This The Outsider review contains spoilers.
The Outsider Episode 4
It seems as if every procedural type program has a scene in which someone does some Internet sleuthing, usually through some ridiculously named program like Searchalot or Doctor Sleuth. These scenes, by and large, are never interesting. Everyone searches online for things a dozen times a day or more, it’s something that’s more fun to do than watch. Making that remotely interesting is one of the most difficult tasks for any director, and yet as Holly sits in the tub, searching El Coco and various other old-world bogeymen, it’s not boring: it’s riveting.
The camera watches Holly, transfixed, as she clicks through an impressive array of folk art monsters with wide, absorbing eyes; it’s a greatest hits of grandmothers’ nightmares. Part of that credit goes to the soundtrack, as every click is underscored with a tense orchestral background from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans that only serves to emphasize Holly’s growing realization that what she’s hunting down isn’t a person, but some kind of horrible monster.
Of course, that’s not exactly a spoiler. Stephen King‘s name has been used to prominently promote the series, and we’ve seen something creepy enough to pass for a monster in little bits around the town, always watching from the back of crowd scenes with a hood up to partially obscure the true horror of its melting inhuman face. However, to watch this realization unfold over the face of an otherwise logical (perhaps too logical) detective is something surprisingly effective, because Cynthia Erivo is in control of her acting instrument and makes the show all in her eyes, not in her otherwise muted affect.
Erivo is something really impressive; if it’s possible for someone with multiple Oscar nominations to have a coming-out party, this is it for her. She handles the dramatic moments well, obviously, but her interactions with other characters are surprisingly funny. Holly’s awkward flirtation with former detective turned mall security guard Andy Katcavage (Derek Cecil) has some surprisingly cute moments, and her turn-around face-offs with the nurse from the old folks home (who I can’t identify in the credits) and an older Cuban woman with knowledge of the supernatural (who I believe is Idilys Castro played by Susanna Guzman) are in turns funny and revealing. The nurse has a wonderfully combative relationship with Holly, sneaking in a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle jokes; Holly makes a great straight character in situations like that, given the knowledge that she herself has an extremely dry sense of humor.
However, it’s the scenes with Idilys where the interaction really shines. Susanna Guzman and Cynthia Erivo do a wonderful job batting dialog back and forth. It’s a strength of Richard Price that his conversations feel like conversations, complete with a little built-in awkwardness. As we’ve seen previously, Holly is a character who is predisposed to being open to supernatural and unusual things, and she’s a natural fit for someone who has first-hand experience with the supernatural like an older Cuban grandmother who is full of stories about demons that kill and then hang around to feed off misery. The mysterious figure in the hoodie would certainly fit that description, based off of his reappearances throughout Cherokee.
While Holly is traveling around the northern portion of the United States chasing the threat of deaths from Terry Maitland to Heath (the prisoner who killed himself last week) to Maria Canales, Ralph is trying to trace the creature—he doesn’t know it’s a creature yet—from Terry on forward to whoever is currently the host, victim, acolyte, or whatever the proper term might be for someone who has caught the murder virus, as Holly’s bartender describes it.
Inter-cutting between the two cleverly is Andrew Bernstein, who allows the voice-over from one scene to bleed into the other and vice versa, to further emphasize that both detectives are hunting for the same clues but going in different directions. Holly is getting pepper-sprayed by nurses and flying to New York to visit prisoners on Rikers, and Ralph is obsessively staring at the same footage for hours at a time, trying to unearth some clue that he’d missed on first, second, and fiftieth viewing.
Both find what they’re looking for, but will it be enough to stop whatever’s killing kids before it strikes again?
It’s a brilliant way to muddle up a mystery. You have multiple people looking for the same thing, just from different angles. One’s hunting backwards, trying to figure out the genesis of whatever’s killing kids, and the other is working forwards, trying to chase the creature to its next destination. Tracking the thing down is one detail, but stopping it would probably require knowing what it is.
Both are necessary, and both are working together after the same goal. Currently, it’s trying to clear the name of Terry Maitland, and perhaps a lot of other otherwise innocent people. But something like this, as Holly is establishing, doesn’t just strike once. It recurs, like an outbreak of a deadly disease, and if you can trace it back to where it starts, that might provide clues on how to make it stop.
It’s a unique take on a monster hunting story. It’s an active criminal investigation mixed with epidemiology mixed with something almost like grief-based haunting, like if The Babadook crossed with It Follows and was being hunted down by Seven. In the hands of some very skilled actors and a great writer, all those disparate parts add up to something gripping, even if we’re just watching someone Googling in the bathtub.