’t terminally online never have to think about. “I’m wondering if the fact that because the queerness of this show isn’t gaslighting the audience, and isn’t a function of wanting to do something, but not being able to produce the results because of network standards. I think we just happened to be in this lucky spot where the show is actually queer… and I do think that people are responding to that.”
He noted that he’s aware of the power of fandom. He watched Star Wars and thought that Finn and Poe would have made a great couple, and then how John Boyega had to deal with a lot of racism. He mentioned that he thought a lot about how Kelly Marie Tran received the same kind of backlash. “I wanted Leslie Jones to have a really good experience on [Our Flag Means Death],” he recalled, “because I remember what happened when Leslie Jones was in Ghostbusters and she got a lot of the same stuff that Tran got.”
This is the fascinating thing about fandom, because even when you’re not a part of it, you can still feel its echoes in the media that you consume. If you’re even slightly tuned into Hollywood news, you’ll understand the kind of power that fandom has. And while there’s nobody out there who will ever admit that Boyega’s thwarted Force-sensitivity was a result of fandom backlash, there is this idea that it might have been, and that doubt is powerful. “If Twitter broke bad on me like that,” Jenkins admitted, “I could understand the impulse to just feel like I should get out of the business.”
But that’s not what’s happening to Jenkins, or any of his cast. There’s not much animosity of any kind in the Our Flag fandom, not even towards one of the most antagonistic characters in the show, Izzy Hands (Con O’Neill)—but more on that later. Instead the fandom is out there, on Twitter, Tumblr, the Archive of Our Own, producing fanwork, meta, and compiling articles. “To see people celebrating the story beats as they are, getting excited about these tiny little details… it’s so gratifying,” Jenkins said. “You make a million decisions when you’re running the show, beyond writing it… you direct the season, you’re in a production meeting on a Tuesday, saying, in this scene, this chair is going to be green, and someone else says, okay, we’ll make the green chair. And the whole time you’re doing this, for the entire season, you’re drinking from the fire hose of a million choices you have to make.”
“And then three months after the thing is out, you see that the fandom is so engaged that they’re celebrating that little decision, that green chair. It makes the production design team feel seen, it makes a set dresser feel seen.” Jenkins is delighted by this. He’s so into all the meta that people make for the red silk, the silver ring, the lighthouses, the oranges. “A lot of times we think… These choices are for us. No one’s going to know and notice the language of a particular scene. And when people do, and they appreciate it? It’s amazing.”
He knows, too, that he doesn’t think of everything, that there are some things that can be given meaning by the fandom. “There are these happy coincidences that on some level don’t feel like coincidences because when something’s really working, coincidences kind of happen like that.”
I mentioned that I’ve engaged in some meta myself, and talked about Taika Waititi’s wardrobe. Jenkins immediately wants it known that Christine Wada designed that costume. “The brief was Road Warrior and then a picture of Prince from 1979. And you remember that little half shirt?” As Jenkins talks he stands up and tucks his shirt in, showing off just the littlest bit of his torso. I am delighted, this is so fun and silly. I cannot believe David Jenkins is demonstrating the parts of Blackbeard’s outfit that are most like Prince. “Then, we thought that he should slowly morph into Prince’s colors. He should start all black, and then the purple comes out as he falls in love and embraces falling in love with Stede.” I don’t mention that this will confirm a lot of meta that’s out there, but I think that maybe he knows.
I mentioned fan fiction as emerging from all this meta, and told Jenkins that this is the biggest explosion of fic I’ve ever seen a fandom produce in so little time. “I get confused with that. What counts as fanfiction? Like when is it designated as fan fiction? It’s just writing,” he said. “I remember seeing Con’s audition, and we were still in the writers’ room, writing the first season.” When you’re writing, sometimes you get tired, Jenkins explained, and you need another piece of art to remind you of what you’re doing, why you’re making the thing you’re making. “And Con O’Neill’s audition was one of those things I would go back to. I would watch that and be like… Oh, right, that’s the show. And in a way, you’re writing fanfiction for a certain actor and character because you want them to do something, and you’re like–” at this point, it must be said, Jenkins let out a maniacal little giggle. He’s just as thrilled to show off Con O’Neill’s ability to seem both deeply exhausted and menacing as the rest of the fandom. “And you [as the writer] you’re like… And then Izzy does this now.”
Jenkins was calling from New York City, where he’s hard at work on season two. He said that he was just as unsure about the chance of a season-two renewal as the fandom. Shows, he explained, don’t usually have the kind of coat tail viewership that Our Flag Means Death experienced: “You don’t know what’s going to happen.” But, he said, the response when it came meant everything to him, and to the rest of the cast and crew. “The fact that the [fandom] was as vocal and as enthusiastic and as fun as it was is the reason that we have a second season. That’s the reason why people from the show are engaging in [fandom]. I mean, you all gave us a job this year.”
He personally thanked the fans. He’s unwilling to let any work go without crediting the people who are doing the work. It doesn’t matter that he made the show, that the actors were amazing, that the directors were incredible. “I think that the fandom response is the reason that we have the next season of the show”—and ultimately, he said, “all of those things made a difference.” To the fans of the Our Flag Means Death who tweeted as part of a social media renewal campaign, wrote meta or fan fic, who drew art or made their own merch, Jenkins wanted to personally say thank you.
Jenkins is, without a doubt, one of the most earnest artists I’ve ever spoken to. He’s talking about fandom like they’re his kids, like he’s the captain of this grand, massive crew that’s building the ship as he’s sailing it. “When it’s so positive and [fandom] notices all these little things and—I mean, come on, how can you not want to engage with that?”
Our Flag Means Death season one is now streaming on HBO Max.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.