This The Outsider feature contains spoilers for the finale.
In the end, The Outsider’s slow burn appears to have been worth it. HBO’s Stephen King adaptation has always been a good, well-crafted show. But few would argue that its nine episodes leading up to this finale have been chock full of adrenaline-pounding moments
That all changes in this final hour. “Must/Can’t” is the thrilling and kinetic finale that a story so patient and beautifully-made deserves. Ralph Anderson, Holly Gibney, and all their allies finally come face-to-face with the entity known as El Coco. Now let’s break down exactly what happened.
Who Died in The Outsider Finale?
A better question might be “who didn’t die in The Outsider finale?” Fulfilling the promise of last week’s explosive ending, this finale opens with an absolute massacre at the hands of the El Coco-controlled Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca). Jack fires upon Ralph’s team with a high-powered sniper rifle. He drinks Jack Daniels throughout to calm his nerves and deaden his soul but tragically he remains a pretty great shot even when under the influence.
Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) was the first to go down last week (here is your reminder that violence against Alecs is never ok). This week Claude’s brother Seale Bolton (Max Beesley) is the first to follow him to the grave. Seale gets a sniper bullet directly to the gut. Then Holly’s boyfriend Andy Katcavage (Derek Cecil) heroically tries to save his friends by driving a van for help. Jack is able to take him down too sadly. The Maitland family attorney Howard Salomon (Bill Camp) attempts to save Andy but Jack punctures the van’s gas tank with a bullet and then lights a spark with another shot, exploding the van and killing Howard.
The deaths would continue apace if it weren’t for the bravery of Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo). Holly walks out into the open, all but daring Jack to kill her. Jack’s conscience finally overpowers the El Coco in his head and he lets himself get bit by a rattlesnake. He then commits suicide via his rifle, but not before telling Ralph, Holly, Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez), and Claude Bolton (Paddy Considine), “It’s in there. Kill it.”
Confronting El Coco
Here’s the thing though. Our characters still have no idea whether El Coco can be killed, malevolent force that it is. Still, that doesn’t stop Ralph and Holly from entering Bear Cave, while Yunis and Claude hang back outside.
El Coco has made his home at Bear Cave because it’s the site where many of Claude’s kin died in a cave-in back in the 1940s. El Coco loves to feed off of the misery of those whose identity it is stealing. El Coco knows that much about himself but when Ralph and Holly finally come face-to-disgusting-face with the monster, he reveals that there isn’t much else he knows about himself.
El Coco seems to be in the mood to talk and Holly is full of questions. The problem is that El Coco doesn’t know the answer to basic things like “What are you?” “Where do you come from?” And “Are there more of you?” This could, of course, be El Coco playing mind games but he does seem sincere in his ignorance. And The Outsider showrunner Richard Price confirmed in his post-episode feature that El Coco truly doesn’t know where he came from. He’s simply a dark force…a dark force that knows what he wants: to feed on the flesh of babes.
Despite not knowing fully where he comes from, El Coco is smart enough to have led Ralph and Holly into a bit of a trap. Ralph could kill El Coco right then and there with his gun, but the sound of the gunshot would likely trigger a cave-in just like what happened all those years ago to the Bolton family. As Ralph tries to figure out what to do, Claude makes the decision for him and shoots the monster.
So…Can El Coco Die?
Claude, Ralph, and Holly all survive the inevitable cave-in and then go to examine El Coco’s body. He certainly seems to have been killed by Claude’s shot. As the trio prepare to leave the cave, Ralph sees something that makes him think otherwise. Ralph sees the expressionless, pale apparition of his dead son, Derek, just like he did once before shortly after this all started.
This time around, The presence of the apparition somehow convinces Ralph that El Coco is not dead. Perhaps El Coco is behind Ghost Derek, which means he can’t be dead. The other intriguing, if unlikely, option is that Derek really did haunt the cave at that moment to serve as a message to his father about what truly supernatural things are possible. Either way, Ralph returns to El Coco’s body to find that the creature is indeed playing possum.
The Ralph that confronts this broken El Coco is such a fundamentally different person from the man that we’ve known for all these episodes. While once refusing to believe in the supernatural, Ralph is now shockingly confident in addressing and taunting the monster before him.
“I didn’t know whether or not you could be killed. I thought you could be like anyone else. Looks like I was wrong,” Ralph says calmly as he paces around the boogeyman.
Ralph then paints a picture for El Coco of what will happen to him if he lingers on. Tourists will come see the world’s first confirmed monster. Scientists will poke and prod him for eternity. It’s almost like Ralph is daring El Coco to consent to being killed. El Coco says nothing but instead starts cycling back through all his old identities from Claude to Heath Hofstadter to Maria Caneles to Terry Maitland.
Ralph decides to end El Coco’s games once and for all and just smashes the bastard’s brain in with a rock. Is that enough to kill him? Ralph Anderson may never know. But it’s the best he could do right now.
Exonerating Terry Maitland
An interesting thing about The Outsider finale is how it flips one of the biggest themes of the series on its head. So much of this show has been about rational minds working to accept the irrational. The action of The Outsider wasn’t anything that El Coco or Jack Hoskins were doing but rather the arguments that Ralph Anderson was having with himself in his head, unseen or unheard to us all.
Believing in the impossible is a big ask. Or as Stephen King puts it in his post-episode interview “How does a person cope with the unbelievable?” How do they indeed? Ralph Anderson, Yunis Sablo, Holly Gibney, and Claude Bolton were able to get enough evidence and firsthand experience to believe. Then, once the whole ordeal was over, they realize that there’s no way they will ever be able to get anyone else to believe, without subjecting them to those firsthand encounters.
So Ralph, Holly, Yunis, Claude, and Ralph’s wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham) go about the task of closing the Terry Maitland case (Jason Bateman) without ever telling anyone what really happened. Claude is trained to say he never saw Terry Maitland at the strip club that night. Ralph, Yunis, and Holly spin a major story to District Attorney Kenneth Hayes about Jack Hoskins working as an accomplice for a still at-large figure. Jeannie simply asks Terry’s wife Glory (Julianne Nicholson) to not tell Hayes about the time that Holly shared her El Coco theory with the group, lest they all sound crazy.
Somehow the whole thing works and the DA reopens the case of the murder of Frankie Peterson. Terry Maitland is exonerated.
The Outsider Name Explained
Normally it’s kind of corny when a story reveals the meaning behind its name in its final act, but when The Outsider does so here it’s actually quite powerful. After it’s all said and done and the case is put to bed, Ralph and Holly say their goodbyes.
Ralph tells Holly that he wouldn’t mind teaming up again (there’s your season 2 right there!). In response Holly thinks back to the moment in the cave where El Coco asked her how she was able to so easily believe in him when so many other people couldn’t. Holly says that her father was in the military and was fond of saying “a man knows a man.” What Holly has come to realize is that “an outsider knows an outsider.”
Due to her difficulty with social interactions (Holly is likely on the autism spectrum), she has always felt like an outsider. The title of the show could be referring to her as much as it could be referring to the mysterious monster at its center. Should The Outsider return for another season, Holly and Ralph could easily operate under that title even in the absence of El Coco. But…El Coco might not be absent after all.
Just when you think it’s safe to turn off your HBO Now browser window or change the channel, The Outsider whips out a very unexpected post-credit scene. In it, Holly checks herself in the mirror and very briefly sees a flash of Jack Hoskins behind her before he quickly disappears. This is reminiscent of the time that Holly hallucinated a roadblock on the bus back down to Georgia from Dayton.
This could be a post-traumatic stress response…or it could be something more insidious. For right after the mirror episode, we see Holly sit down to read up on Terry Maitland’s exoneration. The camera quickly brushes past a scar on her arm and then lingers on the back of her neck so viewers can look for the telltale rash that Jack had. It’s unclear is she has one and it’s unclear if the scar on her arm is from El Coco or the cave collapse.
Richard Price in the post-episode feature is understandably cagey about the whole thing, saying “That’s it for the creature. Or is it?” Holly really could be infected via the cut like Terry Maitland or via the back of her neck like Jack Hoskins. Perhaps El Coco can return as a Holly Gibney clone. Or perhaps the monster can now enlist the help of Holly as a thrall.
But maybe what The Outsider is trying to say is that confronting evil has its consequences. Accepting that the impossible is possible means spending the rest of your days looking over your shoulder for the next boogeyman to be proven real. And that’s just as terrifying a possibility as any alternative.
If that ending seems too bleak, The Outsider has one more cheerful Easter eggs for attentive fans. As Holly listens to the radio the song “Washington Square” by The Village Stompers plays. Just two episodes ago, Ralph shared a personal anecdote about that tune. Before she died, Ralph’s mother mentioned that she loved that song. Ralph listened to the song shortly after her death and then years later when his son was born, he heard it again on the radio for only the second time in his life.
That was the closest Ralph had ever come to something truly unexplainable. Holly, the consummate believer that she is, jokingly wrote it off as a coincidence. The song recurring in the finale hammers home that, if nothing else, Ralph and Holly will always be bound together by the one time they both did choose to believe.