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HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

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HBO’s ‘The Outsider’ ending explained

Breaking down what the ending means and where it might lead in Season 2.

Even if you read the original Stephen King novel, the ending to HBO’s adaptation of The Outsider differed greatly from the book–and no doubt left you with a lot of questions. For those who stuck around after the credits (and Holly’s post-credits scene), there’s a featurette that sheds a bit more light on things, but not much.

Let’s dive into how things played out in the final episode (Must/Can’t) and see if we can parse a better understanding of what happened and what it means for any potential future stories.

Holly’s Scratch

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

No, I didn’t see Holly get scratched at any point in time, either. So what does the giant scratch on her right arm mean?

Well, there’s a decent chance it could simply be a narrative device–a way to show us that after encountering the unthinkable, you’ll forever question things that could previously be written off as coincidence.

It’s also worth noting that The Scratch is hardly the most unsettling part of this scene. For starters, Holly has specifically stated that she doesn’t like listening to music, yet here she is with the radio on. It also just so happens to be playing ‘Washington Square‘ by the Village Stompers–the same song Ralph heard during his only other potentially supernatural experience before their encounter with El Cuco.

Add in the the weird way Holly is playing with her hair, which we’ve never seen her do before, and something’s definitely up. Once again, it could all be a statement on how encountering the unexplainable makes you question every oddity and coincidence, but that’s a whole lot of weird stuff happening at the same time. Definitely overkill for a narrative statement, but appropriately subtle for letting us know that things aren’t okay.

I’ve heard a few people suggest that Holly is somehow now a conduit of El Cuco (or fully under his sway), but that doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons. Even if El Cuco was still alive, the scratch would indicate that she is being copied, not replaced. Also, we saw her grieving privately over Andy’s death, something that El Cuco definitely wouldn’t do.

As far as El Cuco invading Holly’s mind is concerned…

Holly’s Vision of Jack

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

Holly already suffered from PTSD before being absolutely put through the wringer at the bear cave. She might be tough as nails, but that doesn’t mean the severe trauma she went through won’t have lingering effects on her mental state.

If Holly’s PTSD was going to manifest itself as a physical entity, then Jack Hoskins would be its most likely form. While the encounter with El Cuco was all types of terrifying, Jack was the one who kidnapped her and killed the man she’d fallen in love with. Also, she already had an intensely vivid dream about him killing her back in Episode 7.

On the other hand, Jack’s brief appearance behind her makes for a solid argument that El Cuco is healing and reforming itself after Ralph smashed the creature’s head in. Its powers would likely be weakened enough that it couldn’t fully project itself and/or make Holly experience a full-on hallucination, but striking out at her would likely be its first course of action upon regaining cognizance. During their encounter in the cave, El Cuco seemed to regard Ralph as a thick-headed cowboy while recognizing Holly as a fellow “outsider.” The creature also blamed her for finally being discovered and forced on the run.

It’s also worth noting that Holly checking the back of her neck (and appearing relieved not to find any boils) is yet another indicator that she is still at least mostly in control of her own mind. El Cuco might be poking around upstairs, but he doesn’t have a hold of her.

“Who’s Terry?”

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

I’ve seen this line getting dissected a lot, but I don’t think it indicates anything sinister on Holly’s part. Instead, there are two likely interpretations for her saying this to Ralph:

  • It was a way to show how Holly and Ralph’s obsessions with the case had diverged. He was purely focused on clearing Terry Maitland’s name while she was purely focused on understanding what this creature was.
  • It was Holly’s sarcastic way of assuring Ralph that she would not link their discovery of El Cuco to Terry Maitland, thus ensuring that they would still be able to clear his name via traditional (and more believable) contradictory evidence.

Also, El Cuco was likely well aware of who Terry Maitland was considering that he shifted into him. Even if Holly were somehow under the creature’s sway at this point, it asking “Who’s Terry?” through her wouldn’t make any sense.

The Faces

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained
HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

I’ve watched this scene a bunch of times and I’m still not sure who all the faces are that El Cuco morphs into while Ralph’s standing over him.

On the most recent featurette, executive producer Andrew Berstein said that it’s all the people he’s been before…although it’s not entirely clear if he means in the context of the show or in the fullness of time. We definitely see Heath Hofstadter, Maria Caneles, and (I think) Terry Maitland, but there also appear to be more.

Whatever the case, I really like Berstein’s reason for why El Cuco put on this little FX display: To thumb his nose at Ralph. It makes the creature’s final moments even more chilling and lends credence to a theory we’ll explore in the next section: El Cuco only feared the severe pain and recovery Ralph was about to inflict on it, not death.

El Cuco as a Biological and Supernatural Entity

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

Based on what we learned during the series and what was revealed in the featurette, here’s what we know:

  • The creature is probably very, very old. It claims to not even remember or know how it originated.
  • It does not know if it is the only one of its kind, but claims to have sensed that there may be more like it in the world.
  • It regards people as food the same way we would regard meat prepared for a meal. It does not feel any remorse for feeding on us.
  • While it eats flesh to survive, it derives immense pleasure from its ability to absorb feelings of grief and despair in others–especially if it was the cause.
  • It specifically targets children because they “taste the sweetest.”

Those last two points sound eerily similar to another Stephen King creation: Pennywise the Dancing Clown, also known as IT.

Part of the reason Pennywise targeted children was that their imaginations allowed him to more easily manipulate/increase their level of fear, which in turn made them taste better. In the IT novel, Pennywise directly references this pre-feeding escalation of terror in his victims as “salting the meat.”

So does this mean that The Outsider is directly connected to other stories in Stephen King’s mythos? I highly doubt it. Even though Warner Media (who owns HBO) has the rights to Pennywise, I doubt HBO would do a seemingly unrelated crossover like that.

What it may tell us, however, is that much like the book version of El Cuco, this one is heavily influenced/inspired by Pennywise…which means it could very well be a cosmic entity that found its way to earth and has been here for hundreds, thousands, or even millions of years.

This would be an important distinction since it would also mean that El Cuco has likely faced plenty of physical harm over the years, yet continued to exist. Remember when Holly stabbed El Cuco with a knife–while he was already impaled by a stalactite–and the creature didn’t even flinch?

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

Even after that, the creature still had enough juice left to taunt Ralph with a vision of his dead son and Ollie Peterson–a decision that it had to know would make Ralph turn around and come back to him.

This pretty much blows Holly’s stair rail theory (that El Cuco’s aversion to falling was proof it could be killed) out of the water. The creature was clearly adverse to discomfort, roaring in both pain and frustration at various points during the final two episodes. But just because it could be made to suffer does not automatically mean it’s also conventionally mortal.

It’s also worth noting that when Claude approached El Cuco with a shotgun, the creature didn’t seem terribly concerned. He didn’t even try to warn Claude about a possible cave-in. Instead, the creature appeared amused and intoxicated by Claude’s grief–and completely unbothered that the man pointing a shotgun at him was exceedingly agitated.

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

Yes, getting its head smashed in probably hurt like hell and put it out of commission for a while, but there are plenty of reasons to believe this creature has been through much worse and managed to stitch itself back together.

Remember that one of the main obstacles to Ralph and Holly’s investigations was that they were dealing with something that didn’t operate within the known parameters of natural/physical law. That means there’s no reason to discount that a creature like El Cuco doesn’t die like we expect other living things to–especially when it has likely managed to exist for much longer than any of us.

Before Ralph smashed El Cuco’s head in, he admitted that he wasn’t sure if the creature could even be killed. What if he was right?

Loose Ends

HBO's 'The Outsider' ending explained

I still believe that the child who was killed on the hiking trail–and who caused District Attorney Hayes to begin is the crisis of conscious–was a victim of the El Cuco we were tracking throughout this season and not another one of its kind. I can, however, see how that theory would line up with what we learned in the last episode.

Speaking of Hayes, there’s no way this guy doesn’t drive himself crazy trying to figure out what really happened. He’s seen the video of El Cuco looking like a botched botox version of Claude Bolton trying to kidnap a kid. He knows the forensic evidence, video, and eye witness testimony all pointed toward Terry Maitland even though he was innocent. Add in the other murdered child along with his severe guilt over what he put the Maitland family through, and this guy could end up being a fascinating character in a potential second season.

Hayes would also appear to be quite the grief-stricken target for a certain supernatural entity in need of some powerful assistance in a potential The Outsider: Season 2

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