There have been some brilliant Stephen King film adaptations through the years (e.g., The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Stand By Me). But I’m typically somewhat pessimistic about King television adaptations, after the many cheesy made-for-TV events in the ’90s and the brutal CBS version of Under the Dome. (I admittedly haven’t seen Castle Rock or Mr. Mercedes, both of which look decent.)
However, when I learned HBO would be airing The Outsider, I was very excited to see what it could do with a King adaptation, given the network’s pedigree for quality programming, and the news that Richard Price (an excellent crime writer who worked on The Wire and The Night Of, among others) would be involved with the writing. So far, after the first two episodes, I’d say I’m very pleased with how The Outsider premiere has turned out, and it should be entertaining for fans of horror and mystery—and Stephen King of course.
The Outsider is dark. The lighting is dark. The music is dark. The subject matter is dark. The show opens with a man walking his dog coming across a young child in the woods who has been brutally murdered. Blood everywhere, human teeth impressions, head barely attached to his body.
The boy is Frankie Peterson, and the murder sets off a seemingly open-and-shut investigation headed by Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn). The early portion of Episode 1, “Fish in a Barrel,” jumps back and forth in time—from investigating the crime scene, to preparing for an arrest, to interviewing witnesses. I enjoyed this storytelling method, as it mirrored how these early details unfold in the book.
Ralph and the DA’s office determine Frankie was killed by local baseball coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), after finding Terry’s fingerprints all over the crime scene and in the van used to transport the boy to the woods. A number of eyewitnesses confirm they saw Terry on the day of the murder with blood all over his clothes and face. One woman who knew Terry well said she saw him and Frankie in the parking lot of a grocery store. Frankie’s bike chain had broken and Terry offered the boy a ride. Frankie got into the white van (which had New York license plates) that was spotted near the murder scene.
With the go-ahead to make the arrest, Ralph and two other officers drive to the local baseball stadium where Terry is coaching the Golden Dragons. Ralph wants to make a scene; he asks the officers to make the arrest in front of the entire crowd, which includes Terry’s family.
Terry appears genuinely shocked. I really enjoyed Bateman’s performance in these two episodes. He does an excellent job of appearing innocent, yet at the same time leaving doubts.
Despite the loads of evidence against Terry Maitland, it soon becomes apparent that Ralph made a mistake in arresting him when he did, and in the way he went about it.
Some of the details Ralph discovered were a bit odd but he decided to overlook them. On the night of the murder, Terry visited a strip club, where he changed out of his bloody clothes, told one of the bouncers he left his van out back, asked where he could find a “doc-in-the-box” to look at his bloody face, and called a cab.
The cab driver states that Terry calls her “ma’am” (even though she seems to know him well) and asks for a ride to the train, where he will be going to Dallas. Why would Terry ask around at the local strip club where the nearest doctor was? Shouldn’t he know? Why would he leave the van parked out back instead of ditching it somewhere? Why did he call a cab, when he likely saw there was one already waiting outside?
At the train station, he even looks directly into the security camera, knowing he’d be seen. “It’s like he’s begging us to catch him. What kind of criminal does that?” Ralph wonders before they made the arrest. Even so, Ralph proceeds.
The biggest mistake is that Ralph and District Attorney Hayes didn’t question Terry before arresting him (because they feared they might tip him off and send him running). Because of that, they have no answers for Terry’s alibi.
So why did they make the arrest so soon, before questioning Terry? Ralph puts himself in the Peterson family’s shoes, and thinks: “What if it were my child?” (Ralph had a son, Derek, who was once coached by Terry, but has passed away.) It’s an understandable thought, but I think it was still too hasty of a decision—and to make the arrest in front of the entire town probably was inappropriate.
According to Terry, on the day of Frankie Peterson’s murder, at the same time, he was 70 miles away in Cap City attending a conference on banned books with some fellow English teachers. To corroborate this, private investigator Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb)—hired by Terry’s lawyer Howie Salomon (played by the great Bill Camp)—tracks down a public TV video of Terry asking a question at the conference. And after some separate digging, Ralph tests a book that Terry handled for fingerprints—and finds a match.
So now we have visual and forensic evidence that Terry Maitland was both in Cherokee City and Capital City at a conference at the time of Frankie Peterson’s death. And the whole time, Terry continues to deny having anything to do with the killing. How can we explain this?
DA Hayes offers up stories to Ralph of a WWII fighter squadron that flew into a cloud and didn’t come out the other end. And the settlers of Roanoke, Virginia (where the second episode title gets its name) who mysteriously vanished. Hayes says sometimes mysteries have unanswered questions, and you have to live with never discovering the answers, move on. “Yeah, that’s hard for me,” Ralph says.
How is it possible for Terry Maitland to apparently be in two places at once? Will we never find the truth, as Hayes thinks? Or will Ralph get answers? For me, I got some serious Twin Peaks doppelganger vibes from these first two episodes. Especially the distant and vacant look that Terry gave some of the eyewitnesses.
After-Effects of the Arrest
Things do not die down in Cherokee City once Terry is arrested. At the beginning of Episode 2, Terry is shot and killed by Frankie Peterson’s brother as they are walking Terry to the courthouse. Ralph returns fire and kills the Peterson brother, but probably can’t help feel responsible for this entire event.
Talk about a shocking opening to an episode. This follows the events of the book, but I was half-expecting The Outsider to perhaps diverge from the book in this case and keep Terry alive. Especially with the scenes of the prisoner in jail at the end of Episode 1 saying he’d be waiting for Terry when he gets back in the morning. I was envisioning a The Night Of-esque jail storyline for Terry, but I guess this was just a red herring. Because it’s Jason Bateman as the actor, I’m wondering how much we’ll see from him in flashbacks, or if we won’t see him again. (Sorry if you decided to watch this show mostly because Jason Bateman stars in it!)
The tragedy for the Peterson family does not end with the death of the two young boys. Frankie’s mother dies of an apparent heart attack, and his father tries to hang himself with a bedsheet, leaving him brain-dead. The entire Peterson family has basically been erased.
Even as he lay dying, Terry told Ralph, “I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.” Ralph, after being put on administrative leave for killing the Peterson boy, is questioning the conclusions of the case. If Terry really didn’t commit the murder, then that means someone else did, and he or she could do it again. Ralph made mistakes, as I have pointed out. The Maitland family will likely be suing him and the city, and he has the weight of guilt on his shoulders. But I give him credit for questioning himself and being determined to make sure he finds answers, admitting that it’s possible that he was wrong, as difficult as that may be.
One loose thread he can’t get out of his head is the mystery of the white van. Ralph and Yunis Sablo (Yul Vazquez) discover the van was stolen from New York by a runaway kid who ditched the vehicle in Dayton, Ohio on March 6. They also learn that the Maitlands happened to be in Dayton visiting Terry’s father on March 3-7, but that they flew both ways. The coincidence seems too strong that Terry Maitland would be in Dayton at the same time the van was ditched there. But if he was in the company of his family the entire time, and flew a plane home, how did the van end up in Cherokee City?
Although The Outsider is mostly rooted in mystery and crime drama, there are elements of horror. In three occasions during the first two episodes, we see a mysterious figure in a green sweatshirt. He’s first seen watching the Maitland house be raided shortly after Terry’s arrest. He is also seen at the site of the courthouse shooting, when Terry and Frankie’s brother are killed. Finally, we see him outside of the Peterson residence when Frankie’s father attempts to hang himself. These sightings are accompanied by a ticking-clock sound. What could this mean? And who is this hoodie guy anyway? His appearances reminded me of one of the Twin Peaks Woodsmen.
Glory Maitland (Julianne Nicholson) and her daughters are understandably in distress after Terry’s arrest and subsequent death. But Jessa also says she has been visited by a stranger in her bedroom. And at one point, we’re shown what appears to be blood on the floor of her room. What was going on there?
Finally, Episode 2 ends with a farmer in a barn discovering some clothes with a mysterious black substance on it. Creepy, building music plays as the farmer looks around to see if anyone is there. But nothing pops out as the episode ends.
Through the first two episodes, The Outsider seems to be following the book pretty closely.
But here are some initial minor differences I’ve noticed so far:
- The most noticeable difference is the setting. The book takes place in the fictional Flint City, Oklahoma, but the show takes place in Cherokee City, Georgia. I can’t think of a reason to make this change other than maybe HBO not wanting another Oklahoma setting so close to Watchmen airing. Or perhaps this reasoning will become more clear in later episodes. The Dayton, Ohio location where the white van is originally ditched is the same as the book.
- In the book, Ralph and Jeannie Anderson’s son Derek is not dead. But he’s not a major character either; he’s off away at camp for the duration of the book.
- Terry ditches the white van and asks about the “doc-in-a-box” behind a bar in the book. The show has combined this into the strip club scene, which I think works well.
- At least in Episode 2, Ralph’s relationship with detective Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca) appears to be much more amiable than in the book. Based on the scene in which Jack gives the guy a wedgie in the strip club, I’m sure the relationship will go south at some point
- Ralph’s therapy scene in Episode 2 did not occur in the book, but I think it makes sense to include. I wonder how much more of the therapy we’ll see. Ralph didn’t appear to be receptive to it.
- Not a difference, but my favorite book/show crossover came in the book when it said Terry Maitland liked to watch Ozark on Netflix, a show that stars Jason Bateman. An interesting coincidence for sure.
What did everybody think about these first two episodes? Let us know in the comments.