This post contains major spoilers for the new HBO series The Outsider.
What’s the most terrifying thing in the world? Answers will vary. Fear is the most subjective emotion there is, a projection of what rots at the core of our subconscious. For some, it’s ghouls and monsters that haunt. For others, it’s more existential concepts: loss, murder, the afterlife. No matter its manifestation, fear is a collective experience. We all know it, and we all know how to survive it–in one way or another. But what if you couldn’t escape that fear, no matter where you turned? What if it followed you like a shadow or twin? That’s the idea behind HBO’s newest crime series, The Outsider, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King.
If there’s one name synonymous with cultural fear, it’s King, whose made a career of translating nightmares to page. He tackled the death of a child in Pet Sematary, small town vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, a haunted hotel in The Shining. But The Outsider reconciles with something less particular. Something amorphous and impossible to understand. It asks the question: What if you were forensically guilty of a crime you know you didn’t commit?
The Outsider follows the murder of Frankie Peterson, whose mutilated and sodomized body is uncovered in the show’s opening moments. Local Cherokee City, Georgia police detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) has a seemingly easy case on his hand: eyewitnesses spotted little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) with the boy shortly before his death, and Maitland’s DNA is found at the scene of the crime. In a show of anger, Anderson—whose late son Maitland coached—has the coach arrested at a game in front of his family and half the town. It’s a move that incriminates Maitland beyond just the obvious; it turns the case into a spectacle and the Matiland family into pariahs.
But there’s more to this crime than initially meets the eye. Maitland professes his innocence, and soon a very curious piece of counter-evidence arrives: A videotape of Maitland at a teachers’ conference in a different town at the exact time of Peterson’s death. And his fingerprints on the spine of a book at a shop in the same town. How could this man be in two places at once? Is someone framing him, or–because this is a Stephen King story–is there something supernatural in store?
I haven’t read the book so I have no idea where the story is headed, and so I am left–with other non-readers–with a lot of big questions and plenty of malaise. There is something surrealist and uncomfortable about The Outsider, from the undulating score that mimics anxiety and dread, to the muted colors that blanch the Georgia setting into a bleakly hellish habitat. Everything feels off. The fabric of our reality is called into question. Before every bad thing happens, we spot a man in a melted face mask on the scene and in the background, haunting the town, the crime, and us.
The first two episodes of the series–“Fish In A Barrel” and “Roanoke,” both directed by Jason Bateman–premiered this week, and wisely so. While captivating, “Fish In A Barrel” felt a little familiar; crime procedurals are a dime a dozen these days, and the small-town murder of a kid–while horrific–is standard as far as these things go. Even the central mystery could have a simple explanation: Someone who looks like Terry Maitland framed him, possibly a twin. But “Roanoke” flipped the entire premise on its head in its opening sequence, when the victim’s brother shoots Maitland dead ahead of his trial. The teenager is promptly killed by Anderson. Suddenly, the show isn’t about Maitland’s own moral quandary, but is instead a dissection of Anderson’s guilt and a look at how accusations rot and malign a family.
Add to that a mysterious van that followed the Maitland family from a recent trip to Ohio, the dissolution of Frankie Peterson’s entire family (his mother dies from a stress-induced heart attack and his father attempts suicide), and a “bad man” haunting Terry’s youngest daughter at night in what is either a dream or a visitation, and you have a classic horror story. That it’s mapped onto a crime procedural only adds to its insidiousness. The horror of The Outsider is inescapable, even in death. No matter what happened to Frankie Peterson–if he was murdered by a ghost, a clone, a monster, a doppelgänger, or Maitland himself–it hardly matters. The Maitlands are cursed, Anderson is haunted, and circumstance and actions have incriminated and enveloped an entire community.
The result is the scariest Stephen King adaptation in years–possibly ever. Because it’s about the terror of the mundane. The monsters we make. The shadow of death that comes for every family. In “Roanoke,” District Attorney Bill Samuels (Michael Esper) recalls the events of a mysterious case that gives the episode its title”
“1587, Roanoke Colony, North Carolina. Close to 200 people living there when the governor sailed back to England to get more supplies, and when he returned, they vanished. Not a soul and clue as to what happened. I mean, here we are, four centuries later, we still can’t figure it out. So it is with Terry Maitland. Is there a mystery here? Yes. Will there always be unanswered questions? Most likely. Sometimes that happens and when it does you just need to learn to live with it and move on.”
It’s learning to live with the inexplicable that’s the scariest thing of all. It’s how we survive, but it can also drive us insane in the quest for solution. The Outsider may provide us with all the answers we seek. Or it may, eventually, be about making peace with the lack of resolution. Whatever road it takes, we’re in for a grueling treat. Maybe we’ll learn something along the way, too.
Featured Image: HBO