Three episodes in, HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Outsider feels a bit reminiscent of True Detective, both in subject matter and dread-filled tone. But the network’s grisly mystery series have a major difference: unlike True Detective, which leans into the unexplainable but never quite crosses that line, The Outsider is fully embracing the supernatural.
This week, we met the person who’s really going to open up that element—the recurring King character Holly Gibney, given a distinctive portrayal here by Cynthia Erivo—but the story’s unnerving aspects have been an important part of it from the start.
The Outsider begins, like so many true crime tales, with the discovery of a body. Adding to the horror, it’s the mutilated body of a child, an unthinkable tragedy anywhere, but amplified by its occurrence in a small, close-knit town. (The setting is Cherokee City, Georgia, but the absence of thick accents or other overtly Southern signifiers make it feel less regional than, say, the location-specific nature of True Detective’s first season. This could be any small town, anywhere.) The lead detective, Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), clings to police work as a way to make sense of a world in which his own young son died of cancer a year prior. But nothing makes sense about the rape and murder of young Frankie Peterson.
Ralph initially thinks he’s got an open-and-shut case against a local little league coach, Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman, who also directed the first two episodes)—and Ralph takes it personally, since Terry coached his kid, too. But the decision to arrest his only suspect in front of a crowd at a baseball game starts to feel like a serious lapse in judgment when all the evidence against Terry is countered by equally strong evidence that suggests he didn’t do it. Followers of crime lore are used to stories of people who are wrongfully accused and even convicted in cases with weak or even nonexistent evidence. But Terry presents an unheard-of dilemma: on the one hand, his prints, blood, and even DNA are splattered upon the gruesome scene, and there are eyewitnesses and surveillance footage that link him directly to the crime. On the other hand, Terry claims he was out of town at a teaching conference when the killing took place—with, again, fingerprints, eyewitnesses, and recordings to support that.
The situation gets even more convoluted when Terry himself dies—gunned down en route to the courthouse by Frankie’s grief-stricken older brother, who’s shot dead by Ralph in return. Terry is, therefore, unable to assist when Ralph, who’s now pretty sure the man was innocent, decides to dig deeper into just what the hell is really going on. Terry’s lawyer, Howie (Bill Camp), and Howie’s investigator, Alec (Jeremy Bobb) are up for the challenge, as is Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez). Terry’s widow, Glory, is far less willing, but his young daughters, Jessa and Maya (Scarlett Blum and Summer Fontana), provide some startling insight. Since her father was accused, Jessa’s apparently been receiving telepathic messages from a strange man—quite obviously the misshapen, hoodie-clad figure that nobody (except the viewer) has noticed lurking around Cherokee City all of a sudden—while Maya, recalling a minor injury her father suffered on a family vacation, is able to pinpoint the instant Terry may have accidentally gotten himself involved in this evil-twin business.
A man who appears in two places at once. Dark terrors in a peaceful small town. Psychic warnings. A seemingly nothing incident that may have passed on some kind of violent doppelgänger curse to an otherwise mild-mannered guy. We aren’t anywhere near Maine, but The Outsider definitely has some Stephen King nuggets embedded in its escalating nightmare, a story that takes place in a world that seems so much like our own—except how could these evils be real?
“How could this happen?” is actually the exact sort of thing someone watching a true crime tale might exclaim aloud—think the slippery police work in Making a Murderer and The Confession Killer, or the bizarre details brought to light in Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez and Abducted in Plain Sight. Of course, The Outsider never pretends to be anything other than fiction, but it feels like a familiar sort of crime story—guided by the hand of series developer Richard Price, a crime novelist and TV veteran (The Wire, The Night Of) who also scripted several episodes—until it doesn’t.
Episode three, “Dark Uncle,” made very sure we know The Outsider is going to veer way beyond the boundaries of what reality can contain. We see Ralph’s fellow Cherokee City detective, functional asshole Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca), blunder into the path of, we think, the show’s sinister entity, emerging with a blistering neck wound and worrisome reassurances to an unseen someone that he’ll do “whatever you want me to do.” So that’s not gonna be good for anyone. But most importantly, we meet the character who’s going to take point as Ralph and company plunge into uncharted territory: Holly Gibney, a private investigator whose unusual powers of perception (not to mention other odd abilities, such as knowing all the lyrics to songs she’s never heard before) make her ideally suited to join this strange journey.
Where that journey will lead, only Stephen King (and presumably anyone who’s read The Outsider book, so no spoilers for TV viewers, please!) knows. But so far the show feels like what might happen if a true crime story, one salacious enough to warrant its own docuseries, suddenly took a turn for the supernatural. What’s worse than a child murderer? It sure feels like we’re going to find out.
The Outsider airs Sunday nights on HBO.
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