The Outsider brings together a strong cast of characters, a fascinating mystery, and a clear sense of intentional doubt to make a smart and intricate pilot episode.
This recap of The Outsider Episode 1, “Fish in a Barrel”, contains spoilers.
The HBO logo gives you a certain amount of faith and trust. The cable network turned specialty streamer inspires a biblical nature in its followers, many of which will watch whatever the company produces. Their unparalleled critical and awards success continually backs up this religious fervor, providing viewers with monocultural touchstones, such as Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, and more recently Watchmen.
For better or worse, these followers, myself included, live and die by HBO programming, rapidly consuming new seasons of whatever originals or adaptations the giant decides to pursue. HBO gives us a reason to talk at the water cooler at work, to bring up television while on a date, and to celebrate a certain societal oneness, a special affinity towards shows that fill up not just one viewer, but entire cities and countries.
On the night of January 12, 2020, the decorated network released The Outsider, a most-likely limited series based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, released only a couple years prior. Highly anticipated by readers and HBO cult members alike, the show features an all-star cast of Jason Bateman, Bill Camp, Cynthia Erivo, and Ben Mendelsohn, with Bateman directing a few episodes including the premiere, “Fish in a Barrel”. Expectations ran high, and The Outsider Episode 1 did not disappoint. Rather, it provided all of us into the world of the future, one ripe with human indecision, human conflict, and a world too confusing for us to comprehend.
Focusing on a small town with a big murder, The Outsider follows Ralph Anderson (Mendelsohn) as he grapples with a child murder and all of the evidence pointing towards the local youth baseball coach and town-good-guy Terry Maitland (Bateman). As with any HBO series, the first shots immediately draw you in, with overhead shots of forests and baseball diamonds crowding the screen. It always amazes me how much beauty can be derived from common places, like a local baseball field, simply by changing the perspective.
Switching between present time and flashbacks of gathering evidence and witness testimonies, the horror-crime-drama-thriller keeps you guessing, and if you haven’t read the accompanying the novel, the “Fish in a Barrel” leaves you with more questions than answers. The confusion around the entire episode leaves you with a sense of dread, of worry, and of overall fright. Without jump scares or traditional horror techniques, The Outsider simply scares you due to the unknown. It hedges on the fact that humans are deeply afraid of what they can’t understand, playing this societal difficulty to near perfection, at least in the beginning of this drama.
Though not necessarily the main character, Bateman’s portrayal of a man in dismay in Maitland stands out in The Outsider Episode 1. His performance is magnetic, as the evidence piles up on either side, pointing to him as the clear killer and as a man with an even clearer alibi. Putting the viewers at odds with themselves, Bateman, who also directed the pilot, creates an air of humanity within this scary situation and scared community. Along with the questions you have, you leave episode one with more worries than scares, and Bateman is to thank.
An episode full of long shots, we rarely see our characters at a medium-distance. We either live in the face of these community members, or we barely recognize them, just making them out across a parking lot, a baseball field, or a forest. The camera stays still for several of the scenes, as the characters run in and out of the chaotic premiere. It’s a first episode that makes you want to binge an entire season, yet HBO’s slow process of releasing episodes, dubbed the “old style” in my book, will certainly work to its advantage.
The Outsider brings together a strong cast of characters, a fascinating mystery, and a clear sense of intentional doubt to make a smart and intricate pilot episode. If this is any indication of the rest of the season, we are in for a world of terror, confusion, and of the difficulty of human decision. I, for one, cannot wait.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.