Stephen King has long been accused of being unable to stick his landings. He’s an acknowledged master of inspired setups, but he only occasionally matches the ingenuity of his concept with a solid closing act. It would appear that Richard Price never figured out how to handle this aspect of the King mythology, as his adaptation of The Outsider stumbles across the finish line as well. There’s a lot to like here in terms of filmmaking and performance, so it’s far from a disaster, but the fact is that a show that was mostly about impossible uncertainty ended rather predictably.
It starts with gunfire. Poor Alec Pelley was shot first, at the end of last week, and the season finale opens with violent chaos. An extended sequence sees what could be called secondary characters killed off rather predictably. Characters like Seale Bolton and Howie Salomon are murdered by a possessed Jack Hoskins, but the most tragic ending is saved for Andy, a man who tries to save everyone by getting a better phone signal and is shot for his effort. The fate of Andy has been foreshadowed for weeks and yet it somehow still felt depressing, and not just because Andy was a good guy. The Outsider was about the inexplicable, but Andy’s death was one of several events this week that felt preordained. Wouldn’t it have been more shocking and powerful to let him live?
With Claude forced to wait outside and Yunis injured, Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney are the pair who head to the final showdown. Jack Hoskins has shot himself in the head, not long after yelling “Mother Nature!” into the void in one of the episode’s only true WTF moments, and our two lead protagonists are ready to end this thing. Tense scenes through the cave lead them to the lair of El Cuco, who now looks completely like Claude Bolton. There’s some monologuing on the part of this season’s Big Bad, and the whole scene is made more tense by the fact that gunshots could bring the entire cave down on all of them.
Most of “Must/Can’t” is about the cleanup. After all of this, Ralph Anderson and Holly Gibney basically hide away what they know to be true, aware that the world would never understand it. This feels very practical, but also a bit disappointing. Everything gets tied up in a way that allows Glory Maitland to hug her children after Terry is finally officially exonerated, which is nice, and part of what the season has all been about, but the destination doesn’t feel worth the journey. Multiple people are dead, and their murders have been blamed on a rogue cop named Jack Hoskins and his partner in crime, but no one really knows about the extent of the evil that was uncovered. Maybe they’ll discover it after Yunis’s call and the move to reopen the investigation. Maybe Yunis will do a talk-show tour about the boogeyman. Maybe not. The idea that violence has a supernatural element that is never made public is a part of King’s mythos, but everything feels too tidy here, even the final beat of Ralph and Jeannie at their son’s grave.
Claude himself didn’t get that memo. He comes into the cave himself and starts shooting. As the ceiling collapses, the trio flees, but Claude is caught under a rock. Instead of just leaving the villain behind, Ralph goes to end this thing. Luckily, there isn’t a “Double Spiderman” moment in which Ralph has to figure out which Claude is the real Claude. No, he gets to watch this creature transform through the various faces it has been in the past before smashing all of them with a giant rock. It’s over.
Listen, no one expected Richard Price to become more like David Lynch in the season finale, but it’s telling that the season premiere of The Outsider felt more ominous and surreal than the season finale. The best moments in the final episode were the unexpected ones — the brutality of those bullets hitting Alec’s body, the ghosts of Ollie Peterson and Derek Anderson appearing to tell Ralph his job wasn’t done, the morphing faces of the enemy — but there just weren’t quite enough of them to match what initially worked about this show, or what it was about in the end.
The Outsider is a show that set up a man coming to terms with the world being more dangerous and broken than his police training ever could have taught him. It was about a man ravaged by grief discovering that there is something malevolent that feeds on that grief. Yes, he’s defeated that force, and can now be more open about his grief, which is what we’re supposed to take from that final scene, but one wishes the ominous tone wasn’t saved just for the post-credits tag. The Outsider purports to have pulled back a curtain on a violent force in the world, and it just slides it back in place a little too neatly.
Having said that, there’s still much to like here in terms of performance. Mendelsohn, Erivo, and Considine are great in the cave, crafting a blend of terror and a sense of finality — they know this is where it ends, positively or negatively. They sell the immediacy of the situation, which is harder to do than actors are often given credit for. You know it when it’s not there. The entire cast has been phenomenal all season — arguably the greatest asset of the show has been its ensemble, and they don’t falter here at all. The filmmaking is tense and moody when it needs to be, opening up visually after the threat has been vanquished.
Where does The Outsider go from here? Ralph says to Holly, “I wouldn’t mind teaming up again,” as if he’s pitching season two. Most people have been assuming that season two would follow Holly on a whole new case, but what if it brought Ralph back, too? For some reason, it’s easier to picture Holly investigating something supernatural again than Ralph, especially now that the division between the two of them in terms of belief isn’t there to drive the story, but it could work.
The bigger concern is in that post-credits tag, in which Holly has a vision of Jack and seems truly concerned that she might have a Hoskins Burn on the back of her neck. And is that a scratch on her arm? Could she be next? Do we really want a season two of The Outsider that brings back El Cuco? Maybe, if it means they’ll get the ending right this time.
• Come to think of it, I have similar problems with the first season finale of True Detective, a show that clearly inspired this one. That season was one of the darkest years ever, and it ends with the most nihilistic antiheroes in years talking about the light overtaking the dark, which felt deeply unearned and too neat to me.
• In case you missed it, the last song that Holly hears on the radio is “Washington Square,” the same tune that meant a great deal to Ralph Anderson’s mother and seemed to supernaturally come back to him at a key moment in his life. Discuss among yourselves what it means to end the show with it.
• What did it mean that Holly said, “Who’s Terry?” In the cave, she has a moment of the kind of surreal uncertainty I wish was evident in more of the finale. Of course, Holly knows who Terry is. Has she been “infected” or altered by El Cuco already? Or is it just a “Holly moment”? After all, she can tell you anything about the day in history but not remember how she got where she is today. She could also just be implying this is all much bigger than one case.
• Did anyone else roll their eyes when Holly said, “An outsider knows an outsider.” Yes, we get it. You were an outsider too, Holly. It really felt like something out of a less subtle, much worse version of this story on basic cable, and reminded me how rarely I cringed at the dialogue on this show, which was almost always sharp.
• What does the pan to the hoodie on the rocks mean as Ralph is leaving the cave? It’s just the outfit that El Cuco’s worn most of the season, like panning in on a vanquished villain’s mask, right? Or does it mean something more?
• Who was your season one MVP? Everyone was good to great, but I’d have to go with Erivo, who took a character who could have been all overplayed idiosyncrasies and grounded her beautifully.