Each week Joe (@bstolemyremote) and Terry (@gaylydreadful) discuss the most recent episode of HBO’s The Outsider, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
“Fish In A Barrel”: When the body of an 11-year-old boy is found in the Georgia woods, detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) launches an investigation into the gruesome murder; eyewitnesses and physical evidence point to local teacher and baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman).
“Roanoke”: Ralph admits to being baffled by conflicting physical evidence; an unexpected tragedy throws the investigation into a tailspin; Glory (Julianne Nicholson) tries to soothe her daughter Jessa (Scarlett Blum), who says she’s been visited by a strange man in her room at night.
Welcome to a brand new series, Terry! We’re hopping from one well-paced, mature, adult horror series to another as we jump over to HBO for the latest in a seemingly endless parade of Stephen King adaptations, this time on his 2018 novel The Outsider.
Now, as a quick caveat in case people don’t listen to me on Horror Queers, I am not the kind of “ride or die” King enthusiast that many folks who consume horror are. As I have clarified, this doesn’t mean that I hate him, but I’m regularly frustrated at how his great premises are undercut by an inability to wrap the story up in a satisfactory fashion. I’m also not an extensive reader of his so although I’m familiar with Carrie, Needful Things, IT and The Stand, I don’t make an effort to check out the vast majority of his work.
All of this to say that I went into The Outsider extremely cold, knowing only what glimpses of the story there are to be gleaned from the (surprisingly well-cut) trailer.
Two episodes later and I’m still not quite sure I know what’s going on. That’s not to say that this first taste, written by executive producer Richard Price and directed by guest star (also executive producer) Jason Bateman, are difficult to follow per se; moreso that in its first fifth, the miniseries is still introducing more mysteries than it is answering. Which is fine, although as a novice viewer to the story, it can be a little overwhelming to keep track of what is – and isn’t – important.
But perhaps it’s best to take a step back and delve into what we do know: the miniseries focuses on the murder of 11 year old Frankie Petersen. The discovery of his severely mauled body kicks off the first episode and very shortly the police, lead by Detective Ralph Anderson (Mendelsohn, in a rare good guy role), zero in on local teacher and little league coach, Terry Maitland (Bateman). It’s hinted at early on that Anderson has a personal trauma and when Terry is arrested very publicly, it comes out that Ralph’s son Derrick died from cancer, which has left him heavily invested in a case involving the death of a child.
The majority of “Fish In A Barrel” follows present day events as Terry is booked and sent away to jail, intercut with the lead-up to how Ralph, fellow law enforcement officer Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez) and DA Kenneth Hayes (Michael Esper) built their case on DNA, fingerprints found on the white van Terry used to abduct Frankie, as well as several eyewitnesses (including Paddy Constantine as the proprietor of a strip club called, I kid you not, the Peach Crease!).
Of course, Terry also has a wife, Glory (Nicholson) and two young daughters and there’s also the Peterson family, whose lives are thrown into mostly silent disarray upon the discovery of Frankie’s body. There are a lot of characters and moving pieces and character actors floating around the periphery, and that’s all before the mysteries are even introduced!
The hook, because of course there is one because this is King we’re talking about, is that Terry is very clearly the killer, but he’s also got a rock solid alibi that clearly shows he was attending a conference on book censorship. So how is it possible that there’s video footage of Terry in both locations at the same time? And who is the mysterious masked figure observing the observation and, in the second episode, the horrible events that follow, including a courthouse shooting and an attempted suicide by the patriarch of the Peterson clan?
At this point, I have very little idea what’s going on, though I’m leaning towards some kind of double scenario, possibly involving transportation between like-minded Earths (the posters for both the book and the miniseries suggest upside people and reflections factor in).
Terry, I know that you’ve read the book, so you know exactly what’s going on, so I’m curious to read your thoughts about how the adaptation is going so far? Are you digging the somber police procedural vibe Price has seemingly parachuted over from his other HBO series, The Night Of, or are you getting post-traumatic The Killing vibes like me? And how are we going to have these conversations without you spoiling everything for me?!
Joe, as I was watching the first episode, I had to ask myself the same question. “How am I going to talk about this as if I don’t know what’s going on, when I know exactly what’s going on.” But I think I figured it out. At least partially. But before we get to that, two things. It bothers me that the pseudo main character of this show and book is named Terry. My name isn’t used frequently so when it is, it’s very jarring. And, even more generally, names, in The Outsider are confusing since it seems they’ve been changed from the book: Marcy to Glory, for instance, and Samuels to Kenneth Hayes.
The other thing, and the reason I’m excited to chat about this with you, is that while you’re not what King calls “A Constant Reader”, I’ve been a lifelong fan since I discovered The Eyes of the Dragon in fifth or sixth grade. So I think we’ll have different reads and I’m curious to see the discussions that’ll come from that.
So let’s see where we are so far. We have eye witness reports of Terry picking up Frankie in a white van. A little girl saw Terry leave the forest where the body was later discovered, covered in blood from his mouth and soaking his shirt. Then we have, as you mentioned, his visit to the Peach Crease (haha!) and a cab driver who drove Terry to the train station. Combined with the DNA and fingerprints, it’s an airtight case. Which is why Ralph and DA Hayes break with convention to arrest him 1) publicly at a ball game and 2) without a police interview beforehand.
So far, everything is in line with the book with a couple of key changes. The biggest of which is the surprising death that sets off episode two, “Roanoke.” The first half of King’s novel is a propulsive police procedural; it’s some of the best writing King has ever done. He lays it out as a typical murder mystery with the odd twist that the main suspect is a man who is reliably and visibly in two places at the exact same time. A locked room mystery, turned on its side.
The first third of the novel follows this pattern, as Ralph and Hayes try to build their case while Terry’s lawyer Howie (Bill Camp in the TV show) and his private detective Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) rush to find irrefutable evidence to get him off. It was such an engrossing read that I was curious how the show would portray it. I absolutely didn’t expect to see the first 30-40% of the novel condensed into the first two episodes.
It’s here that I think the show fails the novel in some ways and kind of explains your confusion. There’s a lot going on in two short hours. The Outsider is so exciting to watch and the pacing is so fantastic that I was surprised when the first episode ended. It also leans into the, let’s say, supernatural element very quickly as one of Terry/Glory’s daughters has bad, waking dreams of some man telling her bad things. It’s much more measured in King’s novel.
The biggest problem right now, for me, is that the first half of the book is my favorite and I feel like we’re already hurtling through it in just two episodes. King spends so much time here, developing the characters and making you really question what’s happening. Like him or hate him, King is really good at crafting characters. It makes certain events, like the Petersen family’s disintegration, much more meaningful and painful to watch. Here, it’s over in a blink of an eye. The second half of the book, where the show already seems poised to go, is where the typical King problem of not being able to seal the deal rears its ugly head. So I’m curious…
Finally, the answer to your remaining question: if the show continues like this, I think it’ll lean heavily on The Night Of and less on the heartbreak of something like The Killing. That said, these first two episodes feel like a combination of the two. It’s an incredibly somber affair. I mean, shit, we’re talking about the rape, murder and mauling of a young kid and “Fish in a Barrel” and “Roanoke” lean hard into how that has destroyed two families.
Coming from the similarly heavy Servant to this feels so oppressive, Joe. Whew. What do you make of Jessa’s nightmares? And let’s stop dancing around the plot twist and dive right into the shock of episode two…did Terry Maitlin’s death surprise you? Do you think he was innocent or guilty? And how do you think new arrival Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca) is going to play into the story?
Thank you for succinctly capturing all of the other components that I couldn’t even touch on in my first section – The Outsider doesn’t seem to be telling a particularly dense story, and yet I found my head spinning when I tried to synthesize the relevant narrative threads.
It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised when Terry is quickly executed mere moments into “Roanoke.” Almost as surprised as the similarly expedient dispensing of the entire Peterson family. While The Outsider traffics in grief and solemn, almost dispassionate, emotional detachment, the way that characters are cast away with little to no fanfare is, admittedly, a little unnerving. Life is fleeting in this world and if these first two episodes are any indicator, I should probably avoid getting attached to anyone aside from Ralph.
Whether Terry was good or bad seems like it will be an ongoing question that the series will grapple with. Ralph is still tracking down clues from Terry/Glory by the end of the episode’s end and while I’ll admit that the detour to talk to the juvenile delinquent who originally stole the van left me initially perplexed, if it means we get more scenes of Nicholson and Mendelsohn warily circling each other, I’m here for it. (Sidebar: where has Nicholson been all of these years?! I watched her waaaay back in the day on NBC Saturday night one season wonder, The Others, and have kept an eye out for her since. Hopefully this showy role earns her some accolades and additional work).
The introduction of Jack, the other Detective who takes over for Ralph when he is temporarily put on leave following Terry’s shooting and the ensuing PR nightmare, is…interesting. He’s very much a character from a different kind of detective series: the hot headed cop who loudly exclaims “fuck!” when he’s interrupted in the middle of a pig hunt (at least I think that’s what he’s doing out in the rocky escarpment that is gorgeously shot by Bateman and his production crew). I like the friction between the two lawmen and hope that there’s something more to it, but for now the personality clash and Jack’s…shall we say temperamental problems (evidenced in his Peach Crease brawl) will keep things lively.
As for Jessa’s nightmares…I’m convinced that they’re tied to the mysterious disfigured person lurking about. Just who this man (or woman? Or creature?) is is arguably The Outsider’s greatest supernatural mystery, which also makes it the element that I am the most wary of, given King’s tendencies.
But Terry, I’ll throw it back to you to wrap up these first two episodes. If we’re already burning through King’s source material, do you think that the series is branching out or away from the book? Considering the show’s interest (moreso in episode one than two) in using flashbacks as a narrative structure, do you think we’ll circle back through time to return to Bateman and the Petersons? And, finally, where the fuck is Cynthia Erivo?! I’ve been waiting 2 hours for the main event to show up!
I’m so glad you’re enjoying the scenes of Mendelsohn and Nicholson, Joe. She’s an absolute treat in this. I’m honestly not very familiar with her work, but she is the right mix of badassery/don’t-give-a-fuck and vulnerable that I loved in the novel. She embodies Glory to the core and I’m so excited to see where her story goes.
The second episode dropped some tantalizingly creepy moments involving some sort of…goo. First, there’s Jessa’s second nightmare where the camera rests on some sort of liquid on the floor, highlighted slightly by the nightlight. Then there’s the ending scene where a farmer discovers some discarded clothes covered in a similar goo. The first scene I had to rewind briefly to tell what it was because it was so dark (Side note…if people complained about that dark Game of Thrones episode, they’re going to absolutely hate this show) But those two scenes add to the mystery of what’s going on and I’m curious to see how that plays out.
As for where the narrative is heading…I have no idea, Joe. I mean, obviously I know the main beats because of the novel, but with 8 episodes left, I just don’t know if they’re going to add more or what. I think we’ll know more when Erivo’s Holly Gibney shows up. This is the second show that will feature her character (she’s played by Justine Lupe in the “now in limbo” Audience Network series, Mr. Mercedes) and she’s quickly become a fan favorite of King’s recent novels. Needles to say, I’m incredibly excited for Erivo to show up. Soon, Joe. Soon.
Maybe we’ll see her when we jump back to Gayly Dreadful for next week’s episode “Dark Uncle.”
The Outsider airs weekly on Sundays on HBO