The first thing you should know about HBO’s new limited series is that it makes Jason Bateman’s role in “Ozark” look like “Peppa Pig.” It’s difficult to overstate the shock of seeing this clean-cut American treasure emerging from a forest, drenched in blood and holding a stare that could prompt hell to freeze over — but it does give you some idea of the unrelenting nature of “The Outsider.”
The 10-part adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 2018 novel premiered Jan. 12. And judging from a press preview screening of the first two episodes, it’s seeped in all that makes King’s literature so beloved: small town wholesomeness rubbing up against a seedy underworld, mundane family life invaded by frightening forces and calm, rational adults trying to wrestle with deeply mysterious circumstances.
At the center of “The Outsider” is the gruesome murder of a child, and a suspect standing next to a mountain of evidence that simultaneously exonerates him and confirms his guilt. Can someone be in two places at once? Do doppelgängers exist? Or is a supernatural third party involved? “The Outsider” sets up these questions early on and leaves them hanging tantalizingly in the air.
Searing scenes from the two episodes further hammer home the King-ian dichotomies at play. A mom smashes up a table of quaint finger foods with a baseball bat; an average Joe dog-walker finds a scene of abject, bloody horror in the woods; a sweet-faced little girl stares into the corner of her empty room and insists a man is there. These kinds of juxtapositions set a tone that is both deeply unsettling and thoroughly compelling.
Further enhancing these visuals are classic themes, and nods to the original texts they came from. In the first two hours alone, as tragedy keeps begetting tragedy, it’s impossible not to think of “Hamlet.” Lest we fail to notice the thematic resemblance, a character quotes the Shakespearean text directly. (“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” District Attorney Bill Samuels tells Detective Ralph Anderson,)
There are also nods to 1955’s “The Night of the Hunter,” with its aggrieved widow, stalked children and mysterious, shadowy killer. The parallels between “Night”‘s killer with his “Love” and “Hate” knuckle tattoos and “The Outsider”‘s recovering addict with “Must” and “Can’t” tattooed on his knuckles doesn’t feel like a coincidence.
What remains to be seen is if HBO can maintain this exquisite momentum for the rest of the series. Hulu’s Stephen King series “Castle Rock” started in similarly brilliant form, then promptly fell apart in spectacular style at the end of Season 1. “Castle Rock” was focused on an outsider who prompted death and mayhem wherever he went, and “The Outsider” has a hooded figure who appears to do the same.
With that in mind, viewers will have to hope against hope that HBO can provide a more satisfying explanation and ending to their King story than Hulu did in 2018. If “The Outsider” can successfully maintain what it’s done in these two episodes, there’ll be no stopping it.
Top Image: "The Outsider" (HBO)