Last month, I wrote my general thoughts about the first 6 episodes of HBO’s The Outsider, a 10-episode adaptation of Stephen King’s brilliant 2018 novel. While King’s work often translates poorly to other mediums, this one totally nails it. Even if you aren’t a fan of the book–or King’s books in general–there’s still plenty to enjoy, especially if you love slow burn crime dramas with a sinister (and supernatural) undercurrent.
To put it another way, The Outsider is what you’d get if the first season of True Detective and It Chapter One had a baby who predominantly takes after the former.
Tonight, the series finally debuted with a back-to-back showing of the first two chapters. Let’s dive into the first one and begin examining why this series is so good.
The episode opens with a man and his dog having their afternoon walk completely ruined by a grisly discovery in the woods. That evening, detective Ralph Anderson arrives to assess the crime scene.
The murder victim is a young boy named Frankie Peterson. Through some mercifully brief shots of the boy’s corpse and Anderson’s disgusted expression, we see that this was a particularly savage and gruesome killing.
The next morning, beloved English teacher and little league baseball coach Terry Maitland makes pancakes for his wife and two young daughters. If he has any idea that his DNA was all over Frankie Peterson’s corpse, then it doesn’t seem to concern him. The only anxiety Terry appears to be feeling is about how his team will do at their game that day.
Meanwhile, Ralph Anderson lays in his deceased son’s room, distraught over the fact that such a sick and twisted man had Derek under his wing for two years as his coach. Ralph’s wife, Jeannie, reminds him that it was cancer that took their son, not Terry. Ralph replies that he hopes Terry tries to resist when they arrest him, which he plans to do in front a large crowd at the town baseball stadium
On his way to the game, Ralph thinks back on the events between the discovery of Frankie Peterson’s body and what led him to this point.
After the heart-wrenching task of informing the Peterson family about Frankie’s death, he interviews his first eye witness, who claimed to have seen Terry Maitland pull up to Frankie Peterson in a white van and offer him a ride, which the boy accepted.
His next eye witness is a little girl who says she saw “Coach Terry” emerging from the same woods where Frankie’s body was discovered, his mouth covered with blood. He conversed with the girl briefly, claiming the blood was due to a branch hitting him, before getting into a white van and driving away.
The two eye witness reports are corroborated by DNA evidence, all of which points to Terry Maitland as both an ironclad suspect and an absolute monster.
Back in the present, Terry is coaching his team when a pair of police officers (one of whom he knows) walk across the field to his dugout and arrest him in front of everyone. Terry appears genuinely shocked and confused, but still manages to ask a nearby adult to take over the coaching duties for him as he’s hauled away in handcuffs.
Truth Laid Bare
While Terry’s world is in the process of being turned upside down, we cut back to Ralph Anderson, who is recalling another eye witness interview. This time it’s with Claude Bolton, an ex-con and recovering addict who owns and operates a local strip club called the Peach Crease (heh).
According to Claude, Terry came into the club (a surprising development in and of itself) on the same night Frankie Peterson was murdered, his shirt covered in blood and a paper bag in his hand. He explained that the blood was due to a chronic nosebleed, then asked to use the restroom and if Claude could call him a cab. After Claude agreed to do so, Terry thanked him and shook his hand, appearing to scratch Claude’s wrist with his fingernail in the process. After heading into the bathroom, Terry reemerged wearing a new/clean set of clothes.
Just like the last witness, Claude doesn’t believe Terry’s story about where the blood came from–especially since there was also blood on the back of Terry’s jacket.
Back in the present, a distraught Glory Maitland (Marcy Maitland in the book) attempts to intercept the police before they can shove her husband into the squad car. Ralph is able to stop her, but not before Terry is able to tell Glory to call their lawyer, Howie Salomon.
Right to Remain Incredulous
Howie takes Glory’s call and calmly walks her through how to deal with the police until he can get there. Despite keeping the conversation limited to defensive legal procedures, Glory manages to tell him that Terry wasn’t even in town when Frankie Peterson was murdered.
Back in the squad car, Terry pleads his case to Ralph. In addition to the expected “you know me” self defense, he echoes Glory’s claim that he was out of town the night of the murder. Ralph’s only response is to ask Terry if he ever touched his deceased son. Terry appears both wounded and infuriated by the accusation, but Ralph remains stoic, flashing back to his interview with yet another eye witness.
This time it was the cab driver who picked Terry up from the Peach Crease. After getting in the car, he asks that she call her dispatcher to log his pickup (which is extremely odd) and to take him to the the Amtrak station, where he will be boarding a train to travel to Dallas-Fort Worth. Just like the witnesses before her, there is no doubt in her mind that the man in her car that night was Terry Maitland…although something about his eyes didn’t seem right.
That last observation doesn’t mean much to Ralph, though. He’s much more concerned with the wealth of surveillance footage that corroborates the last two eye witness accounts almost perfectly. Their already rock solid evidence is made even stronger when Terry reaches the Amtrak station and looks directly at one of the security cameras.
Ralph remarks that it’s almost as if Terry wanted to be caught. His partner, Yunis Sablo, points out there are no records of Terry buying a ticket, getting on the train, or even exiting the station. Both of these observations are definitely curious, but hardly enough to cast doubt on the fact that they’ve nailed Terry Maitland for Frankie Peterson’s murder.
Decision to Remain Stunned
Back in the present, District Attorney Kenneth Hayes (D.A. Bill Samuels for my fellow book readers) and Ralph head into an interrogation room with Terry to see if they can coax a confession out of him. Terry steadfastly refuses to speak without his lawyer, Howie Salomon, present.
When Howie arrives, he’s appalled to learn that Terry was arrested in such a public manner and without even being questioned. Terry is also able to give a detailed account of where he was and who he was with–at a teaching conference in nearby Cap City–during the time period Frankie Peterson was kidnapped and murdered. Despite Howie’s confidence in his client’s innocence, Ralph and the D.A. are unfazed. They have enough DNA evidence and eyewitness testimony to convict Terry ten times over.
Back at the Maitland’s home, Glory arrives to find the police hauling away boxes of her family’s belongings as evidence. In the distance, a bizarre-looking man in a green hoodie watches the tragic proceedings unfold.
As Terry is led away from the police station, he’s spotted by Frankie Peterson’s mother, who had come there to demand the remains of her son be released. Upon seeing Terry, she screams at him, demanding to know if he killed Frankie while her eldest son, Ollie, struggles to hold her back.
After being processed into jail, Terry is immediately singled out by the guards and inmates as a child killer. Despite being put into solitary confinement, it’s clear that he won’t last long if his prison stay is more than a few days.
Meanwhile, Frankie Peterson’s family finally lays their son to rest. As they are cleaning up after the repast, Frankie’s mother breaks down and begins smashing everything in sight while her husband and Ollie futilely try to comfort/calm her. She stops suddenly, clutches her chest, and collapses dead onto the floor from a heart attack.
That same night, Glory goes to check in on her youngest daughter, Jessa. Instead of finding her asleep, the little girl is wide awake and terrified. As Glory holds her, Jessa fervently claims that there was a man outside her window saying bad things to her.
Howie sends an investigator, Alec Pelley, to Cap City to check on Terry’s claim about attending the teaching conference. The hotel surveillance footage doesn’t offer much, but Pelley manages to find something even better: A recording of a panel on banned books in which Terry Maitland is clearly filmed asking the moderator a question. Howie gleefully discloses this new evidence to Ralph and the D.A., who for the first time appear to be nervous about the strength of their case against Terry Maitland.
Ralph decides to head to Cap City and do some investigating of his own. After watching the hotel surveillance footage and seeing someone who looks exactly like Terry Maitland enter the gift shop, he shows the shopkeeper a photo of the suspect. Not only does she positively identify him, but she also claims that Terry picked up a book from one of the top display cases.
Ralph buys the book to dust it for prints. As he’s leaving the hotel, he runs into Alec Pelley, who was about to follow up on the same lead. Upon seeing the bag in Ralph’s hand, Alec smugly reminds Ralph that if he finds Terry’s prints on the book, it will pretty much destroy their case against him.
Sure enough, the prints are a match. The D.A. is livid, going so far as to chastise Ralph for seeking (and finding) evidence that could play a key role in exonerating their suspect. Ralph, on the other hand, is completely unmoored. He isn’t interested in any particular outcome other than the truth–and the truth right now points to Terry Maitland somehow being in two places at once.
The next day, Ralph and Jeannie Anderson visit their son’s grave. Ralph’s heartbreak over Derek’s passing spills over into his anxiety about the Frankie Peterson case. Jeannie tells him to put aside all the contradictory evidence and simply ask himself if he thinks Terry did it. Ralph tries, but neither his heart nor his mind can make sense of things.
That evening, all parties involved in Terry’s case are anxiously awaiting his arraignment the next morning. Terry, on the other hand, isn’t sure if he will live to see the next morning, especially when one of his fellow inmates, in a prison full of hardened criminals, would like nothing more than to see the child killer dead by his hand.
You can’t ask for a much more compelling opener than this one. While it would have been easy to dive right into a supernatural bent for how Terry Maitland can be in two places at once, The Outsider takes a decidedly grounded and methodical approach to peeling away the layers of its bizarre premise.
Ben Mendelsohn is brilliant, giving Ralph Anderson a sympathetic weight while also maintaining a stoic presence that simmers with (understandable) frustration. His performance is enhanced by the episode’s deft use of flashbacks during his investigation. It makes his dogged belief in Terry’s guilt a product of seemingly indisputable evidence rather than a pigheaded characteristic…which makes his creeping doubt believable, as well.
In addition to directing the episode, Jason Bateman deserves a ton of credit for making Terry Maitland appear at various times to be genuinely innocent and completely horrifying. When he’s good, we want to believe him. When he’s bad, we want to run from him–or see Ralph Anderson nail him to the wall for Frankie Peterson’s murder.
I could keep going and talk about all the other amazing supporting performances, but we’ll get into that as their parts expand over the next couple episodes. The other thing that will receive some more development is the supernatural element of the crime. Don’t worry–it won’t be overt or turn the show into something completely different and less engaging. But if there’s one mark against Fish in a Barrel, it’s that the episode doesn’t give you much to help understand that aspect besides some very confusing (yet still terrifying) glimpses.
Other than that, though, The Outsider is off to an incredible start. If you find yourself appearing in two places at once, make sure one of them is front of your television on Sunday nights to watch this horrific mystery unfold.