Outcast Recap: Who Still Uses VHS Tapes?

Melinda McGraw as Patricia. Photo: HBO
Episode Title
From the Shadows It Watches
Editor’s Rating

There's not much wrong with "From the Shadows It Watches," but there's not much good about it either. Outcast still relies on emotional shorthand too often, and it keeps skirting the major confrontations that might set it apart from its generic predecessors. Episode writer Joy Blake and director Tricia Brock deploy clichés throughout the episode, and fail to explore the thornier aspects of each story line. There's a clever show here, one about the moral vagaries of fighting evil by daring to be violent and obsessive. But tonight, Kyle and Anderson are often let off the hook. They're allowed to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Let's start with the good Reverend Anderson. At the beginning of the episode, he frantically reviews footage from his previous exorcisms. He's got a mountain of VHS tapes to go through, which in any other context would be seriously creepy. But this scene is telling for Anderson's lack of introspection. Knowing what he's thinking doesn't matter; what matters is the effect of rapid cross-cutting between shots of VHS tapes being slotted into an ancient VCR, extreme close-ups of Philip Glenister's bewildered face, and fast-forwarded TV images of Anderson's demon-possessed parishioners. As the scene's intensity picks up, it becomes clear that Anderson's frustration comes from his inability to learn anything from these recordings. His helplessness mirrors the feeling of watching the episode — and not necessarily in an intentional or productive way.

Anderson tries and fails to correct what he now sees as prior mistakes. He retraces the steps he took with Kyle, and even enlists the help of his love interest, Patricia, in trying to cure Caleb, the exorcism-of-the-week victim. Patricia quickly distinguishes herself as one of the show's better supporting characters when she stands her ground, and calls Anderson out for shutting her out of his life. Being confronted like this forces Anderson to make a quick decision, so that doesn't necessarily mean that he's reflecting on his sins when he lets Patricia help him. In fact, Kyle robs Anderson of his one shot at a true breakthrough by offering to help out. If the show's writers — who didn't base tonight's story on any of series creator Robert Kirkman's comics — wanted to exonerate Anderson, they'd have made it his choice to call on Kyle. Instead, Kyle becomes the source of Anderson's salvation. That simultaneously undercuts Anderson's agency and feeds into Kyle's messiah complex. 

More important, Anderson's dialogue betrays his sketch-thin motives. The character may be dealing with an interesting inner conflict, as we see in the scene where he confesses to God that he pridefully sought to perform exorcisms because, as he admits, "I loved it, the attention, the praise, the feeling of power — Your power." But the effect of this speech is undone in a later scene where Anderson petulantly tries to shoo Kyle away, insisting that Caleb "is my test." He's scrabbling to fix his mistakes, but he's learned nothing. That part is intentional, at least. But lines like "Don't touch him, Kyle. Goddamn it, he's mine!" are as complex as Anderson gets in this episode. He sees his sins, he tries to confront them in the wrong way, and he fails. Too bad Anderson's failure doesn't stick to him.

The same is true of Kyle's story line. He finds a new job patching up highway potholes with tar, but quickly loses it after he gets a premonition and hurries to Anderson's side. Again, this is not in Kirkman's comics, so it rankles to watch him find and lose a job in the space of an episode. The sense of normalcy this new gig gives Kyle rushes by in a flash, leaving viewers with no sense of great loss. Perhaps that's the point: Losing a menial job is no skin off Kyle's back. But it seems really off when Kyle's boss — who we just met — must establish the dramatic stakes of such a one-off encounter. He calls after Kyle and warns him that there's still three hours of daylight left, and that he took a risk on Kyle "when nobody else would." This is just lazy writing. The line and the scene aren't exactly load-bearing sequences, but they don't inspire confidence — not when so much of the episode feels comprised of well-directed but essentially familiar scenes.

I thought about Kyle's boss at the end of tonight's episode, when it really hit me that Outcast didn't wait too long before Kyle and Anderson made up. This is frustrating since the show's main strength is its staying power. Outcast is about characters who have to live with their actions: Kyle has to live with the guilt of hurting his wife and daughter, and Anderson must live with the knowledge that his exorcisms didn't work. Anderson seems to take a step in the right direction tonight by involving Patricia, especially since his decision to let her in on the truth is a welcome contrast to the way Kyle stonewalled Allison at the end of last week's episode. But again, there are no consequences to Anderson's actions. He lets Patricia in on his secret, she does the right thing by warning Kyle, and he eventually realizes that he has to step up to help his reluctant partner in demon-banishing crime. After a series of promising baby steps, "From the Shadows It Watches" is a major tumble backward.

Shots in the Dark:

  • R.I.P. Mildred. You were my favorite.
  • The bad Southern accents on tonight's episode are out of control, especially Reg E. Cathey's exaggerated drawl. He sounds like a dinner-theater player every time he stresses the vowels in his words. Somebody find him a better vocal coach, stat!
  • Brent Spiner's accent is also very bad.
  • Anderson to Patricia: "It's a personal project." This line alone should lead Patricia to sprint away from Anderson. What kind of person hears this and doesn't think, "Oh my God, he's a serial taxidermist!"
  • Why is Anderson only filming on VHS tapes? Did he never upgrade to digital cameras? Some of those exorcisms look recent, is all I'm saying.