Outer Banks stars Rudy Pankow and Madison Bailey say season 3 finally goes there with JJ and Kiara

This is not a drill — after years of intense shipping, hoping, and waiting, things are finally heating up between JJ (Rudy Pankow) and Kiara (Madison Bailey) on Outer Banks.

When Netflix's sun-soaked, teen treasure hunt series returns for season 3 on Feb. 23, love is definitely in the air for the two formerly platonic Pogues. Co-creator/showrunner Josh Pate tells EW that the characters' slow-burn attraction is going to turn into something real, which is what excited him the most about the new 10-episode run. "It's the big romance of the season," he adds. "Later on in the season, almost a whole episode is devoted to that relationship. It was a big card we really wanted to play and make it a big thing."

"It'll be worth the wait," series star Bailey promises. "Some of the scenes are gems. There's some good stuff in there. I hope people love it."

Outer Banks season 3. (Under embargo until tomorrow, Jan. 3, at 8 am PT/11 am ET.)
Outer Banks season 3. (Under embargo until tomorrow, Jan. 3, at 8 am PT/11 am ET.)

JACKSON LEE DAVIS/NETFLIX Kiara (Madison Bailey) and JJ (Rudy Pankow) in 'Outer Banks' season 3

When Outer Banks first premiered in April 2020, JJ and Kiara were just friends, adhering to the "no Pogues macking on Pogues" rule established in their close-knit friend group. But fans immediately fell in love with the actors' natural chemistry together and wanted more. "It's one of those things where you see fans want something so bad, and the writers clocked that," series star Pankow says. Bailey adds, "After the fan response from season 1, I knew where the writing was going. You want to write off of chemistry, so I did foresee that happening. And it's cool to finally see that relationship."

Pate confirms that the entire Outer Banks creative team — consisting of him, his twin brother Jonas Pate, and Shannon Burke, who all serve as co-creators/executive producers/writers — "were inspired by the fan reaction" to JJ and Kiara's bond after season 1, so they pivoted and leaned into delivering a real romance between the characters as a result. "I get so many 'Jiara' hashtags, that's all I get. It's crazy," Josh says with a laugh. "You realize that people process things differently, and seeing those little fan videos [on social media] was really a great reflection. I was like, 'Oh my God, it was in there. I see why people really took to that.'"

Josh, Jonas, and Burke originally considered bringing JJ and Kiara together in season 2, but they wanted to do it right. So instead of rushing into exploring JJ and Kiara's feelings for each other immediately, the showrunners added in another suitor first: Pope (Jonathan Daviss). Kiara and Pope explored taking their friendship to another level in season 2, but ultimately Kiara ended things and the two Pogues went back to being friends, eventually paving the way to bring it back to Kiara and JJ.

"That storyline, the whole arc of it, we thought it was going to go faster, that it was going to come in season 2," Burke says. "But things have to play out organically and also in the space that's given with all the insane capers that are going on. We were surprised how long it took to separate Pope and Kiara, and we needed to give them a little breathing room for that to happen in season 2."

Outer Banks. Rudy Pankow as JJ in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023
Outer Banks. Rudy Pankow as JJ in episode 301 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix Rudy Pankow as JJ in 'Outer Banks'

"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," Josh adds. "That was something that was kind of early on the menu, something we know we're going to do, but how do we do it? Now it's some of my favorite scenes of the whole season, for sure."

Unlike the show's passionate fans who have been shipping the characters together for years, Bailey 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 toward each other — no matter how hard they may initially fight their intense chemistry. "Kiara is not waiting for a knight in shining armor. 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 him and see our friendship onscreen more this season."

Pankow agrees with Bailey's feelings, adding, "It was interesting to see the writers go that direction and finally get to explore that as an actor. It's what the writers felt was true and what the writers felt was a good idea."

But don't go thinking that JJ and Kiara are about to fall in love and ride off into the golden hour sunset together — this is Outer Banks, after all, and these Pogues are dealing with a lot. Not only do they begin season 3 stranded on a deserted island, but they're also still neck deep in a treasure hunt where the life-or-death stakes keep getting more intense. Plus, let's not forget Kiara comes from a Kook family and JJ's the definition of a Pogue (with a traumatic upbringing to boot). "It's hard to answer what issues they're going to face without giving some stuff away," Jonas teases, before adding, "There are real obstacles of them not being in the same place, which is part of it."

Outer Banks. (L to R) Madison Bailey as Kiara, Drew Starkey as Rafe in episode 302 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023
Outer Banks. (L to R) Madison Bailey as Kiara, Drew Starkey as Rafe in episode 302 of Outer Banks. Cr. Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix © 2023

Jackson Lee Davis/Netflix Madison Bailey as Kiara, Drew Starkey as Rafe in 'Outer Banks'

"There's definitely internal struggles," Josh adds. "So it won't be like a romantic rival [coming between them], at least not for a while, but more like JJ's demons and how is he going to deal with his traumatized past and settle into something that's healthy without being self-destructive. That's going to be great to see."

Pankow loved diving into JJ's trauma this season and seeing how it manifests in his relationship with Kiara as well as the rest of the Pogues. "JJ is confused and frustrated a lot this season, and the person that shows up for him the most is Kiara," he says. "He leans on Kiara a lot. But confusion plays a big part because they're on different sides of life, they're from different sides of the island, and there are a lot of struggles that can come with that. For Kiara, it's feeling like she's wants to not be a Kook and she wants to find who she really is. And then for JJ, it's like, 'I know who I am and I'm scared of who I am. I don't have a future, really. Where do I fit in here?'"

Bailey calls JJ's arc this season "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. A big part of Kiara's journey this season is how can she be there for him the best that she can be and really give him the attention or affection in the way that he can receive it. And her biggest push this season is her freedom from her parents and securing the life she wants for herself."

Does that life include JJ? There's no telling just yet what the future holds for these teen treasure seekers, and the actors aren't hoping for any specific outcome for JJ and Kiara's relationship. "It's the writers' choice and I always pride myself on what the writers want is what the actor has to make a reality," Pankow says. "That's all I'm going to say." We'll find out exactly what the writers wanted when season 3 premieres Feb. 23 on Netflix.

For more on Outer Banks season 3, check out EW's exclusive preview with the co-creators and stars. Plus, Netflix announced on Friday the debut of "Poguelandia," the first-ever immersive music and fan experience for the series. Kicking off on Saturday, Feb. 18 in Huntington Beach, Calif., the free event includes musical performances from Khalid, alt-J, Surf Mesa, and The Nude Party (with more artists to be announced), plus guest appearances by the Outer Banks cast, interactive experiences, exclusive American Eagle OBX merch for sale, and more. Tickets to the event will be available starting Saturday at 7 a.m. ET/10 a.m. PT at www.welcometopoguelandia.com.

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