There was no way HBO’s The Outsider, the Stephen King-adapted limited series about a team of investigators chasing down a shapeshifting child killer who’s literally the boogeyman, was going to finish on a happy note. But even though “Must/Can’t” was brutal, it also managed to deliver a totally satisfying end.
The closing scene of last week’s episode, “Tigers and Bears,” let us know that the team was in grave danger, not just from the murderous entity everyone’s been calling El Cuco for lack of a better name, but also from Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca), the former Cherokee City cop who’d fallen under El Cuco’s control. Since their first encounter, El Cuco has eagerly exploited Jack’s weaknesses, but in the finale, he takes full advantage of Jack’s one true talent: sharpshooting. When the dust settles in the woods outside Cecil, Tennessee’s doom-filled Bear Cave, five men are dead—including Jack, by his own hand.
The four remainders—Georgia state policeman Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez); Cherokee City homicide detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn); gifted private eye Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo); and ex-con Claude Bolton (Paddy Considine), intended to be the next innocent man that El Cuco impersonated down to his DNA while committing a horrendous crime—have to act fast. With its well-armed protector now out of the picture, El Cuco has just a cave that’s on the verge of collapse keeping it safe, and as Holly points out when she and Ralph descend into the darkness, El Cuco is vulnerable. Its slimy handprints are all over the stair railings, proof that it’s afraid of falling. It’s supernatural, and it defies all the known laws of nature, but it can still be hurt and presumably killed.
That confrontational scene in the cave—I kind of wish it’d gone on longer, and also that Ralph hadn’t told Holly to stop asking questions. But it was also refreshing to see that Ralph, who spent nearly all season trying to find a logical reason behind everything, had finally come around to Yunis’ point of view: As much as we might want answers, the only thing that really matters is bringing El Cuco’s reign of terror to an end. And while Ralph makes damn sure this version of El Cuco won’t be able to get back up again, The Outsider wasn’t ever going to tie up all its loose ends. So much of its enjoyment came from the things in its story that were impossible but fit so neatly into the tense progression of its mystery.
First, the baffling contradictions surrounding murder suspect Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), who left mounds of evidence at the crime scene but was also irrefutably proven to be miles away when the killing occurred. Then, the growing idea that the perpetrator could only be this boogeyman-type creature plucked from folklore and nightmares, who passed its misery curse from human to human with just a tiny scratch. Where did it come from? What was its true nature? Was it the only one of its kind? We don’t know. We’ll never know. We’ll also never fully comprehend Holly’s random eccentricities, which aren’t exactly superpowers, though they sometimes come pretty close.
In the end, the survivors agree to a story that sounds plausible enough without having to bring a monster into the explanation. (Who would believe them if they did?) And there’s certainly a feeling of closure that comes from knowing that El Cuco’s been stopped from making yet another diabolical transformation. When the Cherokee City D.A. reopens the gruesome case that kicked off the series, Terry is posthumously cleared of all charges. Frankie Peterson’s murder may never be solved—because: El Cuco—but at least the wife (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters of the man who was falsely accused of the crime and then gunned down over it can begin to put their lives back together.
Ralph, formerly a diehard skeptic, has now seen things that’ve made him far more open-minded. “What else is out there?” he asks Holly with genuine curiosity as they’re parting ways. Erivo is fantastic in all of The Outsider, but the way she conveys Holly’s grin-and-shrug response is just perfect. Also perfect: the post-credits scene that gives us one last jolt in true Stephen King style, and the final strange coincidence/wink from the beyond/jaunty banjo tune that leads us into the end credits.
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