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Other than the demons and such, Rome is meant to depict, to a certain extent, your average American small town. It’s clearly a close-knit community, one with religious values that run deep, and a sense that everyone knows each other and is willing to help each other out. It’s idyllic, in a sense, at least at first glance. But there’s evil lurking everywhere. There’s animals nailed to posts out in the woods. There’s a man in black practically floating through the town, all menace and dread. Then there are all the exorcisms. Reverend Anderson has dedicated his life to removing demons from the people of Rome, but ever since Kyle Barnes came back to town, the success of that work has been called into question.

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The slow reveal that Anderson’s previous exorcisms have been unsuccessful is just one of the plot points contributing to one of Outcast’s more pointed thematic explorations, which is just how quickly violence and trauma can change our lives. Yes, “The Road Before Us” is largely about Kyle trying to prove that many of the demons are still out there while the Reverend attempts to prove him wrong, but at the heart of the episode is something more chilling and real. “The Road Before Us” is about the disruption of normalcy, and how no matter how well we understand the world we live in, that understanding can be challenged and destroyed in a moment’s notice.

Consider that for most of the episode Reverend Anderson is set on showing Kyle that all of his previous possession cases have now returned to some semblance of normal behavior. Despite the fact that he doesn’t actually know how the cases turned out post-exorcism, he’s so confident in his worldview that he can’t even imagine another possibility. To do so would be to acknowledge that the evil he’s seen is more powerful and widespread than he thought. As much as the Reverend is seeking to help these people return to normal, he’s also doing it to prove that his own worldview, where good conquers evil and that evil stays conquered, is correct, that his own normalcy remains intact.

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But, as he soon finds out, there is no semblance of normalcy for those who’ve been affected by trauma. First, Kyle and Anderson visit a man whose daughter was possessed. Anderson presumes all is well and that the girl is away at college, considering her age. Her father proves otherwise, saying she’s living on the streets in Charleston and that he hasn’t heard from her in months. There’s despair and hopelessness in his voice, but again, Anderson is eager to prove that this is an outlier, that this doesn’t happen with every case. So, they visit another man who Anderson helped. He’s living in his pet store because his wife got the house in the divorce, and as Kyle touches him, it becomes clear he’s still possessed. This forces Anderson to confront an uncomfortable truth: his work, while perhaps noble, only provides so much comfort.

Again, the horror in “The Road Before Us” doesn’t necessarily come from the demons, but from the idea that violence is ever present, that our comfort and complacency can disappear in a matter of minutes. It’s no coincidence that when Allison shows up on Kyle’s porch at the end of the episode, begging Kyle to explain what happened the night she ended up in the hospital, she laments the fact that her whole relationship with Kyle would be perfect if she could only get rid of the 10 minutes that it wasn’t. That small window is what’s frightening; comfort and safety is fleeting, and it only takes a moment to change everything.

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So, while the acts of violence, both big and small, are themselves traumatic—from possessions to divorce to abuse—it’s the sudden disruption of normalcy that haunts these characters. Allison believes she can perhaps understand what happened that night if Kyle can explain it, but she’ll never be able to comprehend just how quickly and inexplicably her life can change. The same can be said of the man whose daughter Kyle and Anderson find in the streets of Charleston and are unable to save—well, Anderson believes they saved her soul, but Kyle only sees another “vegetable” like his mother—or the divorcee who’s living in squalor alongside dying pets. One’s comfort and safety, and the worldview that allows them to feel that comfort and safety, can be compromised in mere moments, and the uncertainty of when and how it will happen is what’s most terrifying.

“The Road Before Us,” smartly plays with that fear not just in the character moments, but also in the visuals. There’s the trail of red paint that looks like blood leading into Amber’s room, followed by the similarity drawn between Amber locking herself in her closet and Kyle being locked away in the pantry as a child. There’s Mildred gently chiding Sidney for criticizing how humans focus on projecting an identity while he himself is “dressed like that.” There’s the way the show holds back on its central mysteries—what’s the Merge? Why does that man’s daughter refer to Kyle as “the King”?—in order to amplify the uncertainty. “The Road Before Us” is manipulative in the sense that it toys with our fear of the inexplicable. This is horror TV though, and manipulation this confident and nuanced is exactly what you want.

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Stray observations

  • I still don’t have too many thoughts on the unraveling case of the camper fire. Reg E. Cathey and David Denman are doing good work, but the whole investigation remains more of a distraction from the main plot than anything else. It’s the one part of the show that could benefit from a little less mystery and a little more explanation and focus.
  • I’ll take more scenes with only Brent Spiner and Grace Zabriskie, please.
  • So it appears that Allison isn’t possessed anymore, but I’m not about to suggest that Outcast won’t throw another curveball in there.

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