Warning: Contains major spoilers for The Outlaws season 3.


When The Outlaws first premiered in 2021, it marked a triumphant return to television for Stephen Merchant. The influential writer hadn't spearheaded a scripted project for the small screen since HBO's short-lived Hello Ladies eight years earlier, with much of the intervening period spent developing this ensemble community service comedy.

The first season was a delight, introducing a roster of characters that were archetypal on the surface, but containing hidden depths that were explored deftly by Merchant's witty, fast-paced scripts. I, for one, was thrilled that the show had received an early renewal during its COVID-induced filming hiatus, but this later proved not to be the gift that was expected.

While it certainly has its advocates, I found that The Outlaws season 2 represented a steep decline in quality from the high bar set by the first – and I have a theory as to why. As discussed in an interview with RadioTimes.com, Stephen Merchant began developing the show with Mayans MC co-creator Elgin James in 2016, several years before cameras started rolling.

Although the show evolved substantially after James stepped back – most notably, moving the setting from the US to the UK – this long period of writing and fine-tuning is obvious in the sharp gags and intricate plotting. In stark contrast, the second season of The Outlaws was a surprise order born out of the utterly unforeseen circumstances of a global pandemic.

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It was a matter of months, rather than years, in which the scripts for season 2 were delivered, and I would argue that you can feel that in the execution. The jokes miss more than they hit, the plot devolved into a perplexing mess and one formerly well-liked character was rendered persona non grata by an arc that didn't feel entirely fitting or believable.

Merchant himself acknowledged the challenge, telling us: "Normally what happens is... you'd see which characters are appealing to the audience, and you'd start to be governed a bit more by the reaction [to] the first series into the second. But we didn't have that opportunity because we were writing it before anything had been shown; we just had to go with instinct, really."

Lending further credence to my theory is that The Outlaws season 3, streaming now on BBC iPlayer and airing Thursdays on BBC One, is a return to form perhaps made possible by more time spent in planning. I understand that a two-year break between seasons isn't always desirable – for fan enjoyment or for brand awareness – but I'll keep backing it if it reaps results like this.

The Outlaws season 3 is a shorter, more focused story that returns to the tone of the original pitch. That is, rather than making the active choice to become criminals – as they did in the second outing's misjudged drug dealing plot, which bit off more moral dilemmas than it could chew – the Bristol crew is back to simply responding to the cards they're dealt.

The cast of The Outlaws in character standing in a shed, crowding around Rani (Rhianne Barreto) who is holding a smartphone in her hand
The Outlaws. BBC/Big Talk/Alistair Heap

In this case, those cards include a panicked Rani (Rhianne Barreto) insisting she's being framed for murder, a dead body that happens to be in her car, and a slippery drug dealer out for revenge. Of course, there are other subplots thrown in – from romance for Myrna (Clare Perkins) to broodiness for Gabby (Eleanor Tomlinson) – but the main focus is the gang's bid to save themselves.

As that story unfolds, we find redemption for one Rani Rekowski, who was the aforementioned casualty of season 2's rushed arc. The character made some reckless decisions in the first run, but ultimately remained a sympathetic and relatable figure, whose actions one could easily understand. That delicate balance was dramatically tossed out when the show initially returned.

If Merchant wanted to take Rani in a darker direction, it's a journey that would have needed multiple seasons to feel truly organic and natural – think Breaking Bad. But while Walter White's transformation into Heisenberg was gradual and plausible, Rani's morphing into "Scarface" (as the writer himself has described) appeared to happen overnight.

It was frustrating to see the character we grew to love – an empathetic, intelligent and mature young woman – essentially discarded in service to a crime story that was disappointingly half-baked. And while we don't get the old Rani back in season 3, the show does make efforts to make sense of what took place, reconciling her with the audience and with her own jilted lover, Ben (Gamba Cole).

Ben and Rani in a remote setting late at night, wearing dark coloured clothing with serious expressions on their face
Gamba Cole and Rhianne Barreto in The Outlaws season 3 BBC / Big Talk / Alistair Heap

If you were as heartbroken as I was to see him abandoned just as they were about to start a new life together, you'll be pleased to hear that ice cold blow isn't forgotten. In fact, it's softened somewhat by a running gag in which characters share what they've heard about Ben's reaction to his dumping – usually, some kind of surreal humiliation on the train to Weston-super-Mare.

But it's Rani who ends up on the back foot at the start of the season – that's karma for you – as she's wanted for murder and unsettled by how well Ben has bounced back with new girlfriend Tori (Silvia Presente). It sets the stage for compelling clashes between Cole and Barreto as their characters navigate an awkward (and dangerous) reunion.

The outcome of these scenes – including a heated row, some light flirtation and even a stolen kiss – is a decision that the pair should go their separate ways. There may be love between them but it can't resolve the disparity between Ben's desire for a comfortable life and Rani's appetite for perilous adventure.

Importantly, it's a happy ending for both of them. In fact, the final shot of the season – and perhaps the series, if Merchant does indeed end it here – is a liberated Rani ecstatically running along a sandy beach. Having achieved closure on her former romance, proven herself innocent of murder and eliminated the threat of The Dean (Claes Bang), she has good reason to celebrate.

Her essential role in getting the crew out of the hottest of hot water ensures this ending feels thoroughly deserved, cementing both Rani and The Outlaws itself as meaningfully redeemed. Admittedly, I still won't be re-watching season 2 in a hurry, but the show's creative team can hold their heads high that they found a path back to their former glory.

The Outlaws is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.


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