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Spoilers ahead for season 3 of Outer Banks.
Upon its release in 2020, Outer Banks had the benefit of a bored audience—the first days of the pandemic beget undivided screen time—and alluring imagery to sell: Charismatic teens in crop tops and denim, framed in the halo of sun and sand, is rarely a failed formula. But to owe all of OBX’s success to timing and escapism is to deny the Netflix hit its due. In the best moments throughout the action-adventure drama’s now three seasons, OBX is not just a romantic soap but a survey of friendship at its limits; not just a fast-paced puzzle box but a zany thriller. The genuine rapport between the main 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 foundation established by the show’s capable cast, would be a nonsensical mess.
The finale, in particular, requires enormous suspension of disbelief. At the start 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, and then the archaeological site known as Solana. There, they hope to find both 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 seeking reparations for his family; his grandfather was an indentured servant on Theodore Roosevelt’s original expedition to the ’ole Dorado in 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 own plane to Venezuela, this one a drug-toting cargo ship owned by Barracuda Mike (Justin Matthew Smith), who somehow 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, but it requires a key that apparently only Pope (Jonathan Daviss) and Cleo (Carlacia Grant) had the wits to uncover—the kids comb through Tres Rocas for a tour guide named “Jose.” (Yes, just “Jose.”) Wouldn’t you know, they find him and Big John, who’s making such a ruckus trying to escape Singh’s prison that John B. and Sarah (Madelyn Cline) have no 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 two minutes!” JJ exclaims, a sheepish mea culpa on behalf of the showrunners—and the group run for cover as Singh’s goons arrive.
That’s only the beginning of the trouble. Ward Cameron (Charles Esten), Sarah’s father, has reneged on his promise to stay with the private plane, and decides instead to join Big John, Sarah, and John B. on Jose’s treasure-bound party boat. Big John hasn’t quite forgiven Ward for trying to murder him a few months back, but Singh’s buddies arrive in time to prevent the two 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 the most reliable co-conspirator either, so let’s first address the plank in our own eye, Johnny.
After everyone takes a few short seconds for cursory self-reflection—oh, and Ward secretly drops a pin to Singh—Big John, Sarah, and John B. make their way to Solana before the moon ascends. This whole time, Kiara, JJ, Pope, and Cleo enjoy their own tough time of the river journey, though none of their hijinks serve any real plot purpose other than to keep them separate from Sarah and John B.
At the engraved sundial known as Solana—miraculously intact, given its apparent years-long exposure to the elements—Sarah, John B. and Big John whip up a little moon magic with the gnomon figurine and decipher the directions to El Dorado. But Big John, distrustful of both Sarah and his son, keeps the last 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 as the trio trips through the bush to safety. Ward backs off, fearful 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 good news, though: Sarah is apparently a closet enigmatologist, and the answer to the Solana puzzle dawns on her when she hears chirping from a nearby rock. Riddle: “I am nothing but hold everything. I have no tongue but am always speaking.” Answer: A…cave mouth? Sure! Inside the cavern, the trio find a hole under the cave river, and John B. and Sarah dive inside to take a closer look. Big John makes the only sane decision of his life and opts to stay behind.
Meanwhile, Cleo and Pope have a long-enough filler scene to sneak in 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 take place on the multi-hour flight to South America, or on any of the ensuing boat trips and hikes?)
No matter, because Sarah once again cracks the code, realizing they need to snuff their flares in order for the entry to El Dorado to reveal itself. Sure enough, phosphorescence lights the way. They climb through another jumble of rock, leap a chasm, and there it is: the most boring rendering of El Dorado ever put to screen. There’s no real city; it’s just 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. Maybe we should have held the romantic confessions for after the life-threatening spelunking?
Singh has, of course, beaten them to Big John, and yet another 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 spray of debris, though they make it out with only a few dirt smudges strewn across their attractive faces. Of course, they only have long enough to exchange giggles and endearing glances before Ward shows up with another pistol, and then one of Singh’s goons—apparently alerted of their location thanks to the enormous bomb—brings, yes, another pistol. But wait! There’s more! JJ, Kiara, Cleo and Pope have finally figured out their friends’ location, and they march into the battle wielding not pistols but machetes. This is clearly going to end well for everyone involved.
Ward, in a last-ditch attempt at redemption in the eyes of his daughter, takes out the goon, and together the two tumble off the nearest cliff to their deaths. We even get a gnarly shot of their crumpled bodies. Sarah mourns, but is also maybe a little relieved? Call your therapist, sweetheart.
Still, two deaths isn’t enough for an Outer Banks finale, and so the showrunners toss in a third: Big John, who only just reappeared in John B.’s life this season. As 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 smart enough to throw in a good needle drop (“Murder in the City” by The Avett Brothers) as the characters face all they’ve lost. All in all, though, they get less than a minute and a half of screen time—yes, I timed it—in which to mourn and dole out coastal-flavored platitudes like: “Life doesn’t give you oceans without waves.” Then, out of nowhere, the series leaps forward 18 months to reveal 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 teens who discovered El Dorado and then blew it up, but alas, I’m no scholar. Everyone in the crowd cheers anyway. That includes 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.
At the reception, John B., Sarah, JJ, Pope, Cleo, and Kiara are bored with the rich-people theatrics, until a stranger interrupts their present-day idyll with a new conquest. As expected, he has another treasure for them to uncover, one he trusts only this particular group of teenagers—not a single degree among them—to track down! I promise you can guess what it is. It’s the English pirate Blackbeard’s legendary treasure. Of course it’s Blackbeard’s treasure! Once you literally travel the road to El Dorado, it’s not as if 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. (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 this much. The first season was the ideal mix of teen drama and adventure epic, with a fun but relatively low-stakes treasure hunt and just enough character oomph as the ensemble wrestled with the sociocultural stereotypes thrust upon them. (The chemistry radiating from Cline and Stokes, as a newly minted pair at the time, didn’t hurt either.) The second season sunk much further into the ludicrous but redeemed itself slightly 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 search for El Dorado; a dead sheriff; multiple brewing romances; dead dads who turn out to be alive, surprise; milquetoast rich-and-poor politics; several assassination schemes; a truly mind-boggling number of police chases; impromptu surgeries; and an unofficial marriage, the show can’t seem to decide what actually matters. How can we appreciate the best parts of Outer Banks—namely, its characters—if they’re so often side-eyed in favor of explosions? How much more can we really endure, without the meaty material to support it?
Outer Banks can no longer 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 bigger guns. But Uncharted knew when it was time to end its story, and how to do it right. Sony released the final game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, in 2016, and the ending is praised as much for its character development as its action spectacles. If Outer Banks wants to go out with the same applause, it needs to learn where, when, and how to trim the fat.
Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE.