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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Outsider plays possum in a devastating but uneven finale

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo
Photo: Bob Mahoney (HBO)
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The season finale of The Outsider contains a mid-credits scene, a first for the series. If you stopped watching the episode when the credits rolled, you’ll want to go back and watch that final scene before reading this review.

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It can’t possibly be that easy. That’s an idea familiar to anyone who loves stories. You’re nearing an end, if not the end, of something big, and some impossible task is accomplished efficiently. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult to do, or that it was handled badly. It was just too easy. Too much time left. Too few complications. There’s a second wave coming, a revival, a reckoning of some sort. It’s not over, and the reason you know that is it just doesn’t feel over. The worst has happened, but somehow something even worse is still to come.

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“Must/Can’t,” the superbly directed, liquidly tense conclusion to The Outsider’s strong first season, makes a lot of sense when viewed through the
“too easy” lens. It is, in effect, playing possum, just as its titular monster does when pierced by a falling stalactite. Not a bad approach for a series that seemed, until recently, to be headed toward a fixed ending. There’s that first death—a shotgun blast, a cave collapse, and a knife to the heart. Too easy. So then there’s a second death, more visceral, more definitive, more dramatic, the kind of death that ends a story. There’s even a monologue to go along with it, and a brief but terrifying glimpse of what lies ahead should that rock not fall. Yet even that doesn’t feel right. Still too easy.

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So is that the mark of an unsatisfying finale, or of a monster and a series playing possum?

I’m inclined to think it’s a little of both. This series—tense and introspective, always superbly acted and directed, with lots of room left for explorations of character and theme—has moved at what seems a glacial pace at times. Some of that is deliberate and it’s hard to deny its effectiveness, even if you were amongst those who got very impatient along the way; there’s no way that nod lands quite so hard if Ralph doesn’t stubbornly refuse to admit what his instinct already knows over and over and over again. The upside of that pace is that sometimes when things rocket forward—as they have in the preceding two episodes, and especially in the final 10 minutes of last week’s episode and the first 10 minutes of this one—it’s all the more jarring and surreal, a visceral, pulse-quickening experience that’s almost difficult to comprehend (or would be, were the direction less effective). But there’s a downside, too, and it’s that sometimes that quick pace results in scenes and stories that feel undercooked or half-hearted by comparison.

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This strikes me as the kind of finale—and while there’s no announcement yet, it sure seems likely to be a season rather than a series finale—that’s likely to sit with viewers, or at least with this viewer, over the next days and weeks. Is it unsatisfying, or is it satisfyingly unsatisfying, an intentionally unsettling experience designed to make you feel the way that the show’s music sounds, off-rhythm, atonal, disorienting as the sound in a vast cave? Whatever the case, it clearly aims to leave questions echoing throughout. Top of that list:

What do you mean, “Who’s Terry”?!

The two big holy-shit moments in this episode—the appearance of the two ghosts in the cave, and the jump-scare appearance of Jack Hoskins in the mid-credits scene, followed by that ominous scratch—have nothing on that two-word question. Those two developments can at least fit within the framework of the story as we understand it. In the latter case, it’s an indication that El Cuco is somehow still alive, reaching out to Holly using its creepy projection power; the scratch would suggest that it is going to attempt to adopt her face and mind, which is very bad news. There are some other things to consider, particularly the fact that she’s listening to music, which we’ve been told she does not do, and the show’s willingness to fold in dreams and leave reality a bit blurred, but it still seems pretty straightforward. An outsider knows an outsider, indeed.

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In the case of the former, it all becomes a little more clear when you look at those faces.

Illustration for article titled iThe Outsider/i plays possum in a devastating but uneven finale
Screenshot: HBO
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At first, I assumed these two figures were from the pack of rescuers lost in the mine or (though this makes less sense) were the two boys who were lost down there initially. But that is definitely Derek Anderson and Ollie Peterson, Ralph’s late son and Frankie Peterson’s late brother/Terry Maitland’s murderer, who Ralph himself shot dead. So keeping in mind that Ralph had been having dreams of both, and that the former in particular “spoke” to him, it makes perfect sense that he would understand that appearance to be an indication that the thing in the cave below still lived.

There’s still much to dissect in these sequences, more than we could ever get into in one of these reviews—for example, does Ralph leave a coat down there, and if so, that’s bad, right? But “Who’s Terry?” No idea. None. And that’s why I’m inclined to assume that this uneasy, unsettled feeling is intentional, rather than the result of slipshod pacing. There are many such small moments left dangling—really only the story of the Maitland family feels resolved, though Jeannie and Ralph have certainly reached a more peaceful place. Does it all work? Your mileage may vary; my milage is varying minute to minute.

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What’s absolutely certain is that the things that have been great about The Outsider all along remain great. Mendelsohn gets his very best scene of the series, and it’s his very last, managing to turn a laugh into a sob or a sob into a laugh. Whatever it is, it’s great. Erivo remains excellent, particularly in the cave. Director Andrew Bernstein manages to be both ruthless, as with all of Jack’s stray bullets hitting poor Alec’s corpse over and over again, and elegant, as with his totally disorienting cave-searching montage. Price’s teleplay offers only the barest moments in which to breathe. And while the whole cast is great, it’s particularly satisfying to watch Paddy Considine at long last get to play both versions of Claude Bolton at once. He does not disappoint.

For those hoping to a definitive ending (like, say, the one in the book), it’s possible that “Must/Can’t” will prove frustrating. But maybe frustrating is the point. As Jeannie and Ralph sit on the bench in front of their son’s grave, he tells her what the Outsider’s version of Derek Anderson said to him. “Let him go?” she asks, incredulous because there’s no way that’s happening. It’s not that easy, and some things, for better or worse, never, ever go away.

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Stray observations

  • “Motherrrrr nature!”
  • Lots of creepy stuff with drool and drippiness this episode.
  • “Damn you to hell,” Holly bellows to Jack, and it’s enough to make him stop—is that too easy, or is that an indication of some other force at work in her? 
  • Not to be morbid, but... wouldn’t Andy have needed a closed-casket funeral?
  • A nice detail: looked like the D.A.’s office was in the process of being packed up.
  • An interesting pre-cliffhanger fakeout comes when Ralph asks Holly what else is out there and she smiles and shrugs, indicating that what’s unknown can be wonderful. Leads nicely into that final scene with the Andersons.
  • Thanks for reading along this season! If the show returns, hopefully these recaps will too. Until then, feel free to find me on Twitter and we can discuss whatever the hell “Who’s Terry?” meant.
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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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