The penultimate episode of the first season of HBO’s The Outsider sets the stage for a violent climax that is going to take place in a closed-off cave that now houses an ancient evil. At the end of last week, Ralph Anderson saw a photo of something that looked like Claude Bolton, even though he knew that the real Bolton had been home all night, thereby finally dropping any pretense that there was a rational explanation for everything that’s been happening lately. As Yunis later says, Ralph has stopped speaking in the conditional about this case, and can finally admit that they’re hunting a boogeyman, although he’s still not being completely transparent or honest with everyone around him. Notice how he downplays the danger to his wife Jeannie and keeps saying how they’ll just track it and call in the cavalry. A protagonist who can’t admit the true danger of what he’s about to encounter is often a doomed one.
“Tigers and Bears” intercuts flashbacks of the story of the Weaver boys, two kids who got lost in Bear Cave decades ago, leading to a massive search party headed by the kids’ father. While it’s mostly just ominous foreshadowing — one doomed party heading into the cave in the past offset against our current group of heroes rushing off to the same cave — it’s also interesting to consider the story in light of what we know about El Cuco. Holly Gibney is the one who figured out that this creature needs to live near grief, often finding homes near cemeteries in which it can feed off the pain of loved ones. It makes sense that its dominant home would be on the site of such incredible loss that Seale Bolton calls it a family plot. All the death in that place could have even brought this creature to life, spawning the pain-eating entity that has destroyed so many lives.
Back in the present day, “Tigers and Bears” is actually an episode in which not much happens at all, making writer Dennis Lehane’s gift with atmosphere and character all the more important. Ralph and the gang figure out that El Cuco is in a cave and go there — that’s pretty much the entire plot summary. So it becomes more about the minor beats, and the growing dread over who’s going to make it out of this thing alive.
Narratively, the most important thing is that Holly realizes that whatever Claude sees and knows, the creature likely does the same. And so the group endeavors to keep Claude in the dark as much as possible, which his authority-distrusting brother Seale doesn’t particularly like. Howie even takes Claude on a road trip to get “the best fried chicken in 200 miles,” taking him out of the loop even further. And so it’s Seale who tells the Scoobs about the incident at Bear Cave years earlier that took so many lives, even branches of the Bolton family tree. They figure that the creature must be living there, and head out to find out, but Seale screws up badly and later tells Claude about the hunting party coming for his doppelgänger. Even Claude knows this is a bad idea.
The final scenes of “Tigers and Bears” are the most terrifying. After Seale tells Claude what’s happening at Bear Cave, we see the Cuco-Claude raise its head in awareness, and then Jack Hoskins goes to work. It’s as if a telepathic message has been sent from the real Claude to its doppelgänger and then to Jack. It’s Jack who prepares to defend the cave, taking a high position with a scope trained on where he expects Ralph Anderson and the gang to pull up. And he opens fire when they do. All of the many people worried about Andy’s fate have another week to do so — he’s not in the “Next Week On” segment, like, at all — but it’s actually Alec Pelley’s blood that spatters on Ralph’s face. And then six more shots ring out in darkness.
Again, this is an episode more about minor beats. There’s the great scene in which Bill Camp and Paddy Considine eat the best fried chicken in the state, the worry in Mare Winningham’s voice when she hears about her husband’s plan, the empathy of Julianne Nicholson’s performance as she tries to find common ground with someone who also knows about unimaginable loss — it’s these acting decisions that elevate The Outsider overall, and what makes it such a strong dramatic show.
What’s been interesting to watch in the first season has been how much Richard Price and his incredible ensemble have developed characters who could have easily been little more than plot devices in a lesser creator’s hands. Stephen King adaptations have a tendency to be plot-heavy, largely because the adapters don’t have ten hours to tell their story and often have hundreds of pages of narrative, but The Outsider is relatively light on plot if you think about it. It’s about the people trapped in this nightmare, and every single one of them has been memorably delineated and performed. There’s not some stew of supporting characters who merely serve to push the story forward. Howie, Yunis, Claude, Andy, and Holly are distinctly different, three-dimensional roles, and that’s what has made this show work.
The question to ask now is who will survive? It appears Alec is done and Jack Hoskins almost surely will be killed in the gunfire that will open the season finale. Who else? Everyone is increasingly concerned about poor Andy, and that beautiful moment between him and Holly in the car this week feels like one that could be more poignant after next week, but here’s something to consider: Is Ralph Anderson safe?
• Did anyone else notice that the preview says “season finale,” not “series”? And they haven’t advertised this as a limited series like they are I Know This Much Is True. So what would you expect from a season two? I guess we’ll know more about that next week after we find out who survives the assault at Bear Cave.
• Who do you think falls victim besides Alec? Are you onboard with Andy dying? At this point, so many people think Andy is done that it would almost be more surprising if he lives. I’m a little worried about Yunis. And, like I said, Ralph seems to be downplaying the danger both to Jeannie and the kid who almost got kidnapped. Characters who underestimate their enemy in shows like The Outsider often end up dead.
• At times, The Outsider has felt like a ten-hour movie, but I have to give credit for the occasional episodic story, like the flashback to the Weaver boys this week. It’s nice when a show doesn’t completely discard episodic storytelling, as is so common to do nowadays, and remembers to include enclosed narratives on a week to week basis as well.