The seventh episode of HBO’s The Outsider is the series’ simplest in terms of plotting, which makes what author Dennis Lehane brings to it so essential to its success. It’s not unfair to say that “In the Pines, In the Pines” is filler, padding out the season on the way to the endgame of the final three episodes, but it is stylish, well-acted, accomplished filler in every way. In every technical respect, it’s one of the season’s best — it’s just that hardly anything happens. And while that could be frustrating for viewers seven hours into a season, it’s characteristic of a show that’s willing to take its time to get deep under your skin.
The Outsider has already been a fascinating blend of two famous authorial voices in Richard Price and Stephen King, but Lehane proves to be a perfect fit as well. After all, he’s worked in procedural mysteries in the Kenzie/Gennaro series of novels (the most famous of which became the movie Gone Baby Gone), so he can relate to a character like Ralph Anderson’s pursuit for justice and the details of crime-solving. But Lehane is also one of our best modern authors when it comes to conveying the crushing weight of grief, in novels like Mystic River and Shutter Island, which makes him a natural fit with the thematic work this series has been doing all season long.
The main purpose of “In the Pines, In the Pines” is to push Ralph Anderson closer to an ending in which not everything has to make sense. It details how Ralph fighting back at the truths around him with pesky logic is now hampering the investigation, even putting people in jeopardy. As his colleague and buddy Yunis tells him, Ralph is trying to force everything to add up, and he needs to accept the impossible for that to happen. Yunis has accepted it. Even Alec Pelley, who heard something unusual in the woods when he was a kid, accepts there is something going on beyond our textbook knowledge. Ralph Anderson is getting there, but still kind of shrugging off too much with a nonchalant grunt.
One of the main things that pushes him there is the saga of Jack Hoskins and Holly Gibney. The episode picks up right where the last one left off, with a half-possessed Jack taking Holly somewhere. She thinks they’re going to the barn in which Terry Maitland’s clothes were found, but it’s later revealed that they’re headed far in the other direction. Where was Jack taking Holly when she pulled off a daring escape at a remote gas station? And how much control does Jack still have over his actions? As Holly points out, he didn’t stop her from getting to the meeting, and seems to want to understand what’s happening to him more than submit to its will.
While Jack seems to be collapsing in Holly’s passenger seat, Ralph Anderson figures out something is wrong. Holly and Jack aren’t answering their phones and, eventually, it’s revealed that those phones are pinging together. And then Ralph and Alec see the scene in Jack’s apartment, which should be another sign to the detective that something doesn’t make sense here. Ralph and Alec chase after Holly and Jack, but this is no traditional men-to-the-rescue mission, as Holly has learned to take care of herself over the years. The outsider P.I. escapes after shattering a window in a gas station bathroom and returns to safety, explaining further to Ralph and the team that something is very wrong with Jack, who can’t even pull the trigger to kill himself.
Meanwhile, Glory Maitland makes an effort to get back into the workforce only three weeks after the death of her husband, but it backfires when she confronts home buyers who recognize her from the news. She’s not ready to show houses so soon, and her employer encourages her to move out of town. Why should she? Glory has been pushed around long enough, and she calls Howie with the encouragement to sue the police department, D.A., and possibly even individual targets. Season two: Glory Maitland vs. Ralph Anderson in a courtroom drama! (Seriously, Julianne Nicholson has done so much with relatively little here that it would probably work. She can make anything work.)
Eventually, Holly learns that Ralph has been withholding information about Claude Bolton. Namely, that the latest sketch of the hooded figure kind of looks like him and that Terry Maitland scratched him after the murder of Frankie Peterson. These are the kind of details that Holly Gibney needed to know, and not just for the case. It does seem a little unusual that Ralph wouldn’t share these details, especially after the incident with Jack. Just for Holly’s safety, right? “It might be a good idea to avoid anyone that looks like Claude.” Although Holly notes that the reason Jack didn’t kill her or take her to El Cuco to be killed is because this supernatural force needs children on which to feed. There haven’t been many children in this world other than the Maitlands. Would it circle back to the same family? Someone keep an eye on Jessa.
Mostly, this is an episode designed to work Ralph Anderson out of his investigative mind and accept the idea that he will never be able to make all of the pieces fit. Again, Price, Mendelsohn, and this time Lehane are playing off their biggest alteration to the book in the death of Derek Anderson. Since that event, Ralph’s been trying to make sense of a world that no longer fits together in a normal way. Just as people often have to do to get past grief, he has to accept that there are forces out there beyond comprehension.
• This was the least plot-heavy episode of The Outsider, but it was also one of its most visually accomplished. Director Daina Reid (David Makes Man) holds shots even longer than this series typically does, giving the entire episode an ominous, foreboding feel. Even just Claude walking to his car after quitting his job has the sense of someone walking to their execution.
• Reid also opens and closes with bookending dreams that wake Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney, and that both possibly include an image of a bug on its back, struggling to turn over. I love bookending images. And it’s a great symbol for the show, a creature increasingly aware of its predicament as it struggles against the impossible.
• The episode title is probably instantly familiar to Leadbelly (or Nirvana) fans, but if you’re neither, it’s a reference to a great song called “In the Pines.” It was memorably redone by Nirvana on Unplugged, where they called it “Where Did you Sleep Last Night?”
• How great was it when Holly’s face lit up at the sight of Andy coming to see her? Their relationship has been a rare bright spot in a very dark show. However, is anyone else worried about Andy’s fate? He feels like he could be the red shirt of the Outsider crew.