When a young boy is murdered, the police know who committed the crime...or do they?
A Stephen King story is back on the screen, and this time it’s in the form of a police procedural on HBO. Like so many King stories, The Outsider begins with something grisly happening in an otherwise idyllic small town. A man is out walking his dog. He passes a van and doesn’t notice the bit of blood on the side. His dog senses something though. As they wander into the woods, the dog takes off. The man follows him, and finds him staring at something.
The body, or what’s left of it, belongs to the young Frankie Peterson. He’s barely a toddler, and The Outsider does not hesitate to show his decapitated head and shredded torso. Detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) shows up on the scene and gets his guys out there asking questions and seeing if they can find witnesses. Back at the station, Anderson takes a statement from the dog walker, about how he was out for his usual walk and the only thing peculiar was a van parked in a lot that’s usually empty at that time of day.
There’s an interesting structure to the early parts of this episode, as the show flashes between the various eyewitness accounts and a near-future where the police are clearly gearing up to arrest their suspect. One woman recounts seeing Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), a local citizen and notably the coach of a boys baseball team, in the parking lot of the grocery store, picking up Frankie in his van. A child also remembers seeing Terry coming out of the woods, covered in blood. A seedy strip club manager named Claude—if you must know, the club’s name is the Peach Crease, which is truly something else—is questioned too, as Terry came into the club and used the bathroom to change his clothes, despite seemingly not having any clean clothes with him.
It’s all so strange, and it only gets weirder when Anderson decides he’s going to make a big show out of arresting Terry at the baseball game, where a lot of the town is gathered watching. Terry is in complete disbelief, as is his wife Marcy (Julianne Nicholson). He calmly goes with the officers, and tells them that they’ve made a huge mistake. He’s initially relieved to see Ralph, thinking that he’ll be able to explain everything, but the detective isn’t ready to lend him a sympathetic ear. Anderson and the District Attorney (Michael Esper) have all the evidence they need in the eyewitnesses and the blood.
Soon enough though, their case doesn’t seem so simple. Howie, Terry’s lawyer, is livid that the cops arrested him before even conducting an interview and asking him to explain his side of the story. Sure enough, Terry says he was out of town the day the kid was killed, attending a conference for English teachers, meaning he has a lot of witnesses that can corroborate his whereabouts. The DA isn’t convinced, but Anderson is starting to worry. As he tells his partner, everything Terry supposedly did after murdering the kid is “idiotic.” He was basically asking to be caught, showing himself to eyewitnesses, recording his movements, and even clearly showing himself to a security camera at a train station.
While Terry is held in prison, Howie goes digging. He finds a local public access TV station that was taping the conference, and comes up with evidence that’s a lock: clear video showing Terry asking a question during a panel, meaning he couldn’t have been in town murdering Frankie. But then how is there also clear footage of him at the Peachy Crease and the train station? Anderson and the DA are stumped, and even more stumped when the fingerprints on an expensive book from the conference hotel’s gift shop come back as a positive for Terry Maitland.
By the end of the episode, Anderson is questioning everything—he tells his wife that even his gut doesn’t know, one way or the other, what happened to Frankie—and Terry is trying to stay calm as a fellow prisoner threatens to kill him the next morning. It’s a good series premiere. The pace is engaging, and the tone is wonderfully eerie. With that said, as someone who’s read the source material, I think that the episode covers way too much of the book within a single hour. I worry that the other episodes will drag because so much of the tension from the book is resolved in this premiere, namely the idea of Terry being in two places at once, and the thrill that comes with all the evidence being right in both places. We’ll see how the season unfolds, but for now this is a solid if slightly worrisome start.
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