The Outsider (HBO)
Written by Richard Price
Directed by Jason Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, Igor Martinović, Karyn Kusama, Daina Reid, J.D. Dillard, and Charlotte Brändström
HBO’s The Outsider does not ease the viewer into its story. It explodes in the first ten minutes with the inciting crime, the brutal murder of an 11-year-old boy. The audience doesn’t see the act, but we are with the local man walking his dog, who comes across the crime scene. In a quick succession of camera shots, we see the mutilated remains that look like an animal savaged the poor child. Thus begins the first two hours of this adaptation of the Stephen King novel. I have to say, these opening two parts are amazing and had me riveted to the screen. Major props to Jason Bateman on directing and bringing such a simmering, tense atmosphere to the project.
The story is an ensemble bit starting with detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) who uncovers a mountain of genetic data, witness testimony, and security camera footage that all points to one suspect: local middle school baseball coach Terry Maitland (Bateman). There’s no question that Terry did all of this with that mountain of evidence. However, the accused claims he was hours away at an education conference, and there is video and genetic proof he was there too. Ralph refuses to accept the alibi because it challenges everything he believes in, facts and reality. By the end of episode two, everything has changed, and what you thought this show might be falls away as we begin to see what is really going to unfold.
The Outsider is a dark show, taking those bits of horror Stephen King puts in his work and allowing them to flourish and grow like rot across the screen. A pallor of grief hangs over everyone, which, as we learn, is exactly what the killer wants to happen. Ralph and his wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), are still dealing with the death of their own son a year prior. Their home is haunted by that grief, though both people try to act as though they are okay and are moving on. As Ralph delves deeper into the impossible aspects of this case, his mind wanders to questions about his son, if his spirit is still here, if he can ever see him again.
Sharing the spotlight with Mendelsohn is Cynthia Erivo as private investigator Holly Gibney. Gibney is neurodivergent, which allows her to observe details in a manner that neurotypical, non-autistic people like Ralph Anderson would. She’s never told about the Terry Maitland murder (a funny detail which we are reminded of in the final episode) but is instead hired to retrace the steps of a van stolen in Dayton, Ohio, and interview Terry’s geriatric father in a nursing home. This sends Gibney down a rabbit hole that provides the bulk of the explanation for what has happened, providing an answer so fantastic she’s met with resistance from the people who hired her.
Because this is a Stephen King-based series, we do fall into some of his more tired tropes. You have an unlikeable character come under the thrall of the antagonist (see The Shining, It, The Langoliers, etc.). There are bits of grating folksy language that just rub me the wrong way. The villain devours the emotions of victims, which he has used so often. Folk wisdom and faith are the solutions, not a scientific inquiry or standardized investigation methods. The finale involves the gathering of the disparate characters in a plan to take out the big baddie. We even have an underground lair. If anything, The Outsider feels like a more mature non-coked up reimagining of It.
The direction of the early episodes is phenomenal, especially when the camera chooses to show us the killer, always seemingly lurking in the background it is genuinely upsetting. The mystery built up had me binging episodes to find out what would be uncovered next. On the surface, it is a very satisfying mystery story, but with most King endings, the climax feels like a bit of a letdown. I think for as much as King is influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, he still wants to give the audience bittersweet endings. He needs the heroes to win in some manner, and this ultimately leads to his monsters feeling much less threatening by the end. When a big rock is all, it takes to harm a villain, it doesn’t quite seem as cosmically powerful anymore.