Outer Banks and the Plasticity of Black Life

Cam Wade
7 min readMar 4, 2023
Outer Banks season 3  promotional poster
OBX promo poster, screenshot taken by author, from OBX’s instagram

Outer Banks feels like a movie.

Glistening sunsets.

Picture-esque outfits ripped straight out of an American Eagle catalog.

The fortitude of teenage friendship.

When Outer Banks came out in 20202, it comforted me. Being someone from a coastal city in the South specifically, OBX brings to light to the misadventures that you can get up to when those aquatic ecosystems and economies that result become a part of everyday life.

Following the lives of OBX resident John B(Jonathan Booker) Rutlegedge, Sarah Cameron, Pope Heyward, Kiarra(Ki) Carrera, and JJ Maybanks, the show tracks these five teenagers on their quest to search for missing gold during the first season. Season two follows up this plot by discovering that the missing gold was later acquired by one of Pope’s ancestor, Denmark Taney, who used the gold to buy up pieces of land and build up his own cotton empire.

As the chaos and search from Taney’s legacy leads the teens toward the Bahamas, they eventually meet newcomer Cleo who goes from almost selling out John B and Sarah Cameron to eventually becoming a key player and main character in season 3.

Since its inception, Outer Banks has always been lit. Make no mistake about it. The show has some moments that are just pure fuckery. I’m talking about the way that these delusional characters are able to get themselves out of trouble is bat-shit crazy to me. Maybe that’s just a skill that comes along with being a Pogue. The ability of the working-class to make something out of nothing. The ability to tredge your way through bullshit after bullshit.

Despite all the narrative and thematic momentum that the show uses to address issues of (limited) class warfare, familial violence, and the fast experiences of first love, OBX falls into the trap of centering depictions of White masculinity in crisis while plasticizing blackness through the fragmentation of its Black characters: Pope, Ki, and Cleo.

Plasticized Bodies

Plasticize is a fun word to say. Interesting the way it comes out.

The way it hums along with its two syllabus.

Imagine the word itself: plasticize.

The way it bends around your tongue as you speak truth to power. Unfortunately, for OBX’s Black characters, the point of plasticity is to neutralize differences. To shape one’s blackness for the enjoyment of whiteness. Black feminist scholar Zaakiyah Iman Jackson details the violence of plasticity in her book Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning In an Antiblack World. On plasticity she says,

“Plasticity is a mode of transmogrification whereby the fleshy being of blackness is experimented with as if it were infinitely malleable and lexical and biological matter.”

While Jackon’s usage of the term in her book is used to talk about the relationship between Black arts/culture and Western science/philosophy, plasticity is the only term that I think truly speaks to my frustration with the way OBX positions its Black characters.

After fighting their way from the Caribbean back to the Outer Banks, Jayji and Kie get into an argument because Kie suggests that JJs behavior has been odd–which it has — since they got back. Dealing with what should have been an easy transition out of a love triangle between Pope, herself, and Jayji, he responds to Kie about them almost kissing by saying “It was weird,” and then pushing away her saying that they shouldn’t do this.

Nothing too left field from the usual antics that JJ pulls. After all, that’s his signature brand of masculinity: alienated, White, and working class. JJ’s the firecracker of the show.

He’s messy, impulsive, and extremely overconfident. Despite this, we know that JJ cares for her and the rest of the crew. He tells her that they shouldn’t be together because of their social classes. A feeling evidenced by the way he throws Kie’s upper-middle class lifestyle in her face. This affect of class antagonisms hits hard with lines like “ Why would you care? I’m just some loser.”

Image of two shots of Kie and JJ gazing at each other.
Kie and JJ fighting, screenshot taken by author, from OBX’s instagram

While we can read JJ’s jealousy as certainly being justified–being a part of the working class is a harsh life under late-stage capitalism and he has just found out that his home is going to be evicted– Kie becomes the object of his anger. JJ lashes out at her despite her insistence upon helping him. He resorts back to his subconscious feelings of anger saying that she’s just a “Kook.”

Which leads to my favorite part of the scene where Kie stands the fuck up to him.

“I was such a Kook when I was living in a cave with you for a month.”

–She got that ass locked and on-sight.

It’s in that moment that he realized he fucked up. Instead of apologizing, he drifts off on his motorbike and leaves her literally in the dust. He refuses to engage with any emotions that aren’t anger or euphoria. This one scene cements a recurring narrative arc of JJ and Kie. One where she must play the emotional whipping girl for JJ’s anger.

The rest of the upper class, the Kooks, have historically always demonized JJ’s father and him. In prior seasons, they were always positioned as being unruly working-class “Pogues.” Despite this, Kie has proven again and again that she would do anything to help JJ, even after her own parents argue with her and JJ at various points. And while JJ does come to redeem himself towards the end by rescuing Kie from a “troubled youth camp” that her parents enroll her in, the tension in their relationship made me increasingly uneasy about the way that anyone but especially Kie can become victims of unfiltered White masculine rage. Pope and Cleo don’t fare much better in terms of narrative either.

Pope is the reason structurally that OBX had a season two or season three. The legacy of his enslaved ancestor Taney drove the narrative of season 2 as the Pogues go on a quest to locate Taney’s golden cross. As Black Studies scholar Frank B Wilderson says,

“No slave. No world.”

The world of season 2 and season 3 couldn’t exist without the narrative’s reliance upon Taney and Pope as plasticized and fungible objects. And while Pope has undergone a significant transformation between the first season and the last, I feel that Pope and Taney become the narrative flesh that is experimented with literally.

Once getting their bearings together back on the island, the Pogues discover that Ward Cameron has acquired Pope’s ancestral heirloom that is the golden cross Taney gave to his followers that were also enslaved like him. They decide to do what any reasonable Gen-Z kids would do: take that shit back!

After barely escaping with the container, they discover that the cross inside is a decoy, and it is later revealed that Rafe Cameron himself has stolen the real cross back from Pope and his own father, Ward. This doesn’t come as a surprise to any stans of the show because Rafe doesn’t give a fuck. It’s white apathy as its cruelest. He burns the cross and smelts it down into gold….

Let that sink in for a minute.

image of Rafe Cameron in a white shirt with grey skies behind him.
Rafe Cameron, screenshot taken by author, from OBX’s instagram

The entitled motherfucker that literally has everything, even near control of his father’s massive assets, investments and properties. And it wasn’t enough. So why did Rafe do that, you might ask? Narratively, we can pin this on the fact that Rafe wants to fight back against his dad and his daddy issues. Structurally, it speaks to something else: the willingness of White capitalists to subsume everything–even precious Black cultural artifacts–into economic capital. Rafe embodies this White masculinity in crisis. And any careful watchers of the show know this has been a long-time coming as both Rafe and his own father proved in season 2 and 3, they’ll do anything for a bag, even if it means nearly strangling your daughter like Ward did to Sarah Cameron at the end of season 2.

Then there’s Cleo. While initially beginning as antagonist in season 2, Cleo comes around and eventually joins the Pogue on their extraordinary adventures.

Cleo, screenshot taken by author, via OBX’s instagram

Make no mistake, Madison Bailey, Jonathan Daviss, and Carlacia Grant do an excellent job with the limited material that they have to work with their respective characters. This is even a point Grant alludes to herself in an interview that she had to do her own research of reading the narratives and lives of orphan children.

While I’m happy to hear that Grant’s on her toes, I question the production decision to not truly sketch out Cleo’s life. Unlike the other characters, the narrative positions Cleo–a dark-skin Black woman– as a character without history. And if there is a history to her, that history is unknowable to us because the narrative fails to imagine nor actualize it. She is forever locked out of history, thrown along by the wayside.

Pope and Cleo’s individual moments as a couple warmed me. I was ecstatic that they eventually found love together at the conclusion of season 3. However, this romance seems sidelined in favor of the complex love triangle that is John B, Sarah Cameron, and Topper many times. Even their kiss in the season finale seems rushed because the narrative doesn’t spend a lot of time humanizing Cleo the way it does other character like John B, Ward Cameron, or even JJ.

I smiled seeing our complex crew heroes finally being able to enjoy the things that they deserve. But these feelings of joy were also conflicted with annoyance. Outer Banks was the show I needed during 2020. It showed me that adventure can always lie just around the corner when you’ve got the right kind of friends. At the same time, OBX makes use of the plasticity of blackness and black being to further along its narrative and its characters. I guess that’s a feeling I myself don’t even know what to make of yet.

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