The outsider after episode 3: don't lose hope yet
Warning! This article contains major spoilers from the first three episodes of The Outsider
Can anybody else remember all the way back to November 10th, 2019 when the fourth episode of Watchmen, titled “ "If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own," came out? If you can, you’ll probably remember that at the time the episode felt like a death sentence for the show. The first couple of episodes had been intriguing but it was starting to feel like Watchmen was treading water, that maybe the plot was actually a meatless sack of bones barely being held up by the show's weird aura and nostalgic connection to the original comic book. And boy was everyone wrong.
The next 5 episodes were the best stretch of television all year and solidified Watchmen as one of the top dramas of the decade. In those first four episodes it refused to cater to viewers, sacrificing transparency, excitement and easy watching all for the sake of the long run, which paid off spectacularly in the end. After three episodes of The Outsider, the new HBO miniseries based on the Stephen King best selling novel of the same name, it’s starting to feel like Watchmen did at episode four, like a party trick, a box of nothing wrapped in fancy packaging. However, also like Watchmen, these average first three episodes may just be a base layer for fantastic things yet to come.
If you’ve already given up on the show, I understand. Like I just said about the first few episodes of Watchmen, it’s not exactly easy to watch. For starters, every episode so far has felt like the start of a completely different plot, with lots of new questions to match. First episode it was the mystery of Terry Maitland(Jason Bateman). The questions set up to be answered were,
How could Terry be in two places at once?
Could this seemingly harmless baseball coach really have killed a child?
What’s up with Jessa Maitlands nightmares?
Then in episode two we got more questions, without getting any answers to those posed in episode one, like
Is that really the last we will see of Terry Maitland?
Who’s the guy in the green hoodie?
Is the killer somehow killing the dead boy’s family too?
Whats Ohio( and Terry Maitland’s “cut” there) have to do with anything?
What's with the apparently semen covered clothes in that random barn?
Then in episode 3 we got hit with possibly the biggest restart yet, adding two new character story lines without any resolution on previous events, plus adding more questions to the pile the show had already stacked up, like
Who is the man in prison? How is his alleged child killing connected to Terry’s?
Does Holly Gibney have some sort of supernatural powers? (She seems to see her father when she touches the doorframe)
What's the rash/burn on Jack Hoskin’s(the asshole cop) neck?
Why are there fingerprints of an "old" version of Terry all over the crime scene?
As a viewer, all the stark changes in plot from episode to episode have made it hard to get a foothold on the show and a feel for where it's going. It feels like all these new additions keep lowering the tension, distracting us from the core question of the show: Did Terry Maitland kill a child? However, it's also easy to forget that The Outsider is going to be ten episodes long, not 9 like Watchmen or 8 like True Detective. While right now it seems like were losing focus, being bogged down with too many new storylines and plot threads, I think what The Outsider is really doing is giving us an extraordinary base of intriguing mystery and characters so that the show will have enough momentum to carry us for the next 7 weeks. Just like Watchmen, they’re sacrificing a gimmicky, question answering, exciting first few episodes for the sake of the long run.
Take Holly Gibney for example, the slightly strange (or a “full tilt bull goose loony”, as Terry’s former lawyer Howard Soloman calls her) private detective hired on to help uncover whatever strange series of events is hiding behind the facts about Terry Maitland. Once again similar to Watchmen and their episode three introduction of Laurie Blake, at first it feels like a random drop, a wanton addition after we had already developed a core set of characters. But when you get past the initial shock of a major character being added so late, its easy to see she will be probably be the most interesting, momentum carrying character moving forward.
I love Ben Mendelsohn as an actor(watch the 2013 movie Starred Up, he's absolutely incredible) but his character Ralph Anderson is an open, albeit complex and sad, book. He served as a great lens to introduce us to the mystery and town of Cherokee City, his own tragic loss of a child mirrors the murder story and makes his relationship to the murder even more compelling, but is he enough to carry the show through the next 7 episodes? I'd say not. That's why Holy Gibney, played by Cynthia Erivo, a stellar actress who shines in Harriet and is one of the few saving graces of Bad Times at the El Royale, is perfect. As opposed to Ralph Anderson she's a complete mystery and her own almost supernatural intelligence(skills? memory? second sight?) is as interesting as Terry Maitland's storyline in of itself. Holy Gibney is the type of momentum carrying character the could keep a show interesting for 7 episodes.
In the end the success of The Outsider will come from the way the plot choices pay off, not how they are originally introduced. For now I'm content to focus on the well done aspects of the show, like the characters, slowly building horror vibes and gritty aura, because I am choosing to believe that slightly empty, lost feeling the plot has right now is just because were at the beginning. With seasoned crime and horror writers like Richard Price( The Wire and The Night Of) and Dennis Lehane (The Wire, novels Mystic River and Shutter Island) working together to adapt the best recieved Stephen King novel in years, its hard to imagine that The Outsider is going anywhere from here but up.