The biggest mystery of Outer Banks is the question of where hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold is hiding. But, there is a far more personal conundrum hiding in plain sight throughout the Netflix teen thriller: Is hero John B.'s (Chase Stokes) dad Big John Routledge (Charles Halford) dead? Or, has Big John simply vanished in the North Carolina surf, destined to reappear in some jaw-dropping cliffhanger?
Seventh episode “Dead Calm” finally solves that tragic puzzle. During “Calm,” John B. realizes Ward Cameron (Charles Esten) — father to J.B.'s love interest Sarah Cameron (Madelyn Cline) — is the central figure in the disappearance of Big John. Subsequent episode “The Runaway” reveals the entire story: Ward killed John B.’s dad. Big John is dead. It’s a messy tale that is sorely in need of explanation.
John B.’s first clue that something is very rotten with Ward shows up towards the close of “Dead Calm.” Ward already knows that John B. has found the Royal Merchant gold that is the central treasure of the series. Ward tells John B. he wants to help him actually obtain the gold and turn it into the kind of tangible profit he can put into his bank account. This is obviously manipulation. Then, Ward tells John he knows his hunt for the gold may have “something to do with Redfield.”
That slip-up sets John B.’s intuition into overdrive. “Redfield” was the word written into his missing father’s compass, which was a message that Big John specifically left to help John B. find the Merchant gold (“Redfield” was a reference to a crypt and a dead relative). If Ward knows about “Redfield” he must have recently obtained Big John’s compass, thereby confirming he understood its importance. That means Ward had to have been working with Big John before his disappearance.
A series of flashbacks over the course of eighth episode “The Runaway” give us the specifics of how Big John “disappeared,” or, more accurately, was murdered by Ward. They are narrated by Lana (CC Castillo), the widow of Scooter (David Ury), an associate of Ward and Big John. Scooter is the man who dies in the series premiere’s Hurricane Agatha storm.
On that tragic day nine months earlier, Ward and Big John met on a boat far in the middle of the ocean. While Big John had dedicated 20 years of work to the search for the gold, Ward had only just entered the picture. His entire contribution to the project was supplying Big John with the boats and capital necessary to solve the mystery. Still, Ward believed he and Big John should split the gold evenly. Big John, on the other hand, decided he wanted “legal assurances” that he would get 80% of the fortune and Ward would get 20%. Ward freaked out.
Once Ward started screaming in Big John’s face, the latter shoved him. A scuffle broke out and Ward pushed Big John towards the other side of the boat. As Big John stumbled, he tripped and crashed into the railing of the vessel. You can hear his skull crack on impact. As the men began to talk, Big John touched the back of his head and realized it was covered in blood. Big John suffered a likely fatal injury. Ward considered calling in help for Big John, but changed his mind. He realized no other boats witnessed the “accident” and that Big John’s death would solve huge problems for him. With Big John out of the picture, Ward could use his research to find the gold and keep it all for himself.
Ward stole the map he found in Big John’s pocket and dropped him into the ocean, obviously hoping his body would sink to the bottom or be eaten by fish.
That is not at all what happened. In the period leading up to Hurricane Agatha, Ward sent Scooter out into the far reaches of the Outer Banks to locate the gold. There, Scooter found Big John’s body — which was mummified in the North Carolina sun — along with the “Redfield” compass. Considering the fact that Big John’s body was ensconced in a carefully built shelter of beach debris, it is obvious he survived the toss overboard, made it to a random shore, and tried to survive for his son (we also see flashback confirmation of this fact). Big John wasn’t dead when Ward dumped him, as Lana tells John B. If Ward had called for emergency services — rather than protected himself for selfish reasons — John B. would still have a father.
It’s a grim turn of fate — but one that fully rules out the surprise return of Big John Routledge. No matter how wild Outer Banks is, no one can come back from mummification.