Fool's gold: Outer Banks season 3 goes 'off the rails' with romance, action, and drama

Outer Banks
Outer Banks

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023

When Outer Banks co-creator Shannon Burke flew into Barbados to join the season 3 production of Netflix's teen treasure mystery series, everyone on his flight was gossiping about a plane that had just gone down in the ocean off the coast of the Caribbean island. "I heard all these passengers who were talking about it," he tells EW. "'There's a plane that sunk!' And I was like, 'Really?' And then I realized it was our plane."

"We sank a real plane in the bay and everyone called the police and was like, 'A plane's gone down by this bridge!'" remembers co-creator Josh Pate of filming the season 3 premiere (launching Feb. 23). "'These poor kids!'" his twin brother and fellow Outer Banks co-creator Jonas Pate adds with a laugh, channeling an onlooker watching the scene film. "'Everyone's standing around with cameras not doing anything!'"

But that was just another normal day of shooting what has become one of Netflix's biggest dramas. When Outer Banks premiered in April of 2020, it struck gold as the perfect escapist action-adventure binge in those early weeks of the pandemic when everyone was stuck inside. The sun-soaked series introduced a small group of close-knit friends — John B (Chase Stokes), JJ (Rudy Pankow), Pope (Jonathan Daviss), and Kiara (Madison Bailey) — as they discovered a sunken shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina and embarked on a life-changing treasure hunt that deepened the divide between their crew of have-nots (the Pogues) and the haves (the Kooks) from the nicer part of town.

'Outer Banks' star Chase Stokes
'Outer Banks' star Chase Stokes

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Chase Stokes

The first season was a hit, debuting in Netflix's Global Top 10 list and launching its young cast of relative newcomers to overnight stardom as their Instagram followings shot from thousands to millions. Season 2 premiered at No. 1 in Nielsen's streaming ratings in July 2021 as the series raised the stakes exponentially. What began as a small-scale search for the Royal Merchant gold and John B's missing father transformed into a global race to track down the legendary Cross of Santo Domingo, complete with blockbuster action sequences every episode.

And when filming for season 3 began in February 2022, the producers wanted to amp things up even more. The only problem? "We shoot almost everything on location, almost no stages, no green screen, so it's all real — there were a ton of scenes this season I doubted we could pull off," Jonas says. But like true Pogues, they found a way.

While writing the new season, executive producers Josh and Burke envisioned big budget stunts and massive set pieces, peppering the 10 episodes with that premiere plane crash, multiple high-speed chases, fist fights, a train heist, and more. They then handed things off to Jonas — who directed most of season 3 — and he started to panic. "This was our hardest season to shoot because the physical demands of the production were really challenging," says Jonas, who also serves as an executive producer on the series. "But I also feel like it's our most satisfying season. I'm really proud of it. I mean, it was blood, sweat, and tears, but we had a great time doing it. It shortened our lives, but it's definitely worth it."

"I always knew it was going to be a treasure-driven show, but I didn't understand the full extent of how far the kids would go for treasure," Pankow says of bringing JJ and his friends' story to life. "This season, holy cow, they're going off the rails for this."

Outer Banks star Jonathan Daviss
Outer Banks star Jonathan Daviss

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Jonathan Daviss

But first, the Pogues — now including former Kook Sarah (Madelyn Cline) and Nassau native Cleo (Carlacia Grant) — need to find a way off the deserted island they were stranded on at the end of season 2. "I don't know if the kids from Riverdale would've been able to survive the deserted island," Daviss says with a laugh. "But we thrive there." Nicknamed "Poguelandia" and filmed in Bathsheba, the main fishing village on the east coastline of Barbados, the island turns out to be exactly what the Pogues need when season 3 begins. "That island time is really healing for the characters," Josh says. "After all the trauma and chaos before, the time on the island brings them closer, at least at first," notes Burke. "It becomes this idyllic thing where they spent all this time with each other and there was nothing else, just them."

But ultimately, reality catches up to the beleaguered teens. "Paradise is never as beautiful as it seems," Stokes says. "There's a lot of unsolved problems that they have been running from that they're going to have to face head-on." The exact details of how the Pogues end up back in the Outer Banks are being kept almost as secret as the location of buried treasure, but the main plot point of season 3 was already revealed in the season 2 finale cliffhanger: John B's presumed dead father, Big John (Charles Halford), is actually alive, working with Carla Limbrey (Elizabeth Mitchell), and attempting to help his son from the shadows.

"This year is really about John B and his dad," Josh says — though their long-awaited reunion won't solve all the Pogues' problems. "For John B, it breaks open the deepest wound that he has, and then he's going to have to contend with his imagined father that he's idolized, and then the reality of his flesh and blood dad being back, and synthesizing that. We wanted to explore the father-son relationship in a big way."

"He realizes that there are consequences to having his dad back," Jonas adds. "His dad's a little bit of an obsessive person, so it causes massive challenges."

Stokes says he pulled from his own childhood to bring John B's intense, emotional father/son arc to life. "Coming from a family where my mom's been divorced twice, I've felt that disconnect from a father figure a lot, so it was kind of a deep dive on a personal level that connected on a professional level," the actor explains. "This season, for me, is an ode to growing through some of the pain of never really facing that, so there were a lot of therapeutic moments throughout filming where John B and I really connected on a lot of different levels. Reliving it was tough, for sure, but [it's] very much a year of growth for me — and John B is going through experiences to ultimately become the best version of himself by the end of this season."

'Outer Banks' star Madelyn Cline
'Outer Banks' star Madelyn Cline

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Madelyn Cline

All that glitters is not gold

John B isn't the only one going through the emotional wringer this season. All the trauma of the previous 20 episodes will finally catch up to all the Pogues, and the ways in which they each deal with it vary greatly. "Our writers are really all gas, no breaks sometimes," Cline says with a laugh. "They've always pulled it off and I'm always in awe, but this season, a lot of what Sarah and John B and the Pogues have been through together comes to a head." Bailey describes the new episodes as "a lot more serious and more mature for the Pogues altogether," while Daviss warns things get "even worse, and go even further."

When the showrunners looked back at everything that happened to the Pogues in seasons 1 and 2 as they tracked down the Royal Merchant gold and Cross of Santo Domingo, "we were just exhausted for them," Josh says. "So this season we really wanted to see them express or codify what they were going through." In other words, as Jonas jokes, the characters "need some group therapy with a great therapist — especially Sarah."

Expect to see a lot of quieter yet impactful scenes that illustrate how each Pogue's mental health has been affected by the traumatic experiences they've had in a short amount of time, from John B's missing father, Sarah and Kiara's individual family issues, Pope losing both his family's legacy with the Cross and his own promising academic future, JJ's abuse, and not to mention all the near-fatal situations they've each survived.

"That was a huge component of my character development, and something that I held near and dear to my heart this season, because John B goes through a lot," Stokes says. "As somebody who has suffered from serious anxiety and depression, I wanted to channel my own personal experiences and bring that to the table, because I don't think anybody in their right mind would be okay going through all that John B's gone through — especially with everything that happens in the first six episodes [this season]. He's struggling a lot, and it all catches up. It's a rough season."

Pankow was actually a step ahead of the writers when it came to outwardly displaying JJ's internal struggles. Early on in season 2, he made the decision to physically show how the usually reckless and carefree JJ's stress manifests by clutching his chest in high-pressure scenes. He was pleasantly shocked that fans picked up on that small detail and warns that it gets worse in season 3. "I made that a thing because it wasn't scripted," he says. "He feels his anxiety in his heart. And that is something I've actually done in real life. I kind of tap my chest and remind myself that I'm alive. [This season], the writers put JJ into more situations like that."

'Outer Banks' star Rudy Pankow
'Outer Banks' star Rudy Pankow

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Rudy Pankow

The real treasure

But enough talk about trauma — Outer Banks season 3 isn't all doom and gloom. Get ready to swoon because this season is the most romantic yet (just in time for Valentine's Day). "There's a lot more love, that's for sure," Jonas says. So much for the "no Pogues macking on Pogues" rule, huh? "That rule is gone, gone, gone," Daviss confirms with a laugh. "We're definitely going bigger with everything this year, and the romance is part of that."

While John B and Sarah's relationship has always taken center stage, fans have been clutching their own hearts waiting for JJ and Kiara to fall in love. The two friends were strictly platonic in the first season, but their chemistry inspired such intense shipping on social media that the showrunners pivoted and leaned into delivering a slow-burn attraction that finally culminates as "the big romance of the season," Josh promises eager "Jiara" fans. "We didn't want to do it too fast, so we thought season 3 would be a good time to explore that, and I'm really pleased with the way that came out. It's some of my favorite scenes of the whole season."

"It's one of those things where you see fans want something so bad, and the writers clocked that," Pankow says. "It was interesting to finally get to explore that as an actor."

But while Bailey promises "it'll be worth the wait" to see how Kiara and JJ eventually get together, she admits she didn't actually want them to become a couple… at first. "Rudy and I had different opinions about it — I wanted Kiara to just be single and maybe not be with the third guy in this friend group, which is the elephant in the room," she says with a laugh. But over time she conceded that Kiara and JJ would gravitate towards each other — no matter how hard they initially fight their intense chemistry. "Kiara is not waiting for a knight in shining armor," the actress explains. "I think both of them being independent and free-spirited is what brings them together. It's a natural progression forward for them. I was excited to explore that, and to work with [Pankow], and see our friendship on screen more this season."

But like everything on Outer Banks, JJ and Kiara's romance won't be an easy journey. "JJ is confused and frustrated a lot this season, and the person that shows up for him the most is Kiara," Pankow says. "He leans on Kiara a lot, but confusion plays a big part." Bailey calls JJ's season 3 arc "tough to watch," but in the best way. "It's never going to be, 'And then they lived happily ever after,' there's some twists and intensity," she says. "People have had three seasons to build this up in their minds, and I think that what they came up with is a little unexpected — it's more than just a straight shot into a relationship. Our differences are quite predominant this season."

Another new Pogue relationship will also bloom this season. After Pope lost the Cross of Santo Domingo and got dumped by Kiara, he's feeling lower than ever when season 3 begins, so the writers wanted to finally give him a win. "He's such a good guy, he's such a great friend, he's such a great son, he's often the voice of reason — we have this fondness for him," Josh says. "And he kind of took it on the chin with Kiara, so we wanted to explore a romance with him that would make him happy instead of sad." So, Burke explains, the writers leaned into the sparks they noticed on screen last season between Daviss and Grant's new Pogue, Cleo, to give Pope a "satisfying love story."

'Outer Banks' star Madison Bailey
'Outer Banks' star Madison Bailey

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Madison Bailey

After joining Outer Banks as a recurring character in season 2, Grant is now a full-fledged series regular in season 3, and she loved exploring badass Cleo's "softer side" through her developing romance with Pope. "Our love story is so sweet," Grant says. "You see how he softens her in a way that no one's been able to before. She has nowhere to stay, so she ends up staying with Pope, and he gives her a family, gives her his room, and introduces her to love. All she ever knew in her life was how to survive, but he's shown her what life is really about, which is love and friendship and meaning. She helps him, and he helps her."

And then there's John B and Sarah. The original Outer Banks couple has gone through so many ups and downs since they first got together in season 1, and season 3 won't be any different. "It's been a joy portraying this enemies-to-lovers, forbidden-love storyline, and the emotional rollercoaster of the romance continues," Cline says.

Stokes warns that John B and Sarah are about to face their biggest obstacle yet, and the way they each handle it might surprise some fans. "Love isn't supposed to be easy," the actor says. "It's not supposed to be something that just comes naturally. Part of me wants to continue down the road of peace for John B and Sarah, but if there's anything we know about this show, it's that it's going to take you for a wild ride. They're definitely, yet again, going to be tested."

You could say the same for the actors playing them: Stokes and Cline began dating in real life while filming the first season, but after about a year-and-a-half, they announced their breakup in November 2021 — only months before starting production on season 3. However, Stokes and Cline promised each other before dating that the show would always come first. "We had a working relationship before we had a personal relationship, and our job from day one has always been to leave the show better than we found it," Cline says. Adds Stokes: "Regardless of now not being together in a personal relationship, I'm still always going to be one of her biggest fans."

The showrunners promise that the actors' personal lives didn't impact their onscreen story at all this season. "They're pros," Jonas says. "They handled themselves unbelievably on set, and you would never know that they had an off-camera relationship."

"They were never once a problem," adds Burke. "Whatever their offscreen stuff was, they didn't bring it to set, as far as I could tell."

'Outer Banks' star Carlacia Grant
'Outer Banks' star Carlacia Grant

Amy Harrity/Netflix © 2023 Carlacia Grant

Relationship drama aside, John B and Sarah's story isn't ending anytime soon — and the same goes for the rest of the Pogues. "As we started this season, there was some work to try to connect everything together," Burke says. "Now we have a very general roadmap for what we want the whole rest of Outer Banks to look like."

Season 3's new, expanded treasure hunt explores where the Royal Merchant gold and Cross of Santo Domingo came from, why Big John went missing while searching for it, and how important it actually is to each of the Pogues when the costs start to outweigh the potential rewards. "The big theme this season is: Why do we want the gold?" Grant says. "We've just been chasing after it because it's been a goal. But this season, each one of us is figuring out the why. What are we willing to give up? And is it worth losing whatever we're willing to give up for this gold, or is it something that we should just let go?"

Ultimately, it all leads to an explosive finale — which every cast member and showrunner calls the best episode yet — that serves as both the conclusion to the first 30 episodes as well as the beginning of a new chapter of Outer Banks. "This continual three-season story does come to more of a satisfying conclusive finale than it has in other seasons, though there's hopefully many more stories after this," Burke says (Netflix has yet to renew the show for season 4). Josh adds, "We're also setting up the Pogues for this transition as they're getting older into future seasons. We're playing a lot of big cards at the end, put it that way."

While the showrunners previously told EW they had a four-to-five season plan for Outer Banks, that's changed in the years since season 1 debuted. "We're going to take it as long as we can, for sure," Josh says, joking that he wants to see the show run for at least 17 seasons now. (That's a lot of gold!) "I don't know if I could put a real number on it right now — how long it takes to get to that ending might expand, but we now know the shape of the end of the story." After all, every good treasure hunt needs a map.

Outer Banks season 3 debuts Feb. 23 on Netflix. Check out EW's exclusive first-look photos from the premiere below:

Outer Banks. (L to R) Chase Stokes as John B, Carlacia Grant as Cleo, Jonathan Daviss as Pope, Madelyn Cline as Sarah Cameron, Rudy Pankow as JJ in episode 302 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023
Outer Banks. (L to R) Chase Stokes as John B, Carlacia Grant as Cleo, Jonathan Daviss as Pope, Madelyn Cline as Sarah Cameron, Rudy Pankow as JJ in episode 302 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix (From L-R): Chase Stokes, Carlacia Grant, Jonathan Daviss, Madelyn Cline, and Rudy Pankow on 'Outer Banks'

Outer Banks. (L to R) Madelyn Cline as Sarah Cameron, Chase Stokes as John B in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023
Outer Banks. (L to R) Madelyn Cline as Sarah Cameron, Chase Stokes as John B in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix Madelyn Cline and Chase Stokes on 'Outer Banks'

Outer Banks. Madison Bailey as Kiara in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023
Outer Banks. Madison Bailey as Kiara in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix Madison Bailey on 'Outer Banks'

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