It feels strange to hail “A Darkness Surrounds Him” as a promising pilot, since it so economically repackages the first few issues of Robert Kirkman’s Outcast comic book. But this Cinemax horror series is one of the tightest, most focused projects Kirkman has participated in since he began self-publishing comics in 2000. (Shout-out to Battle Pope.) “A Darkness Surrounds Him” doesn’t just recycle almost all of its scenes from its source material. It also feels like the comic, for better and worse.
We follow Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), a Byronic recluse, as he reluctantly works his way back into the lives of step-sister, Megan (Wrenn Schmidt), and Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister). Kyle’s story is a mystery. Kirkman scatters hints about his past throughout the premiere, but never enough to get a full picture. Our biggest clues come from expository dialogue during the exorcism of young Joshua Austin (Gabriel Bateman), and a collection of troubling flashbacks that concern Kyle’s abusive mother, Sarah (Julia Crockett), and his wife, Allison (Kate Lyn Sheil). The episode ends by reassuring viewers that Kyle protected his daughter from an apparently possessed Allison, but for the most part, we’re left to wonder: Is Kyle a misunderstood good guy, or a wife-beating hermit?
It’s a question of perception, since Outcast uses the generic conceit of demonic possession to address themes of guilt and familial responsibility. After all, you can’t be held responsible for your actions if you’re possessed. Kyle knows this, and now he’s seeing the actions of his wife and his mother in a new light. Whether he chooses to empathize with them is still unclear.
Let’s look at the evidence presented in “A Darkness Surrounds Him.” So far, we know that Kyle has a past, and that people judge him for it. His brother-in-law, Mark (David Denman), is grateful to Kyle for past deeds he did to protect Megan, but otherwise finds him odious. People gossip about Kyle. And he’s not sure what to do with his mother, now comatose in a hospital. He stares at her blankly, just like he pauses before the bedroom where he peeled Allison off of their terrified daughter. There’s something about these moments that clearly bothers Kyle, but they’re only vaguely upsetting. He’s not cartoonishly angry, or eager to confront what he’s remembering. Instead, he appears to get trapped by these shocking events, by trauma he’s sublimated so well that it still paralyzes him when he remembers.
These memories come to light because of Joshua. Joshua suffers from Exorcist-like symptoms, and therefore interests Kyle since he too has, to quote a couple of nosy neighbors, “fallen under a darkness.” That phrase sounds preposterous to Megan, but it’s something that clearly resonates with Kyle. Here’s where Fugit’s performance makes the episode so fascinating: We can tell by the look on his face that there’s something going on, something that Kirkman’s flat dialogue will only hint at. Thanks to Fugit’s body language, we can see an emotional connection between the phrase “fallen under a darkness” and Kyle’s character. These words remind him of events he’d sooner forget, and of a childhood that he still can’t face. Fugit’s deferred stares and fidgety shuffling make us believe that Kyle’s interest in Joshua is partly motivated by benign self-interest.
Kirkman draws out Kyle’s confrontation with Joshua, breaking it into two meetings instead of one (as it is in the comic book). Why? Because this is the inciting incident that holds together the plot of “A Darkness Surrounds Him.” These scenes feature more cryptic information about Kyle’s past than the comics revealed, as well as some conspiracy by demonic forces to “merge.” (With humanity? With themselves?) That relative clarity may be a minor distraction for anyone who’s read the comics, but it smooths out Kyle’s mystery, laying out plenty of clues for impatient first-time viewers. So yes, there’s more backstory than a single episode needs. But if more information were missing, the premiere would have felt unnecessarily vague.
I’m more torn about the show’s extreme violence. The episode begins with Joshua banging his head against his bedroom wall, leaving a bloody smear on a crushed insect. The boy chomps off his own ring finger, and later takes a bite out of Kyle’s hand. He flies at both Kyle and Anderson with just enough zeal to make it apparent that he’s under some unnatural influence, making clear that whatever’s wrong with him is not psychosomatic. How else to explain the way he launches Kyle and Anderson across the room with one kick?
There’s a weird, slapstick-minus-the-humor quality to these scenes. It feels mirthless, unlike the violence in The Evil Dead or other Sam Raimi films. There’s something off-kilter here, and not necessarily in a productive way. I get that violence is a means of snapping Kyle out of his complacency. But there’s overkill, and then there’s overkill. So far, Outcast precariously straddles the razor-thin line between the two.
Still, there’s something to be said about a horror series that’s so densely overplotted and character-driven without feeling too soapy or excessively serious. Kyle’s mystery doesn’t totally ground the events of “A Darkness Surrounds Him,” but the pilot boasts enough purposeful moments to forgive its lumpier parts. I may know what comes for Kyle, since I’ve read his adventures in Kirkman and Paul Azaceta’s comics, but I’m still looking forward to seeing what happens to him next.