Six hours in and I’m still not sure what The Outsider is trying to say. It weaves an intriguing mystery, but I’m not convinced there’s enough happening week-to-week to keep a hungry audience chasing its baited hook.
Richard Price’s HBO adaptation of the 2018 Stephen King novel leans in heavily on the spooky mystery, and it works well enough on that level. Every answer we get only leads to more unsettling questions. It’s the same kind of recursive loop that made Lost so popular, but with a hefty side of menace creeping in from the shadows.
To what end, though? I haven’t read the book, so I couldn’t even begin to guess where things are headed. But I’ve had a tough time syncing up with this dark story’s underlying themes, and I think this is an issue lots of viewers will face. The show’s success or failure hinges on how the central mystery eventually wraps itself up, but fair warning: You’d best be patient.
The first two episodes, which premiere back-to-back on Jan. 12, compare easily to the tip of an iceberg. You watch them and think, “OK, yeah. I see where this is headed.” But you really don’t. The miles of mystery beneath the surface is what this show is really about. Why do you think the premiere is delivered as a twofer?
These opening episodes introduce Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a loving husband, father, teacher, and Little League coach who’s about to be arrested for the brutal murder of a local child. It turns out that the authorities have a pile of damning evidence in the form of witness testimony, forensics, and even video. Terry is clearly guilty.
Or is he? The evidence of guilt is matched by similarly compelling proof that Terry was nowhere near the site of the murder on the day that it happened. In fact, he was many miles away and out doing stuff in public. There are witnesses, forensics, and video to back that up, too.
Why do you think the premiere is delivered as a twofer?
Nonetheless, Terry is put through a very public arrest spearheaded by Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn). It’s a reckless decision that subsequently subjects Terry’s wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) and their two kids to suspicion and scorn in their tight-knit Oklahoma community.
But Ralph isn’t more than a year removed from the loss of his own child, who died from cancer. His decision to have Terry arrested in front of the whole town, and without first digging for reasons the coach might be innocent, is apparently motivated by grief. Ralph is angry that another parent has to know the pain of losing a child, and he makes Terry the target of that anger.
You might think you know where things are headed from here, but an explosive start to Episode 2 pushes the story off in another direction. It’s clear enough, even early on, that something more sinister is happening behind the scenes in the town of Flint City, Oklahoma where much of the story unfolds. In these opening hours, the sense of grief that washes over the town almost feels like a plague in the way that it spreads and fatally infects others.
That promising start is undone somewhat, at least in the subsequent four hours, by a story that seems to be running in place. We’re introduced to new characters and locations, and those twists and turns lead to revelations about a possible malevolent entity that, if it’s real, is pulling strings from behind the scenes.
The problem is, the facts come a bit too slowly and often seem to take a backseat to the show’s efforts to cultivate a spooky vibe. Yes, this is a horror story, and yes, King’s M.O. as a writer has often been these kinds of slow-burn reveals. But the approach that’s been so effective in many of his books – again, I can’t speak to this one – doesn’t play as well here.
Part of the problem is the size of the cast and the pace at which everyone is introduced. I can understand having to work inside the constraints of adapting a book into 10 one-hour slices. But outside of Ralph and Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), a character we don’t even meet until the third episode and who is nonetheless central to the plot, we don’t spend a lot of time getting to know anyone.
It may be intentional. Ralph and Holly, a quirky and emotionally detached private investigator with an almost superhuman sense of perception, are the story’s most interesting figures. More than that, they seem to represent the two sides of the thematic coin that The Outsider constantly flips as it wrestles with questions about belief.
Ralph is a non-believer, a closed mind. He’s only willing to acknowledge facts that add up inside his rational and grounded view of the world. To him, every mystery has a Scooby-Doo ending where the unexplainable inevitably turns out to be a man in a mask. Ralph’s perspective could have its roots in the loss of his son. Or maybe that’s just how he’s wired as a police detective. (It’s probably the dead kid, though.)
Holly is the opposite. Her emotional disconnect from the surrounding world allows her to consider each fact she uncovers on its merits alone. In this particular case, the facts she uncovers lead to supernatural discoveries. (Don’t act surprised or spoiled, this is a Stephen King story.) Holly’s view of the world doesn’t leave room for unexplainable events. To her, you simply have to open your mind sometimes and accept possibilities that don’t seem rational.
The two characters are more complex than the perspectives they represent, of course. Credit the actors and the scripts they’re working with for that. Mendelsohn and especially Erivo, what with all her idiosyncrasies, never veer into caricature territory. That’s because the show takes the time to explore their rich inner lives.
They’re also the reason I stuck out The Outsider‘s opening six hours so willingly. The increasingly large cast of players arrayed around Ralph and Holly never develop enough to fully sell the subplots. Supporting performances from Mare Winningham (Ralph’s wife Jeannie), Marc Menchaca (Flint City detective Jack Hoskins), and Nicholson become more engaging as the season moves on. But their actions mostly serve to support Ralph and Holly’s stories.
The issue is it takes so long for that to become clear. Outside of a couple of early “holy shit!” moments, the plot develops a glacial pace, too often sacrificing narrative coherence for spooky vibe-building. It’s telling that the relationship between Holly and Ralph’s characters doesn’t take on any real definition until midway through the season.
That’s a problem when we’re talking about the story’s central players. And without knowing how things are going to wrap up at this point, it’s even possible that I’ve got the wrong read here. The story is a slog, though, and I think it’s the biggest hurdle viewers will face. Assuming it ends well, I feel like The Outsider would work better as a binge-watch.
That’s what made it appealing to me. I wasn’t sold by the end of the second episode – which is where viewers will be left on Sunday night – but I’m on board now and just want to see the rest. If you’re hooked by the end of the two-part premiere Sunday night, great. But if not, you might be better off letting the season play out and watching it after the fact, at a pace that works for you.
The Outsider premieres Sunday night on HBO.