Pope and Cleo are the dark-skinned couple of my dreams

By Hadera McKay, Content Managing Editor

On Thursday, Feb. 23, the third season of the global sensation “Outer Banks” was released on Netflix. The action-packed family show follows a group of North Carolina teens led by protagonist John B. Routledge as they embark on a journey to finish the treasure hunt his missing father started. 

With engaging storytelling, grounded dialogue, and a found family circle of characters, the show is primed to connect with a variety of audiences. But as the third season came to a close, there was a plotline that stood out more than any other: Pope’s newfound romance with Cleo. 

The show’s writers had every chance to make Pope a cookie-cutter, one-dimensional POC sidekick; instead, they leaned into humanization with nuanced character development and a romance with another complex Black character. 

To Kristin J. Warner, a cultural critic, scholar, and professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts at Cornell University, the current landscape of representation still caters to a white viewership. The need to portray characters as palatable for white audiences has resulted in a slew of wholly “positive, highly individualized, and racially nonspecific figures,” that speak more to the reception of whites than the authentic representation of Black life. 

It’s easier for whites to recognize a Black side character subservient to the white storyline than it is a morally complicated Black character. As such, the easiest way to “commercialize” Black representation for showrunners is to portray the Black character as hyper-positive, and therefore deracialized, or hyper-negative, and therefore dehumanized. 

Pope is neither of these. In fact, his character and experience is infused with more and more nuance as the show progresses; his love story with Cleo serving as the cherry on top.  

Like many other families mindlessly scrolling through their streaming services in search of something to distract themselves from forced interactions initiated by the COVID-19 lockdown, my brothers and I binged 2020’s first season of “Outer Banks” together. We were enthralled by the characters’ adventure and camaraderie that felt so close to our own youthful attempts at exploration in the backwoods of Southeast Texas. 

Just like the show’s main characters—leader John B, reliable Pope, righteous Kiara, and wild-card JJ—we found ourselves thrust into wilderness and self-responsibility, encouraged to entertain ourselves with our imaginations under the beating sun. We cherished every episode, traced our own intricate fan theories, and reveled in the autonomy the characters had to simply get on a boat and travel to wherever they wanted to go. 

There was always a special place in our hearts for Pope Heyward, the golden boy played by up and coming actor, Jonathan Daviss. My mind consistently caught on to his character as the most visible Black male character in the series. Like with any content I consume, I was intrigued by the role of Pope’s Blackness in the show, and what implications it raised. 

I was so sure that Pope’s character would fall into the category of the one-dimensional POC best friend to the white protagonist, that his identity would hinge on the inherent social value of whiteness. Instead, I was increasingly surprised by the complexity of Pope’s story, how his identity became more and more vital to the motivations of every character and the plotline of the show as a whole. 

The show begins with John B. following the clues left by his missing father. With help from his friends, John B. realizes that his father uncovered that a treasure of 100,000 pounds of gold—last recorded to have sunk with the 19th century Royal Merchant ship—was actually gifted to the formerly enslaved Denmark Tanny. Tanny used a majority of his capital to free enslaved people and purchase land, but (spoiler alert) stockpiled gold for his family on that land. 

The story gets a lot more personal for Pope when the gang discovers that he is a direct descendant of Denmark Tanny, meaning that both the gold and the rest of the treasure on the Royal Merchant—including the 7-foot solid gold Cross of Santo Domingo—are all included under his birthright. 

This revelation raises the stakes not only for Pope, but for the rest of the Pogues as they compete with the most influential family on Kildare island, the Camerons, to find the gold and the cross. Not only is the family patriarch, Ward Cameron, the richest property owner in town, he also happens to own and occupy the land bought with the gold that funded Denmark Tanny’s ultimate liberation from enslavement. Suddenly, the scuffles between Ward’s son and hellhound, Rafe Cameron, and Pope take on a whole new weight. 

With their relentless need to steal, claim, and eventually desecrate the history and rightful possessions of the Black people in their community for the sake of profit, Rafe, and the Camerons as a whole, symbolize the very worst of Southern white America. Rafe and Pope’s standoffs are dripping with subtext. 

Again, I found myself wondering if the show’s writers would fall into the next convenient trap. I wondered if Pope and Rafe’s rivalry would become fodder for some PBS-like message about racism; where the eventual skirmish and reconciliation between a white boy and a Black boy magically solves racism. As if the violence within interpersonal relationships is always so obvious, and infrastructural racism can be so easily swept under the rug with a fist-fight that would no doubt have stronger disciplinary repercussions for the Black man than the white. 

During the newest season, I was surprised once again when their struggle peaked. In a tear-jerking scene following the efforts of the Pogues, (spoiler) Rafe melts down the Cross of Santo Domingo to sell to the highest bidder, rendering a priceless object of historical, familial, and emotional significance for Pope, a malleable force for white, rich boy Rafe to become even richer. 

At the same time, the world seems to be working against Pope. He’s lost his scholarship, he’s behind in school, and then he finds out that his nemesis has destroyed the one thing he had left to fight for. In a moment of pure, unbridled rage and hopelessness—the first we’ve seen from Pope—he steals his father’s gun with plans to retaliate against Rafe. Pope’s descent into anger was familiar to me; the significance of a young Black man violently confronting the face of a system actively working against him was not lost on me. Nor was his eventual refusal to play into this system—a decision facilitated by Cleo. 

Cleo—played by Carlacia Grant—found her way in with the Pogues in season two as a morally ambiguous Caribbean hustler. In season three, the facets of her identity expand and the audience begins to recognize her as a strong, honest, and genuine voice of reason for the gang. As the season progresses, we learn that she isn’t simply some angry Black woman villain or a cunning thief: she is both assertive and shy, emotionally tender, and wildly open.

In the moment where Pope is crumbling under the weight of resentment, anger, fear, and dejection that threatens to topple any Black person living in America, Cleo reminds him of the core of his character—of the power that he has to deviate from a cycle that perpetuates his own prosecution. She is not some perfect Black woman savior, she is a complex Black girl sobbing with a complex Black boy as they attempt to hold each other up. 

Pope supports Cleo with the same ferocity. He opens his home to her and offers her a physical and emotional circle of safety she’s never experienced before. Cleo’s self-assurance balances Pope’s insecurity. Pope’s kindness softens Cleo’s tough exterior. 

The culminating kiss between the two in the final episode was a healing and affirming display of dark-skinned Black love. With their complex character development and organic and endearing chemistry, Pope and Cleo are primed to be the most revered couple in “Outer Banks.”