Schrödinger’s Stephen King
‘The Outsider’ is One of the Best King Adaptations in Years
Stephen King’s work has long been concerned with the concept that the worst horrors in the world are the everyday atrocities we commit against one another. Horrific creatures are nothing compared with the banality of pure human evil. In his 2018 novel The Outsider, King doubles down on that theme until he blows it wide open, creating a world where supernatural bad commingles with a great good.
In the HBO adaptation of The Outsider, that great good hasn’t showed up yet, at least not in the first two episodes. King’s novel is part police procedural and part supernatural horror. So far, the show leans heavily on the procedural elements. Those who haven’t read the novel might wonder when the show is going to pick up, but those experiencing King Fatigue need not worry. The Outsider, at least in its first two episodes, is one of the better King adaptations of the last few years.
Someone has brutally assaulted and murdered preteen Frankie Peterson. While the show mercifully spares the audience of the gory details of the inciting crime at its center, The Outsider is still plenty dark, both metaphorically and literally. After people find Frankie’s body, Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) determines that local high school English teacher and Little League coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) is responsible. Ralph has good reason to suspect Maitland: multiple witnesses put him at the scene, and Terry’s DNA is all over both the crime scene and another getaway van.
The only problem is that there’s just as much convincing physical and eyewitness evidence that Terry was 70 miles away at a teachers’ conference at the time of the murder. How can someone be in two places at once and how can two arguably irrefutable, mutually exclusive pieces of evidence both be true? How could a pillar of the community be accused of murder, and how could a detective with a great track record have serious lingering doubts about a man he was so sure was guilty?
Jason Bateman, who directed the first two episodes and also executive-produced the whole series, is more concerned with examining and showing those matters of duality than with explaining whether or not Terry did it. Those first two episodes are master classes in building tension—small sparks waiting to fully ignite. HBO cheekily released those episodes at the same time, highlighting the show’s theme of duality. It’s true that no piece of art needs to exist, but this TV adaptation justifies itself early on by using its medium to make the audience feel like they’re in two states of mind at once.
The first episode, “Fish in a Barrel,” weaves through two different timelines leading up to Terry’s public arrest at a baseball game, effortlessly flashing back and forth in time in the same week. As we see it, Maitland is both innocent and guilty at the same time.
The second, “Roanoke,” starts to play with the pieces of the puzzle a bit more, until a shocking twist forces everyone to reconsider their motives. If Terry is innocent, then how does that explain everything else that’s happening around the crime? If he’s guilty, then how did he get away with it? As Terry’s family, Ralph’s family and Frankie’s family are torn apart because of the fallout from the murder, it becomes clear that something more sinister is afoot.
Dread and Unease
Those who’ve read the book can predict what will happen next, but since this is a review of the show, we won’t speculate on how future episodes will adapt the rest of the book. So far, writer Richard Price (The Wire, The Night Of) hews pretty close to the source material. The pacing of the show is slow, yet suspenseful, which is in line with how King wrote the book. Mendelsohn elevates the written character of Ralph Anderson and imbues him with pain and grief and bewilderment, while Bateman is probably the perfect actor for the role of Terry Maitland. You want to root for him, but there’s just enough of a lingering suspicion that you don’t let him off the hook, either.
The only big changes from the book are that the show is set in Georgia instead of Texas/Oklahoma (probably for tax benefit reasons) and Anderson’s son is dead from cancer instead of alive and grown up. Another interesting change is that the teachers’ conference Maitland attends is on censorship and suppression, instead of the crime writer’s convention King wrote.
Other than that, the show is excellent at capturing the dread and unease of the book, where the characters know something is off, but can’t quite pin it down. In some instances the distant camera feels like a cold observer, like someone is just off screen preying on these characters. The color palette filling out each frame is as dark as the events going on inside of it. It’s an eerie watch, made all the more eerie because the main question of The Outsider is so simple, but so human and so terrifying: What if you know you’re innocent, but nobody believed you?
The initial time investment might yield too little of a return for those who aren’t fans of King’s book. But if you’re willing to go all in on the early episodes and have a little faith in the conclusion, trust me. You will get a payoff.