Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

No, The Outsider hasn’t stalled—its protagonist just refuses to keep up

Ben Mendelsohn
Ben Mendelsohn
Screenshot: HBO
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Here’s the difference between you and me. You need this whole thing to make some kind of sense that you can live with. I just want it to end.

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Until this week, The Outsider’s pace has been slow in the way that a predator’s pace is slow. It’s not a sloth, it’s something that stalks. This week, that changed. This week, Ralph Anderson is rubbish in the road, some torn-off fender or piece of abandoned detritus on the side of a highway while the story races by. And that’s bad for Ralph, but it’s worse for everyone else, because sometimes that rubbish winds up in traffic, and when what happens, nothing good follows.

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It would be easy to watch “In The Pines, In The Pines” and think that The Outsider has stalled somehow. After all, Ralph ignoring his instincts and stubbornly refusing to accept that something is very wrong has been an ongoing focus of the show since its first hour, and it’s only gotten more prevalent with time. And here we are again, stuck with Ralph, who keeps walking right up to the things that nearly everyone has on some level accepted to be true and saying, “Nope, this can’t be it.” But that’s precisely the point. The Outsider has accelerated, keeps accelerating, but Ralph is stuck, and it’s no longer just something he can work out on his own. He’s in the road now, and everyone knows it, himself included.

One of the tensest hours of a very tense series, Dennis Lehane’s excellent “In The Pines, In The Pines” shows us all the many ways that its characters are stuck. They are, nearly all of them, like that bug on its back, unable to turn over and save itself. Holly is, of course, physically stuck, as she’s essentially a prisoner in her own car for the first half of the episode—though watching her save her own ass when no one else has any idea what to do is incredibly gratifying. But she’s also being held back by Ralph and his too-big polo shirts and petulant grimaces, a man throwing tough-guy tantrums because he simply can’t accept this monstrous impossibility. The scene in which she and Jeannie attempt to penetrate his thick skull—not the first people to make such an attempt in this hour, though certainly the most direct—is both a highlight and pressure valve there for the audience to open, a cathartic moment that allows you to feel like you’ve bellowed alongside Holly and laid down the law with Jeannie. It’s a scene that says we’re all on the same page: Yes, Ralph Anderson needs to get his shit together.

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Yunis and Alec have scenes with Ralph of a similar tone, and Alec has one with Howard, though they’re not quite so visceral. Alec even tells a story about being lost in the woods, stuck for hours waiting to be found. Ralph’s reaction is to immediately deny his experience, to say the thing that surely every adult Alex encountered said at the time, not out of comfort but defensively. It’s the verbal equivalent of his decision to settle obstinately into the chair in the backyard of the Anderson house—a chair Jeannie’s stuck with until garbage day, unless Ralph can get it together to get rid of it sooner. And the story is one he’s told on the way to a crime scene he insists is less clear cut than it might be, and a crime he refuses to admit he understands.

“Well, a car pulled out,” he tells Alec. “We can’t be sure whose.” And sure, that’s sort of true, but it’s also useless. As nearly everyone else gets on board (Howard still seems to be in Ralph’s camp, while Glory has quite a lot going on at the moment), Ralph’s still claiming to chase what he called “dumb cop shit” last week, all the while ignoring or refusing to see all the stuff that’s right in front of his face. He is, as the still at the top of this story suggests, several rooms away. And that’s a problem, because the other two people who are well and truly stuck—one through no fault of her own, the other due at least in part to his own choices—are in peril, and the latter is a terrible danger to others, as well as himself

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No, you don’t get to do this anymore, Ralph,” Jeannie says, and she’s right, and if his late-night visit to his psychiatrist is any indication, he knows she’s right. But it may be too little, too late. Julianne Nicholson continues to stand out in a cast full of standouts (something that’s true of all three of the female performers in the regular cast, actually), but Glory actually does manage to flip herself over, or at least begin the process; she realizes that leaving the home in which she raised her kids is a line she won’t cross, and it’s that realization that pushes her to demand compensation from the institutions that failed her and her family.

But if this is an hour about how stuck Ralph is, then it’s also an hour about this guy:

Illustration for article titled No, iThe Outsider /ihasn’t stalled—its protagonist just refuses to keep up
Screenshot: HBO
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Illustration for article titled No, iThe Outsider /ihasn’t stalled—its protagonist just refuses to keep up
Screenshot: HBO

“How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb?” Jack asks Holly, partway through a kidnapping that’s also a plea for help. But it’s Ralph, not Jack, that winds up at his therapists house, demonstrating that the lightbulb really does want to change. Jack winds up on his back in the pines, in the pines, before hitching a ride to some desolate place unknown, there to carry out some dark deed for the force he can’t shake off, even with death. And while he may not have managed to carry out his attack on the only person who seems to stand a chance of freeing him, he still does some damage, as the episode’s final moments show. Jack may not be flat on his back in the woods in a literal sense anymore, but he’s flat on his back in every sense that matters—a guy who, yes, is being tortured by the dark entity, but whose best efforts to get away are every bit as feeble as the kicks of those spindly legs.

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Stray observations

  • I’m guessing the title is pulled from this folk song/murder ballad.
  • The direction of this episode is really stellar. The slow pull back to reveal the missing chair is terrific, as are all the scenes in the car.
  • Andy’s in town! I admit I was really on the fence about that character and romance but I am now fully on board. Holly Gibney deserves some happiness, we must protect Andy the former detective at all costs.
  • The staging of the showing of the house was exquisite. I couldn’t quite place what was wrong at first until she called them out, but the couple aren’t even looking around the rooms. Great stuff.
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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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