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Marc Menchaca
Screenshot: HBO
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“The One About The Yiddish Vampire” is, for the most part, a great episode of The Outsider. It’s brilliantly structured, slowly drawing the players together for one scene at the mid-point of the episode; then it sends them spiraling away from that moment, reeling from what they learn or refuse to consider. It’s about “dumb cop shit,” but also (as all of this show has been) about grief, and about fear. As directed by Karyn Kusama, it’s a tense, taut, quiet thing, but somehow accelerates even in its moments of stillness. With the possible exception of that remarkable series-opener, it could—almost—be the strongest in the series so far.

But then that ridiculous jump happened.

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The trouble with reviewing a TV show one episode at a time is that what seems like a misstep could just be the beginning of a piece of the story we haven’t seen yet, so it’s totally possible that the spectral or projected appearance of Jack’s mother (Denny Dillon) is tied to something we’ve yet to learn about the way the “malevolent entity” operates. Perhaps learns not just what you fear or what moves you, but which stories have spooked you in the past, and Jack (Marc Menchaca) has a thing about vampire movies or exorcism stories, anything in which an evil being would make a jump exactly like that one. Maybe that’s why the words are written in blood on the back of his hands. Maybe The Outsider/The Play-Doh-Faced Man/El Cuco learns not just what you fear, but the way the stories you fear are told.

Or maybe it’s just a really strange, dopey, silly moment, flying through the air, straight at us.

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I don’t want to spend too much time on that weird moment—look for more about it soon, from The A.V. Club’s own Randall Colburn—but it’s impossible to review this otherwise excellent hour without acknowledging the bizarre tonal shift. It’s as though it belongs in another story entirely, or perhaps if the story of The Outsider was happening to these people in real life, a bad dramatization. It’s unfortunate because as mentioned above, everything that comes before and after is so strong. There’s not a moment wasted. Then, bam: flying ghost-mom, invisible ass-kicking, like a really morose, extremely bloody version of that scene in Liar, Liar where Jim Carrey beats himself up in the bathroom.

It is, because Jack is a cop and the flying mom is just a little bit stupid, dumb cop shit—but it’s not “dumb cop shit.” (How’s that for a segue?) That’s the work that Ralph insists he’ll do to catch the uncatchable, unknowable, but in his mind, 100 percent human person that pulled off these staggering and baffling murders. Facts, evidence, all the rocks he hasn’t yet turned over. “The One About The Yiddish Vampire” takes its title from a joke Howard tells, one meant to convey not only skepticism but disdain for the ideas Holly shares in her meeting and those who choose to even briefly entertain them. The vampire walks into a bar, his target holds up a crucifix, and the vampire responds, in Hebrew, that such a silly thing will never help. But Holly and Jeannie, and to a lesser extent Yunis and Alec, are also doing dumb cop shit—they’ve just removed their certainty about what’s possible on this earth. So, in a very different sense, is Glory. It’s mostly just Ralph who isn’t doing the dumb cop shit.

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Ben Mendelsohn does brilliant work in this episode, capturing how doggedly Ralph refuses to do the very work he claims is essential in seemingly infinite microexpressions—a tightening of the lips, a tensing of the jaw, a tiny movement of the eyes, all indicating refusal, dismissal, deception. In the brilliant scene in the prison with Jason Bateman at the top of episode two, Mendelsohn shows us that Ralph knows, in some small, primal way, that something is very wrong; it’s the reason he makes the trip in the first place. But now he’s not just ignoring his own instincts, which seem to be screaming at him from the pit of his stomach. He’s also ignoring the dumb cop shit. Facts. Evidence. Dreams can’t move chairs, so there’s no point in checking for fingerprints. So a boy draws a face, and a woman—his wife—draws a face, and they’re the same nightmare face—a dream and a stranger in a parking lot cannot be the same. The boy, his wife, Holly, and the evidence all say one thing, and because that thing is impossible, the dumb cop shit comes to a halt. Ralph is not looking under rocks. He is staring, as hard as he can, in the opposite direction, because it’s his only option.

It should be impossible, so it must be. All the actors in that pivotal meeting scene, right at the episode’s halfway point, do a great job of conveying that tension. You can see on the faces of Yul Vazquez and Jeremy Bobb, as well as those of Mare Winningham and Cynthia Erivo, that they can see how the pieces fit together, even if they don’t want to believe that they do. Alec and Yunis don’t jump in with both feet like Jeannie and Holly do, but that sense is there all the same. Vasquez is particularly great—his words are noncommittal, but he lets those eyes of his tell a totally different story—that some part of Yunis knows, the second she says El Cuco, that she’s right. It looks like madness from the outside, but it all also suddenly becomes easier. And while we may not see much of Howard’s reaction beyond the stormy exit and the joke, we watch as Ralph has to work harder and harder to keep that face turned in the opposite direction, to keep it all in the realm of the sane, to leave that dreamland visit from his son alone, to deny what it must really be.

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To lump Glory (Julianne Nicholson) in with Holly and Jeannie might seem strange, but she’s also taking the big step of accepting the impossible as possible. She looks at a watch, and smells a shirt, and then suddenly she’s loading everything Terry wore out of his dresser and into the hallway. The reason doesn’t become clear until later: It shouldn’t be so hard, she tells Ralph, to prove that Terry is innocent. It is time for her to consider the impossible.

Screenshot: HBO
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Nicholson has been great all season, and this episode, as well as all before it, has any number of beautifully acted, thoughtfully filmed moments, many of them (like this one) largely silent. But this may be the finest of them all. She says it out loud, that Terry might have killed that boy, and then the words hit her, and then she’s silently overtaken by it entirely. She lets it out of her mouth, it fills every corner of room, and in it, she promptly drowns.

It’s the opposite of that mom-leap. Just as Holly, staring straight forward in utter terror and still somehow finding her wits, is the opposite of that mom-leap. The Outsider doesn’t need to be more surreal. It doesn’t need jump-scares. It has dread. You might jump at a mom-leap, but it’s dread that fills up the room and lets you drown.

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Stray observations

  • I love the handmade black-light camera as a physical illustration of what Holly is doing and what Ralph is doing. He checks to see if the chair made an indentation in the carpet. She asks a question and builds a staircase to the answer.
  • A perfect combination of line and delivery: Mare Winningham switching the tenses in her reply to Holly about markers from ‘has’ to ‘had.’ Absolutely gutting without so much as a flourish.
  • All kinds of stuff in this episode either deviates from the book or is totally new; will be very interested to see what comes next.
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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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