WARNING: This contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Our Flag Means Death season 2.
It’s probably safe to say that most Our Flag Means Death fans expected that the stars of season one – Taika Waititi as Blackbeard and Rhys Darby as Stede Bonnet – would remain the focus of season two. Oh, how surprisingly wrong we were.
Because, while Ed and Stede’s chaotic, high-octane and engrossing relationship is certainly still the main plot point of Our Flag Means Death on the face of it, as season two progresses we realize we’ve been hoodwinked: we thought we were watching the story of them finding each other again, but really we were watching Izzy Hands’ story all along.
We met Izzy (Con O’Neill, Happy Valley) as Blackbeard’s right-hand man and all-round bad boy in season one, and his character seemed hell-bent on keeping Blackbeard as merciless and ferocious a pirate captain as his reputation suggested, repeatedly sabotaging Ed’s attempts to abandon his Blackbeard persona and give into the feelings he was clearly harboring for Stede.
So far, so irredeemable, but a strange twist of fate during the early days of Our Flag Means Death’s production seems to have altered the course of Izzy Hands’ character entirely. Con O’Neill confessed he had originally auditioned for another role on the show, but after seeing his audition tape the show’s creator David Jenkins insisted he read for Izzy instead, and against O’Neill’s expectations Izzy “fitted like a glove.”
Jenkins later revealed that it was meeting Con O’Neill that helped him find the real Izzy:
“The part was written before we got him, and then we had a few scripts left to go, and I knew we had Con, and I would actually watch his audition to get back to Izzy’s center.”
We see that to be true in Izzy’s extraordinary character arc throughout season two – and they really do put him through the ringer, breaking him apart literally and figuratively, with Jenkins explaining: “We wanted to put Izzy through something this season that sees him start to change.”
Izzy really pays the price for relentlessly pushing Ed towards his monstrous Blackbeard alter-ego: his success results in him being tortured by Blackbeard, ostracized from his crew, and ultimately try to fix things by finally confessing his love for Ed – but the problem is Ed is now the brutal Blackbeard Izzy wanted him to be, and he repays his declaration by shooting him in the leg and ordering his death. His crewmates instead amputate Izzy’s ruined leg while he begs them to kill him, and he later attempts to shoot himself, but even that doesn’t work, and Blackbeard gleefully calls him an “indestructible little fucker.”
This reluctant survival of rock bottom gives Izzy nowhere to hide from confronting his unrequited love for a Blackbeard that no longer exists, despite his best efforts, and in doing so he begins to metamorphosize into his true identity, a man no longer a slave to pursuing “his” Blackbeard at any cost, a man finally more at peace with his sexuality and himself.
Con O’Neill’s captivating performance throughout the season features repeated moments of raw emotion that are as disarming as they are endearing, and Izzy’s painful regeneration culminates in his haltingly brave and vulnerable rendition of the Edith Piaf song La Vie En Rose during the season’s sixth episode, Calypso’s Birthday, with Izzy finally opening himself to his crew’s joyful camaraderie, and even joining them in wearing makeup.
The show’s makeup designer Nancy Hennah explained “Con really, really wanted Izzy to look beautiful, and for it not to be a sort of comedic look. He was really focused on the fact that Izzy’s been going through this process for his character and the love of Blackbeard.”
While this is arguably Izzy’s highpoint, we all know that pirates don’t generally tend to get happy endings, and there was one kicker of a twist in the season finale.
Thankfully, Izzy Hands’ story didn’t end the way of his real-life counterpart, Israel Hands, because while he was indeed the real Blackbeard’s first mate, and while Blackbeard really did give him permanent injuries by shooting him in the leg, the real Hands’ story ended with him selling his pirate comrades out to escape execution, and dying a beggar on the streets of London.
Instead, the Our Flag Means Death season two finale gave fans an Izzy ending that was somehow a thousand times sadder while also oddly liberating and uplifting, as well as doing justice to the momentous journey both he and Ed take in season two.
Stede Bonnet foreshadows Izzy’s end by defending his reckless plan to defeat the navy against Ed’s description of it as a suicide mission with: “It’s only suicide… if we die.” And in the moment in which Prince Ricky fires his gun to warn his naval comrades of the Revenge crew’s pirate ambush, the only indication we get that the bullet has hit Izzy in the stomach is a tightening of his face, barely registering shock or pain, more in resignation of his fate.
At first it seemed like the opening scene of season two’s first episode – in which Stede dreamed about killing a vengeful Izzy so he can be reunited with Ed – was a cruel hint at what was to come, but as Ed holds a dying Izzy in his arms, we realize there’s one crucial difference between this and Stede’s prophetic dream: Izzy is determined that if he’s going to die, he’s taking Blackbeard – the destructive version of Ed that he loved – with him.
“Ed, I’m sorry… I fed your darkness” he confesses, “Blackbeard… I needed him. He was us. You and me. But you’re good now.” He reminds his friend he’s surrounded by a family that loves Ed, not Blackbeard, giving him permission to “Just be Ed.” As Ed cries, Izzy’s parting words confirm his transformation is complete: “There he is.”
This season of Our Flag Means Death wasn’t really about Stede finding Ed, it was about Izzy letting Blackbeard go. While the show’s fans will undoubtedly hope this leaves things open for a season three, one thing is for sure: it won’t be the same without Izzy Hands.
Our Flag Means Death is available to stream on Max.