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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Cynthia Erivo, Max Beesley
Cynthia Erivo, Max Beesley
Photo: Bob Mahoney (HBO)
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Y’all are thinking, yeah, we got this thing now. It’s in the cave, waiting. But maybe it’s waiting for you.

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The penultimate episode of The Outsider presents a particular kind of challenge for a reviewer. It’s a quietly but sometimes unbearably tense hour—a balloon that’s filled with air until it reaches capacity, but still the air keeps coming. It is, like all the hours that have preceded it, well worthy of discussion and dissection. There’s great writing and direction (from Dennis Lehane and Charlotte Brändström respectively), terrific acting, a surprising structure, some compelling ideas, a fiendish commitment to keep the intensity slowly building in tiny, insidious ways, that moody score, some beautiful and effective cinematography, the list goes on. The challenge, then, is this: How, how, how is anyone supposed to write about anything other than the final 10 minutes?

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“Tense” has been the go-to adjective for this show since the very beginning, but not since “Roanoke” has Richard Price’s series managed to so effectively weaponized that tension. “Tigers And Bears” begins with what would, in other circumstances, seem like a peaceful, even pastoral scene: two brothers playing flashlight tag and messing around in the woods, racing past sleepy cows in pursuit of adventure. But it also begins with misdirection and fear, two moves designed to put the viewer in a bit of a state: We begin by seeing a child run through a barn alone, which immediately calls to mind the bar in which Jack Hoskins had his first brush with his new overlord; after it’s revealed that no, it’s just two kids playing with flashlights, we listen to some happy music and watch them scamper about, only to hear the music turn a corner, a surefire indication that not all will be well. That’s how it begins, with a reminder of the darkness and a promise of pain to come.

The darkness comes, and so does the pain. But first comes more of that tension, small moments laced throughout nearly every scene. Jeannie nearly hits a jogger with her car while listening to Ralph talk about the state of the investigation, a tiny burst of undiluted terror. Seale Bolton purposefully needles everyone in his home, offering a steady supply of passive-aggression (and sometimes just plain old aggression). In the flashback sequences that follow the disappearance of those two adventurous kids, we hear the occasional crumbling rock, the odd shout that rings too loud and too long in the massive, unstable caverns. A snake moves slowly and gracefully just outside Jack’s field of vision. Ralph lies to a child about the danger he escaped not long before Seale, off-camera, dooms at least some of them to a bullet. Seale loads a gun in a moving car (Bill Camp makes Howard’s concern almost funny). There’s even talk of a global pandemic, followed by Grandpa Mike’s concern that the man in the Foxhead mask might have had some crazy disease, and that’s why the cops are asking about scratches. With the exception of the odd sweet Andy and Holly moment and one lovely sequence in which Bill Camp’s Howard absolutely falls in love with a piece of fried chicken, every scene is laced through with either the possibility of catastrophe or evidence of an unbearable status quo.

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It’s all pretty great, and while it may not rocket forward at a lightning pace—at least, it doesn’t seem to, but that’s another trick—it’s certainly eventful. But when Seale at last boils over, something he’s been promising to do since the moment the character was introduced, the episode shifts from tense-and-eventful to oh-holy-fuck-here-we-go.

Brändström’s direction of that last 10 minutes is masterful. She shows us what Seale’s about to do before he does it, when he glances over at Claude’s stirring form; we hear the aftermath from the kitchen, where Howard’s having one last piece of fried chicken. We watch as Claude’s panic grows, as Seale slowly realizes what he’s done. Paddy Considine pulls double-duty, showing us Claude’s despair and the Outsider’s predatory readiness in the same montage. Suddenly they’re racing toward the cave, and us along with them; everything that happens from then is designed to make it all that much worse, especially that brief interlude of sweetness with Andy and Holly. The snake slithers. The man chugs whiskey. A band of brave, determined people arrive at a place disaster struck decades ago, and Brändström reminds us about the dozens of bodies sealed beneath the concrete:

Illustration for article titled A terrifying cliffhanger breaks iThe Outsider /iwide open
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Illustration for article titled A terrifying cliffhanger breaks iThe Outsider /iwide open

The brave souls pick up guns they don’t plan to use and calmly ready themselves. The lone man peers through his sights, waiting for the right shot, and then he fires, and a head comes apart.

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Almost any other show would have cut to black with his finger on the trigger, but Brändström throws us into the chaos before pulling the plug. Alec’s skull bursts like that too-full ballon (Jeremy Bobb, you were great, good job). Blood hits Ralph’s face, and Ben Mendelsohn shows incredible restraint, playing not shock or horror but blankness, because it is happening too fast, because it shouldn’t be happening at all, because how else do you respond when a human head disappears? And then Brändström pulls her cruelest trick in an episode full of them: In the moment after Ralph realizes what’s happening and begins to throw himself to the ground, the screen finally cuts to black, and we hear shot after shot after shot, left to imagine what’s happening with the help of the horrifying image that moments before she so helpfully supplied.

Those 10 minutes or so stand apart, but they are an inexorable destination, not an unexpected twist. Expect the worst, this episode promises over and over again, and then the worst happens. It tells us that things will end badly, and yet it’s still shocking when that prediction comes true. What a monstrous cliffhanger—a brutal ending to a brutal episode, with a brutal finale on the horizon.

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Stray observations

  • The section of the novel that corresponds to those final 10 minutes is also pretty terrifying, but Lehane adds a compelling wrinkle by making it the direct result of Seale spilling the beans (Seale isn’t in the book, and no one spills the beans at all). Adds just that much more intensity, and makes up for the absence of Claude’s amazing mother.
  • The teaser for next week’s episode is so well-constructed.. Makes it clear that Holly and Ralph both survive, but that was inevitable; also manages to show many tantalizing/terrifying glimpses without giving too much away. (My guess is that Andy, Seale, and maybe Howard are doomed, with either Claude and/or Yunis surviving at least the initial attack.)
  • Another interesting note about that preview: It calls the next episode the season finale, not the series finale. My impression was that this was meant to be a miniseries, and I have no idea where it would go next, but that does seem intentionally open-ended, no?
  • The Jeannie/Glory friendship is a fascinating little throughline in the show.
  • See you next week for the finale!
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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves television, bourbon, and dramatically overanalyzing social interactions.

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