I have been watching HBO’s The Outsider with cautious optimism. Because while the series is gloriously dark, moody, often chilling, and garnering praise as 2020’s first great TV show, frankly we’ve been here before. Last year’s True Detective Season 3 kicked off 2019 to a similarly strong start before it went out with a solid, if otherwise slow conclusion. The Outsider has nothing to prove as a debut miniseries boasting impressive viewership. But with one episode left in the chamber, can The Outsider succeed where True Detective S3 did not? (Light spoilers below.)
Full disclosure, I’m a fan. The Outsider entranced me from its first title sequence. And there are plenty of reasons to stay: Jason Bateman pulling both starring and directing duties; Ben Mendelsohn’s baritone growl relaying the dread of Stephen King’s source material (where’s THAT audiobook?); Cynthia Erivo’s tightrope performance as a detective wunderkind; and both Yul Vazquez and Jeremy Bobb with recurring roles like a potent reminder to revisit Russian Doll.
Few crime dramas are able to pull off a sinister tone AND render the atmosphere as oddly addictive. Then again, not many dramas are able to go full adult outside of the HBO banner, unless you’re NBC’s Hannibal. True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto spun a nightmarish web in its first season fused with cosmic horror mythology that practically heralded this era of dimly lit programming. The Outsider is another plunge into the abyss – a ghost story that unfurls like a police procedural with occasional moments of noir greatness, and bleakness.
The story finds Terry Maitland accused of brutally murdering a child. The crime scene points to him, until further evidence exonerates him. He is either completely guilty or completely innocent, somehow capable of being in 2 places at once. Soon emerges a grisly web of interconnected child murders— the grief-stricken families of the victims and the warring families of the accused now bound by their misery. Perhaps a mastermind doppelganger is responsible, or something far more monstrous that likes so see people suffer.
The Outsider starts off so incredibly fast (and dark) that silly me thought this was a 6-episode series due to be doled out in a matter of 3 weeks, 2 episodes every Sunday. But then, somewhere in episode 5, the show began to drag as the series’ supernatural elements had to contend with the logistics of a procedural. The killer turns out to be less figurative and more a literal shape-shifting boogeyman, because as Stephen King would have it, monstrous crimes need monsters to commit them.
This is what makes The Outsider so unique for a non-fantasy HBO series. It’s a crime drama dealing WITH supernatural elements, whereas True Detective Season 1 imbued horror literature within its vocabulary to paint a darker canvas. The logical and supernatural are at war in The Outsider, a narrative collide represented by detectives Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney. Sometimes that conflict poses intriguing moral dilemmas. Other times, it slows the series’ pacing to a standstill.
Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo are an actor pairing whose characters’ ideological friction could easily drive an entire season – the same way Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s buddy-cop chemistry did for True Detective S1. Sadly, Mendelsohn and Erivo don’t have much scenes together, and the show encounters some serious bumps when it leaves the question of the supernatural for Holly, and Holly alone, to investigate.
To its detriment, the show doesn’t have a single buddy pairing to rest on. Instead we’re given buddy pairings every 15 minutes: Ralph’s spouse Jeannie and Terry’s wife Glory Maitland, Glory’s lawyer Howard and his P.I. Alec, or Holly Gibney and her man-piece/former detective Andy, while Ralph is paired with just about any character at any given moment. We inexplicably have our hero, but the gnarled edges and teetering traumatic state of Ben Mendelsohn’s performance can only carry so much weight.
The story gets significantly bogged down in the season’s second half. The task force identifies there’s some thing responsible after all, and inadvertently bestow upon it the moniker of El Cuco (“grief eater,” or “tear drinker”). There’s a clear rational divide amongst them as far as how it could exist; less clear is how this thing roped Jack, one of their peers, into doing its bidding. Whatever it is, it is now transforming into Claude (Edgar Wright-alum Paddy Considine sporting a spot-on Southern accent) and the team tries to stop the next cycle of murders from happening, whether it be a man, a walking folklore, or an actual devil in their crosshairs. Plot-wise that’s pretty much it leading up to the finale.
In the meantime, we are treated to a mess of glowering and ruminations on the road as characters constantly, and I mean CONSTANTLY travel from A to B. At this point, the show’s vehicles ought to get a starring credit. Too many of these scenes feel like filler, and too many characters come across like extensions or patsies of the major players. Twice in episode 9 the characters wonder aloud (in a car, mind you) if El Cuco can be killed. They’re en route to kill it anyway, so what’s the point in asking?
The looming dread of The Outsider’s big baddie, as a result, barely sustains throughout— which is a shame because the series is downright terrifying when it wants to be. The show delights in the abstract and more often than not, the technique is effective: the camera panning over the jagged terrain of a brutal landscape; long and lingering shots of characters as if something is preying on them; or distinct close-ups of shadows and silhouettes that pit you to imagine your worst nightmare.
At the end of episode 4, the show establishes a blood-curling high that it hasn’t hit since. We watch in total unrelenting dread as Holly Gibney does an internet dive into the various cultural iterations of the boogeyman. It feels as though she’s in danger that very moment, even though she’s not. El Cuco is bone-chilling when his presence pervades, but these moments are so scarce (and worn out by all the moody anecdotes in cars) that we’re only casually reminded that there’s an actual monster in the dark. Viewer imagination can only do so much work until we start to get sleepy.
Characters introduced early on in the season seem to fall by the wayside. Glory Maitland just gets repeat scenes with Jeannie to establish again and again that they have a bond (except for a moment in ep. 7 when Glory decides to sue the prosecution), and I wouldn’t put it past you if you forgot about Ralph’s colleague Tamika Collins, or prosecuting D.A. Kenneth Hayes. We’re even introduced to a new character late in the game, Claude’s dirtbag brother Seale who comes armed with a key bit of exposition that somehow couldn’t have been dug up by any one of the detectives.
The Outsider suffers an identity crisis in its second half. Is this a crime drama with supernatural overtones? Is this a horror series dressed as a procedural? Or is this a baseline drama that wants to be all of the above? It seems so lost on the matter by episode 7 that it’s no wonder all these characters can do is drive and wax bleakly about that tingling feeling down their spine. The show, unlike El Cuco, can’t shape-shift. This is where last year’s True Detective bests The Outsider; it similarly had scope and ambition, but at least the series was centered on Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff. Frankly, The Outsider could’ve ended 3 episodes ago.
This isn’t to say that I won’t be tuning in this Sunday. I’m a fan and I’m saying all of this as a fan of the show. If I felt warm and cozy after the holidays, then The Outsider’s arrival in January brought a welcome shiver. (I no longer trust the shadows in my house. It’s lights on all night. Pray for my electric bill.) Like a good book, I just can’t seem to put this dark and dour thing down.
As it stands, The Outsider is another damn fine HBO affair. But it could’ve been GREAT as a 6-part series. (Or, middle ground – 8 episodes). It certainly could’ve done better than roundup all of its major players in one setting during the closing moments of its penultimate episode, unduly setting up for an action-packed finale. Maybe a bloodbath will provide some catharsis.
It’s hard to imagine The Outsider’s finale reconciling the pacing problems of its later chapters. Perhaps the finale can reconcile its chief mystery between the logical and supernatural, and maybe that will be enough. But with so much time spent stumbling in the dark, can The Outsider find its way back to the light?