Television

In The Outsider, a Small-Town Murder Leads to a Terrifying Evil

It’s a horror show dressed up as a detective show, or maybe the other way around.

Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo
Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo in HBO’s The Outsider.
Bob Mahoney/HBO

HBO’s The Outsider, a darkly engrossing 10-part series based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel of the same name and adapted for television by Richard Price, is a horror show dressed up as a detective show, or maybe the other way around. Like the book on which it’s based, it’s both a whodunit that confounds all rationality and a ghost story that unfolds like a police procedural. It likely won’t be for everyone: The series’ first two hours, in particular, are almost unbearably bleak, and its deliberate pacing and austere visual style lack the more sensationalist and showier trappings of noir-ish HBO hits like True Detective and Sharp Objects. But for those who stick with it—and you should—The Outsider offers terrific performances, beguiling yet careful storytelling, and no shortage of genuinely terrifying moments.

It’s hard to describe the plot of The Outsider without giving away too many of the story’s twists and turns, which come early and often. A young boy is found brutally murdered in a small Georgia town; a suspect, the (formerly) beloved and squeaky-clean schoolteacher and Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), is quickly identified and arrested, behind a pile of evidence so formidable and incontrovertible that its sheer abundance prompts murmurs of incredulity, even among the folks who’ve just arrested him. These murmurs rise to a roar when a similarly enormous pile of evidence accrues that seems to exonerate Terry completely, placing him many miles away from the scene of the crime at the very moment it apparently occurred. Is Terry Maitland a closet psychopath of unfathomable depravity, or the world’s most unlikely patsy? Alternately, and more distressingly, could one man have been in two places at once?

All of this happens within the show’s first hour, meaning that right away The Outsider announces itself as somewhat unusual: a murder mystery that begins with an arrest. As the series goes on, it transforms into the story of two dogged and mismatched investigators, police detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) and private eye Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), both of whom are out to find the truth behind a growing number of gruesome killings that increasingly come to appear mysteriously interconnected. The scope of events grows wider and weirder, a spiral of mistaken identities and collateral damage whose incomprehensibility makes it all the more devastating.

The Outsider was published in 2018, and ranks among the best of King’s post-“retirement” works. I read the novel while on a summer vacation at a national park and became so hooked that I had to repeatedly remind myself to put the thing down and go enjoy the outdoors. It’s not all that surprising that Price, a terrific novelist in his own right who’s been a frequent presence at HBO going back to The Wire, has delivered one of the more satisfying King adaptations in recent years. As a screenwriter, Price has a keen understanding of the narrative possibilities of episodic television, and from a tonal and storytelling standpoint The Outsider often recalls his terrific 2016 series The Night Of. Whenever the action feels on the verge of dragging, or plotlines threaten to become opaque, Price pulls his pieces back into line. King adaptations have often run aground when filmmakers focus too heavily on premise at the expense of characters and atmosphere, two of the author’s most underrated strengths. The Outsider’s relative sprawl—10 hours to tackle a nearly 600-page book—affords unusual leeway and breathing room, which Price exploits with intelligence and deft creativity.

It also helps that the cast is uniformly excellent. Bateman excels at affable everymen with a shade of darkness right beneath the surface, a great fit for a character who is either entirely innocent or entirely guilty. (Bateman also executive produced and directed the first two episodes.) Mendelsohn, frequently cast as a heavy in blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises and Rogue One, plays against type here as a haggard protagonist who, along with his wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), is no stranger to unspeakable tragedy. His caustic demeanor and gnarled edges fit snugly within the show’s world, particularly during its early going, when we’re distinctly unsure of whose side we should be on.

The strongest performance is Erivo’s. Holly Gibney has been a recurring figure in some of King’s recent books, a dogged, neuroatypical investigator drawn to the apparently inexplicable. It’s the sort of character that could easily lend itself to scenery chewing, but Erivo brings an understated warmth to the role, eschewing histrionics for cool intelligence and sharp wit. The equation of certain mental conditions with quasi-magical problem-solving abilities is one of TV and film’s most irksome clichés, but the nuance, interiority, and shading that Erivo brings to her performance allows Gibney to avoid falling into exoticizing, ableist fantasy. In a world stalked by loss, anger, and alienation, she is the character most concerned with connection, in several senses.

The Outsider might be a tad too dark and too weird to become HBO’s next breakout hit, but for a January watch it’s both fittingly chilling and cozily seductive—not unlike curling up with a good book. So who, or what, is the titular “outsider?” I’m still not sure I can say, and certainly wouldn’t do so here even if I could. King is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal and outspoken critic of the current president, and it’s tempting to extract a political message from this tale of a malevolent force that plays on fear and deception, unleashing people’s worst natures on both others and themselves. But both the book and the show resist easy allegory, turning instead to something more timeless and universal, and thus potentially all the more terrifying. It’s a move that thrusts the story into certain familiar areas of King’s oeuvre, while also extracting a rich irony from the title. Whatever this evil is, it’s further inside than we’d care to admit.