Outer Banks Never Needed To Do This Much

Spoilers ahead for season 3 of Outer Banks.

Upon its release in 2020, Outer Banks had the good thing about a bored audience—the primary days of the pandemic beget undivided screen time—and alluring imagery to sell: Charismatic teens in crop tops and denim, framed within the halo of sun and sand, isn’t a failed formula. But to owe all of OBX’s success to timing and escapism is to disclaim the Netflix hit its due. In the perfect moments throughout the action-adventure drama’s now three seasons, OBX is just not only a romantic soap but a survey of friendship at its limits; not only a fast-paced puzzle box but a zany thriller. The real rapport between the essential ensemble members—John B., Sarah, Pope, JJ, Kiara, and eventually Cleo—served as strong enough scaffolding to hoist up the otherwise weak, unconvincing plotting.

But as Outer Banks has prolonged its stay on the Netflix charts, so has it expanded its appetite, and in doing so relegated its best parts to a low sizzle on the back burner. The third and latest season is an overstuffed entry that, if not for the muse established by the show’s capable solid, can be a nonsensical mess.

The finale, particularly, requires enormous suspension of disbelief. At first of episode 10, “Secret of the Gnomon,” John B. (Chase Stokes) and his pals descend quietly into Venezuela’s Orinoco Basin. Using a map provided in a previous episode by a translator whose name you’ve already forgotten, the group plans to travel to Tres Rocas, after which the archaeological site referred to as Solana. There, they hope to search out each the legendary City of Gold and John B.’s father, Big John (Charles Halford), the abductee of Carlos Singh (Andy McQueen), a bounty hunter who wants El Dorado for himself. He yearns for those heaping piles of gold, yes, but he’s also looking for reparations for his family; his grandfather was an indentured servant on Theodore Roosevelt’s original expedition to the ’ole Dorado within the 1910s. Forgive my delusions, but doesn’t his desire for repayment seem almost…reasonable?

Anyway, JJ (Rudy Pankow) and Kiara (Madison Bailey) are on their very own plane to Venezuela, this one a drug-toting cargo ship owned by Barracuda Mike (Justin Matthew Smith), who one way or the other really believes these two teenagers are going to locate El Dorado and pay him back with hunks of gleaming rock. As Carlos grows impatient with Big John’s inability to translate the Solana cipher—long story, nevertheless it requires a key that apparently only Pope (Jonathan Daviss) and Cleo (Carlacia Grant) had the wits to uncover—the children comb through Tres Rocas for a tour guide named “Jose.” (Yes, just “Jose.”) Wouldn’t you recognize, they find him and Big John, who’s making such a ruckus attempting to escape Singh’s prison that John B. and Sarah (Madelyn Cline) don’t have any trouble finding him. In an equally silly stroke of luck, JJ and Kiara descend coincidentally on Cleo and Pope—“We haven’t been here for 2 minutes!” JJ exclaims, a sheepish mea culpa on behalf of the showrunners—and the group run for canopy as Singh’s goons arrive.

That’s only the start of the difficulty. Ward Cameron (Charles Esten), Sarah’s father, has reneged on his promise to stick with the private plane, and decides as an alternative to affix Big John, Sarah, and John B. on Jose’s treasure-bound party boat. Big John hasn’t quite forgiven Ward for attempting to murder him a couple of months back, but Singh’s buddies arrive in time to forestall the 2 from right-hooking it out. Big John’s equally distrustful of Sarah on account of her surname, but frankly BJ hasn’t shown himself to be probably the most reliable co-conspirator either, so let’s first address the plank in our own eye, Johnny.

After everyone takes a couple of short seconds for cursory self-reflection—oh, and Ward secretly drops a pin to Singh—Big John, Sarah, and John B. make their solution to Solana before the moon ascends. This whole time, Kiara, JJ, Pope, and Cleo enjoy their very own tough time of the river journey, though none of their hijinks serve any real plot purpose apart from to maintain them separate from Sarah and John B.


On the engraved sundial referred to as Solana—miraculously intact, given its apparent years-long exposure to the weather—Sarah, John B. and Big John whip up somewhat moon magic with the gnomon figurine and decipher the directions to El Dorado. But Big John, distrustful of each Sarah and his son, keeps the last little bit of the riddle to himself, further complicating matters when Singh and Ward show up with guns. Sarah rescues John B. while Dear Old Dad stalls, though BJ pays for it with a bullet wound because the trio trips through the bush to safety. Ward backs off, scared of his daughter and the pistol she points at his head. The resulting therapy costs from this trip might stretch even the Cameron family’s budget.

Some excellent news, though: Sarah is seemingly a closet enigmatologist, and the reply to the Solana puzzle dawns on her when she hears chirping from a close-by rock. Riddle: “I’m nothing but hold every thing. I don’t have any tongue but am at all times speaking.” Answer: A…cave mouth? Sure! Contained in the cavern, the trio discover a hole under the cave river, and John B. and Sarah dive inside to take a more in-depth look. Big John makes the one sane decision of his life and opts to remain behind.

Meanwhile, Cleo and Pope have a long-enough filler scene to sneak of their first kiss. The moment is a paltry, though sweet, offering for an otherwise exciting romance. But enough of that anyway; we simply must return to John B. and Sarah, who nearly drown, then waste half of a lit flare talking out their respective guilts. (Why didn’t this conversation happen on the multi-hour flight to South America, or on any of the following boat trips and hikes?)

Irrespective of, because Sarah once more cracks the code, realizing they should snuff their flares to ensure that the entry to El Dorado to disclose itself. Sure enough, phosphorescence lights the best way. They climb through one other jumble of rock, leap a chasm, and there it’s: probably the most boring rendering of El Dorado ever put to screen. There’s no real city; it’s only a muddle of gold strewn amongst stalagmites, with some rickety-looking ancient platforms and ladders strewn up for good measure. Still, Cline and Stokes are capable enough actors to generate tears, and as they fill a bag with loose gold hunks, they realize they only have 20 minutes left of flare light to return to BJ. Perhaps we must always have held the romantic confessions for after the life-threatening spelunking?

Singh has, after all, beaten them to Big John, and one more pistol standoff ensues, though this time Biggie J has a secret weapon: a stick of dynamite. (Where has that been this whole time?) He tosses the bomb into the El Dorado entry point, and Singh leaps for it. The resulting explosion kills Singh and sends Sarah, John B., and Big John flying through a sprig of debris, though they make it out with only a couple of dirt smudges strewn across their attractive faces. After all, they only have long enough to exchange giggles and endearing glances before Ward shows up with one other pistol, after which certainly one of Singh’s goons—apparently alerted of their location because of the large bomb—brings, yes, one other pistol. But wait! There’s more! JJ, Kiara, Cleo and Pope have finally discovered their friends’ location, and so they march into the battle wielding not pistols but machetes. That is clearly going to finish well for everybody involved.

Ward, in a last-ditch attempt at redemption within the eyes of his daughter, takes out the goon, and together the 2 tumble off the closest cliff to their deaths. We even get a gnarly shot of their crumpled bodies. Sarah mourns, but can also be possibly somewhat relieved? Call your therapist, sweetheart.

carlacia grant as cleo, chase stokes as john b, madison bailey as kiara, jonathan daviss as pope in episode 302 of outer banks


Still, two deaths isn’t enough for an Outer Banks finale, and so the showrunners toss in a 3rd: Big John, who only just reappeared in John B.’s life this season. Because the river boat tears out of the Basin, he succumbs to his bullet wound, clutching his son’s hand and a fistful of El Dorado gold. Fitting, isn’t it?

The finale is sensible enough to throw in needle drop (“Murder within the City” by The Avett Brothers) because the characters face all they’ve lost. All in all, though, they get lower than a minute and a half of screen time—yes, I timed it—through which to mourn and dole out coastal-flavored platitudes like: “Life doesn’t provide you with oceans without waves.” Then, out of nowhere, the series leaps forward 18 months to disclose the crew at a ceremony honoring their contribution to the annals of history. To be honest, if I were an archeologist society, I’d be pretty pissed at the kids who discovered El Dorado after which blew it up, but alas, I’m no scholar. Everyone in the gang cheers anyway. That features Kiara’s parents, who—last we saw of them—had sent their daughter to a wilderness-camp-meets-delinquent-asylum and Topper, who’d set fire to John B.’s house. No hard feelings, apparently.

On the reception, John B., Sarah, JJ, Pope, Cleo, and Kiara are uninterested in the rich-people theatrics, until a stranger interrupts their present-day idyll with a recent conquest. As expected, he has one other treasure for them to uncover, one he trusts only this particular group of teenagers—not a single degree amongst them—to trace down! I promise you’ll be able to guess what it’s. It’s the English pirate Blackbeard’s legendary treasure. After all it’s Blackbeard’s treasure! When you literally travel the road to El Dorado, it’s not as should you can follow up with a hunt for Fabergé eggs.

And so, season 3 concludes with the equivalent of a Marvel mid-credits scene, teasing more, more, more to come back. (Outer Banks has already been renewed for season 4.) But unless the show can pull off an extreme pivot, it’s already outstayed its welcome.

Outer Banks never needed to do that much. The primary season was the perfect mix of minor drama and adventure epic, with a fun but relatively low-stakes treasure hunt and simply enough character oomph because the ensemble wrestled with the sociocultural stereotypes thrust upon them. (The chemistry radiating from Cline and Stokes, as a newly minted pair on the time, didn’t hurt either.) The second season sunk much further into the ludicrous but redeemed itself barely by expanding its focus to characters like Pope, Kiara, and JJ. But as a cursory read of any OBX season 2 summary will reveal, the story was already overstuffed. Between shipwrecked gold; the Cross of Santo Domingo; the Garment of the Savior; the history of Denmark Tanny; the seek for El Dorado; a dead sheriff; multiple brewing romances; dead dads who transform alive, surprise; milquetoast rich-and-poor politics; several assassination schemes; a really mind-boggling variety of police chases; impromptu surgeries; and an unofficial marriage, the show can’t seem to choose what actually matters. How can we appreciate the perfect parts of Outer Banks—namely, its characters—in the event that they’re so often side-eyed in favor of explosions? How way more can we actually endure, without the meaty material to support it?

Outer Banks can not compare itself to The Goonies. (If, to be honest, it ever could.) Today, the Netflix drama more closely mirrors action-adventure video game series Uncharted, eternally upping the ante with faster stunts and greater guns. But Uncharted knew when it was time to finish its story, and the best way to do it right. Sony released the ultimate game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, in 2016, and the ending is praised as much for its character development as its motion spectacles. If Outer Banks desires to exit with the identical applause, it must learn where, when, and the best way to trim the fat.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Culture Author

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture author at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 

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