It's hard to recommend Outcast to people who aren't already watching. The series is worthwhile, don't get me wrong. But the elements that make it compelling — atmospheric direction, good acting, and a novel exploration of guilt and responsibility — won't immediately grab unfamiliar viewers. You have to watch a couple episodes to get into it.
Case in point: "A Wrath Unseen," the best episode among the show's first four installments. Scripted by series creator Robert Kirkman and directed by Walking Dead veteran Julius Ramsay, tonight's episode is patient and considerate in ways that the last couple simply were not. If anything, "A Wrath Unseen" is more like the pilot, given its measured extension of the show's deeper questions. There's no exorcism-of-the-week story, though Anderson and Kyle's visit to Mildred (Twin Peaks star Grace Zabriskie) basically serves as a substitute — and even this part of the episode is handled with care. We don't get many more answers, but we do get a better sense of what these characters stand for.
In many ways, "A Wrath Unseen" feels like clean-up after a couple of messy episodes. Some crucial connections are made that were previously left dangling, like Sidney's first meeting with Anderson and Kyle, and Giles's investigation of Mark's evidence. These two subplots are especially satisfying, as are the two main stories, both of which feel unusually character-driven for a show that has so far focused on possessed victims and cryptic dialogue. Megan's confrontation with Donnie not only casts Kyle in a new light, but also makes her seem less like a human crutch. Better still, Zabriskie shows us what a great character actress can do with otherwise generic pre-exorcism scenes. Her secret? Gnawing on the scenery, drapes, carpeting, and all.
Ramsay's direction also deserves praise for making the various moving parts of "A Wrath Unseen" feel consequential. There are a lot of soft spots in tonight's episode, sequences that could have been too blunt, or fruitlessly repetitive. But Ramsay and Kirkman navigate these potential pitfalls with grace, bringing out the best in the show's cast, especially Patrick Fugit, Wrenn Schmidt, and David Denman. Fugit is usually at the top of his game, but Ramsay draws attention to Kyle's dilemma in a couple of key sequences.
I'm thinking in particular of the scene where Kyle confronts Donnie, a childhood adversary who raped Megan back when she and Kyle were foster children. In this scene, Fugit's performance makes Kyle look more than just tenacious. He appears loopy, and downright masochistic. You can see the selfish, ugly undercurrent that drives the type of "white knight" that Donnie accuses Megan of formerly pining for. More importantly, you believe that Kyle is a real person when Fugit wobbles to his feet and wildly launches himself at Donnie. He's unfocused, blinded by self-righteousness, and completely pissed off.
Ramsay also gives us a deeper look into Mark's character during his and Kyle's bar-side argument. When Denman slams his fist on the table, and the rest of the room turns to look, you can't help but appreciate the way the bar is bathed in a halo of light. Everyone behind Mark and Kyle is presented in silhouette. When they all turn their heads at the sound of Denman's fist hitting the table, the other bar patrons look like wraiths that just noticed a nearby victim. This little detail foreshadows the scene where Mark kicks the crud out of Donnie. He is not filmed beating Donnie; we see it from the perspective of Mark's squad car camera. But the fact that the beatdown takes place off-screen makes that scene that much more potent. Ramsay knows when to withhold information, and he also knows when to patiently keep his focus on the actors to establish a key power dynamic. The second scene where Mark asks Megan how her day is, and she murmurs "the usual," works exceptionally well because of Schmidt's line-reading, aided by the low-angle reaction shot that Ramsay uses to emphasize the gulf between Mark and his wife.
Tonight's episode works as well as it does because of directorial flourishes, which can make it easy to forget Kirkman's vital role, or downplay the cast's contributions. I emphasize Ramsay's direction because he pulls together elements of the show that were already present, but never so well-assembled. For proof, see the crane shot used to creepy effect in the scene where Mark pulls Donnie. First, we only see Donnie's car speeding down the road. Then the shot widens, and we see a second car gaining on him. Blue-and-white flashing lights turn on, and the camera settles in front of Mark's car as it comes to a stop. This is what a confident director can do with a few simple elements, drawing us in and deepening the mystery of a scene with a few technical flourishes.
Or how about Megan's destruction of the thrift store glasses she bought? That scene could have felt like a hyper-stylized, emotionally barren exercise in style over substance. Instead, it's a genuine expression of Megan's frustration, thanks to the way Ramsay cross-cuts between ever-lengthening shots of Schmidt's face as she screams. There's a Peckinpah-like rhythm to it, especially in its use of slow-motion. Every time a glass explodes, Ramsay cuts to Schmidt's face — and each time he cuts to her, he seems to stay a little longer, making her facial expressions look more wracked and haunted. The scene works because it's so firmly grounded that human element. The makers of Outcast have more work to do before their series can be recommended without qualification. But if anyone were to ask, I'd point to tonight's episode for proof of its potential.
Shots in the Dark:
- Kyle to Anderson: "You talk to God with that mouth?" Okay, that's genuinely funny.
- Mildred to Kyle: "Hard to keep the romance alive once you start throwing punches, isn't it?" Bless you, Grace Zabriskie, forever and ever.
- Seriously, Zabriskie is amazing. The way she fusses over her lines alone makes her worthy of sainthood. "They used to be cute! One of them's going off to law school. And the girl, all she wants to do is whore around. What's cute about that?" Ahhhh, so good.
- Giles to his wife: "Those dumb crackers are our good friends and neighbors." This was a good line too! And Cathey nails it.
- Anderson's line about "pride" being the most dangerous sin is a clever way to get him to ask Kyle for help. Points to Kirkman for that.
- But again, Zabriskie FTW. Only a champion ham could sell a pokey line like this one: "I changed my mind, I do love our little games. How about some Scrabble?"