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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Outsider introduces Holly Gibney in a meditative, muscular hour

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo
Screenshot: HBO
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“You said, ‘If it’s a myth.’”

“Yes I did.”

“Because I have no tolerance for the unexplainable.”

In its quiet (until it’s not) third hour, The Outsider concerns itself with the inexplicable, yes. But it also remains focused on the all-too-explicable, and the incomprehensible ordinariness of such things. A grief you can’t survive, but do. Love that inflicts pain, unable to see or comprehend how much it hurts as it tries to help. Even seemingly supernatural elements have ties to day-to-day enormities. How do you convince a grieving kid that the monster in her room isn’t real without making her feel you don’t believe her? How do you go about doing the right thing when it’s also the wrong thing? And how the hell do you make yourself believe the creeping, dreadful, impossible thing, when you know it’s likely to change everything, forever?

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Perhaps it’s odd to call an episode that begins with a barn full of mysterious semen-and-bag-balm-esque goo and ends with a man slitting his own throat with a sharpened lens from a treasured pair of glasses ‘quiet’ or ‘meditative,’ but here we are: It is. “Dark Uncle” exists in both the odd shrieks of that goo-barn and in the silent shadow that falls across a little girl; it’s Holly Gibney flatly refusing to take on clients without a swastika-check and the same woman pausing, hand on the railing, silent, as she slips away upstairs.

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Dread comes at all volumes, from the shrieking strings of the Psycho score to a too-quiet night when the crickets all stop chirping as one. And dread is what connects this episode to its two excellent predecessors. If this is a slight step down, it’s only because there’s a widening of focus that’s necessary and welcome, but which also unavoidably lets some of the air out of the balloon—something definitely true of the unsettling prison sequences, which while effective, may confuse those who haven’t read the Stephen King novel on which this series is based. Yet when the rest is so good, and so, so full of dread, it’s hard to dwell on any little missteps—and though the scary stuff is great, the human stuff is even better.

Enter Cynthia Erivo’s Holly Gibney, a top-notch investigator, full-tilt oddball, and a woman who, as she explains in a Chicago bar to Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) and Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), is herself inexplicable. (She’s also, in this writer’s opinion, one of King’s best characters, not just of recent years, but ever.) Our introduction to Holly comes a few scenes earlier, before Alec calls her and asks if she can help them look into the increasingly important Ohio piece of the Maitland puzzle; she’s immediately interesting, naming the make and model of each car as we hear it whoosh by, surrounded by small collections and a little altar of her own making. But Holly gets really compelling when she’s challenged, either by her task or by those she encounters, and both happen here.

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Holly, Alec, and Ralph’s conversation in the bar—one of several top-notch scenes in this excellent episode—gives Holly a chance to demonstrate her gifts, reveals her difficulty in social situations, and prompts her to get into who she is and what she’s endured. She, herself, is inexplicable; she’s another challenge to a world Ralph already has trouble comprehending. Who can explain why a child would get cancer? Who can explain what would make someone mutilate and brutalize a little boy? How could Terry Maitland have been at two places at once? Holly may accept the possibility of the impossible, but she also rejects what doesn’t fit into her world. In her, it results in quiet and isolation. In Ralph, a relentless need to work and, as we see in a beautifully directed, deeply upsetting flashback, a need to throw himself into the middle of the odd bar fight.

There are a few other great scenes and none you’d call bad or even mediocre; sure, the structure may be a bit odd, but again, it’s hard to care when you’ve got Jeannie (Mare Winningham) and Ralph laughing at the sad absurdity of asking “How was your day,” or Ralph comparing therapy to interrogation, or Jeannie and Glory (Julianne Nicholson) talking about leprechauns and grief in her living room, or Holly gripping that handrail and then going about her business. Incomprehendingly, life continues, with or without Play-Doh men with changing faces and fingerprints that look as though they belong to an elderly person.

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The thread that’s least successful here is the one centered on Jack (Marc Menchaca) and his mystery sunburn. It’s definitely creepy, and Price and Menchaca do a great job of making clear precisely what a dick he is (“song of the humpback whale”) but it’s hard to really engage with him at any level, even just as a villain. Some of that’s because his scenes are so dimly lit, some of it’s because the camera spends so much time on his neck, and some is that is just that there’s not much there yet. Does it greatly diminish this episode? Absolutely not. Will it, if it doesn’t get more textured, or at least scarier?

“Fuck if I know.”

Stray observations

  • While it would have brought me much joy, they definitely couldn’t have called this episode “fetch.” “Dark Uncle” is a decent substitute.
  • “The Egyptians call it a ‘ka.’”
  • Since I’ve read the book, it’s impossible for me to gauge what those of you who haven’t will make of the in-prison subplot this week, but I’d love to know what you made of it.
  • The still that’s up there in the review-grade seems like a clever piece of foreshadowing to me. Remind me in six weeks and I’ll explain.
  • The score is so good, it’s low-key stomach-churning.
  • Director Andrew Bernstein replicates the slow, steady, dread-inducing energy Jason Bateman conjured in the first two hours, though his tendency to do tight close-ups on physical objects got a little overwhelming.
  • In Mr. Mercedes, Holly Gibney is played by Succession’s Justine Lupe, who is every bit as good as Erivo in her early outings and just gets better as the show progresses. But the two are very different, unavoidably so. When we get to the end of the season, I’ll dig into the differences, but won’t spoil anything for non-book readers here. For now, here’s Richard Price at the Television Critics Association press tour a few days ago:

I’ve never seen Mr. Mercedes. I’ve never read Mr. Mercedes. I have to create this character, and I didn’t want to be beholden to something that has nothing to do with The Outsider even though it’s a continuation of a character. With King’s blessing, I just made the character mine; not the Holly even in the novel The Outsider. I just wanted to do my thing... Just forget, forget everything you knew about Holly. That that was that Holly. This is my Holly. And I asked King if I could at least change her name, just to make more of a separation, and the only thing he ever said in terms of a directive to me was just keep the name Holly Gibney. I said, “Fine.”

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Contributor, The A.V. Club and The Takeout. Allison loves TV, bourbon, and overanalyzing social interactions. Please buy her book, How TV Can Make You Smarter (Chronicle, 2020). It’s short!

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