Ralph reluctantly takes on a partner as a colleague has a brush with the impossible.
Warning: don’t read until you’ve seen the episode!
There’s a certain sort of masochism in insisting on a logical explanation for everything. It’s not just the loss of joy in small miracles and fascinating coincidences, but driving yourself crazy trying to find answers for things that defy reason, like how someone could hurt a child. Or, in Ralph Anderson’s case, how it’s possible for someone to be in two different places at the same time. In this week’s episode of The Outsider, “Dark Uncle,” Ralph (Ben Mendelsohn) slowly comes to the realization that everything he knows and believes to be true has to be set aside in favor of the unknown, if he wants to find closure in Frankie Peterson’s murder case.
Still on administrative leave after shooting Frankie’s brother to death, Ralph continues investigating the case in his free time. He’s ready to live with the guilt he feels over Terry’s death, as long as there’s an explanation for what happened, and how it’s possible that someone who looks like Terry, and shares both his fingerprints and DNA, could still be walking around in the world. How much Ralph will be able to live with his guilt is questionable, however, when it’s revealed in flashback during a therapy session that he initially handled his son’s death by drinking and getting into violent fights with strangers. Burying his grief and throwing himself into his job (even when he’s off the clock) isn’t necessarily a better way to handle it, just different.
Howie (Bill Camp) and private investigator Alec Pelley (Jeremy Bobb) agree to help Ralph in his freelance investigation, though more to clear Terry’s name than Ralph’s conscience. Alec suggests that they bring on a colleague of his, Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo), to the team. Holly, a character introduced in Stephen King’s Bill Hodges murder mystery trilogy, is a character that could make or break the show in how she’s portrayed. Though she’s clearly on the spectrum, given her ability to identify the make and model of a car just by the sound of its engine and correctly guess the day of the week any date falls on, for some unknown reason, there’s a reluctance to identify her as such, having her instead be described as “quirky” and “loony.”
What makes her supposedly quirky also makes her a detective with almost otherworldly observation skills, a common trope that hopefully a show with the kind of talent The Outsider boasts will avoid taking too far. Casting a black actor further runs the risk of Holly turning into a “magical negro” (something King himself has been guilty of far too often in his writing), but so far, so good. Erivo is excellent in the role, both sympathetic and intimidating in her intensity. She’s completely unruffled at the increasingly inexplicable circumstances of Frankie’s murder and Terry’s subsequent death, including how the fingerprints in the van match Terry’s, but a much older version of him, and how the strange fluid found on his clothes so far match nothing that’s of this earth. Holly is open to all possibilities.
Holly is also the first person to bring up the word “doppelganger,” but Ralph’s not having any of that. “I have no tolerance for the unexplainable,” he says, to which Holly shoots back “Well then, you’ll have no tolerance for me.” It’s a great scene in an episode that maybe tries to pack in a little too much in an hour. Mendelsohn and Erivo play marvelously against each other, both of them with the same goal but coming at it from two completely opposing ways. “Dark Uncle” setting up that Holly is an “outsider” herself, and that Ralph has his own doppelganger, isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but both actors sell the hell out of it. Mendelsohn, with his sad eyes and whiskey and gravel voice, is particularly good. He doesn’t just want to find an explanation for everything that’s happened, he needs to, or else spend the rest of his life in a spiral of grief and barely restrained rage.
Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca) is assigned to cover for Ralph in his absence. When we first met Jack in episode two, he was harassing strippers and giving a fellow bar patron an atomic wedgie. That he’s later revealed to be a cop is unsettling, yet not particularly surprising. Jack isn’t happy about having to take over for Ralph, and less so after he has a terrifying encounter in the barn where Terry’s discarded, strange fluid splattered clothes were found.
The encounter leaves him with an excruciatingly painful wound on the back of his neck, a strange burn of sorts that can’t take even the slightest amount of pressure against it. The only one that seems to notice that anything is off about Jack (who’s testy and pugnacious at the best of times) is bartender Claude Bolton (Paddy Considine), who looks on with concern while the other employees mock him. Claude may not be a cop or a private detective, but he knows when something isn’t right, and something isn’t right about Jack.
Down here over in the C-plot, Glory Maitland (Julianne Nicholson), Terry’s very recent widow, is just barely holding it together at home. On top of her daughters’ school outright refusing to do anything to protect them from bullying (“I think it’s outrageous that children have to pay for the sins of a parent,” the principal smugly intones), younger daughter Jessa (Scarlett Blum) is still troubled by nightmares of a strange man who visits her room to tell her “bad things.” After Jessa claims that the man has a message for Ralph, Glory accepts help from an unlikely source: Ralph’s wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham). Radiating maternal warmth and reassurance, Jeannie is able to do what Ralph can’t, which is really listen to Jessa and take her fears seriously, without immediately minimizing or discounting them.
The show setting up that Holly is an “outsider” herself, and that Ralph has his own doppelganger, isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but both actors sell the hell out of it.
Like Holly, Jeannie is open to the idea of the impossible being possible. Ralph, on the other hand, all but rolls his eyes in frustration as Jessa describes the man in her nightmares as being “blurry” and “inky.” He doesn’t have time for all this childish nonsense when there’s a real mystery to be solved. Jessa’s message from the man is an ominous one, however: “Stop, or something bad is going to happen.”
Finally, in the D-plot (I did say this was a somewhat overstuffed episode, and this subplot suffers from time constraints), a convicted child-killer (Martin Bradford) seems to be preparing for either a prison break or a fight. Who he is and his connection to the show is unclear until the last few minutes of “Dark Uncle,” when Holly discovers that a male nurse at Terry’s father’s nursing home was arrested for the murder of two little girls. It also sheds a chilling light on a receptionist at the nursing home refusing to allow Holly to see Terry’s father, claiming that his condition has deteriorated since being inundated with detectives and reporters — though not for anything having to do with Terry himself. Rather than allow himself to be attacked by another prisoner, the man kills himself instead, slashing his own throat with a sharpened glasses lens.
Perhaps this is the “bad thing” that Jessa’s nighttime visitor warned about in his message. However, given “Dark Uncle” ends with Jack, in agonizing pain from his inexplicable neck injury, begging an unseen someone “Whatever you need me to do,” it’s not likely. Earlier in “Dark Uncle,” Ralph tells Jessa “If he has another message, he can come to me.” It’s meant to be reassuring, but Jessa’s response is curt and direct: “I don’t think you want that.”
- I don’t want to get too far into the season without mentioning the stellar score by Danny Bensi and and Saunder Jurriaans (American Gods). Subtly creepy, it really enhances the bleak, walls are closing in feeling of the plot. It works especially well in a scene where Ralph visits his son’s grave, and notices the line of plots being prepared for Frankie Peterson’s family, each member decimated one after another. As Ralph looks at the holes in the ground, you can almost hear some unseen, unknown being chuckling in satisfaction at the havoc its wreaked so far.
- As mentioned before, I’m not sure how I feel about the show’s avoidance in identifying Holly as autistic so far, and I hope the remarks and wisecracks about her “quirky” personality are limited to “Dark Uncle.”
- Gruesome touch of the episode: a prison inmate who hides a shiv inside a pocket cut into his leg. Though the adaptation has taken some liberties with King’s novel (such as making Ralph and Jeannie’s son dead rather than away at camp), it maintains that signature King touch of breaking up the serious drama with some truly nightmarish imagery.
- Jessa describing Ralph as “the sad man” is an unexpectedly moving moment. Perhaps it’s Ralph’s obvious sorrow that makes it easier for Terry’s kids to process what happened, and even Glory is kinder to him than she probably needs to be. Having Jeannie act as a buffer between them helps. “How do you live with it?” Glory asks Jeannie, in a private moment, to which Jeannie answers “You don’t,” though whether she’s talking about her son’s death, or Ralph’s responsibility in Terry’s death, is unknown.
- It bears noting: with Gentleman Jack, Mrs. Fletcher, and Watchmen, HBO is doing marvelous things with actresses over 40, rather than just casting them as nagging wives and needy mothers. Julianne Nicholson, who’s previously done strong supporting work in Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Boardwalk Empire, is “Dark Uncle”‘s MVP. Pulled tight as a guitar string, she all but vibrates with restrained grief and anger (so, not all that different from Ralph), but holds it in enough to even offer Ralph a tiny bit of grace and help. As much as she wants justice for Terry, even she understands it’s not that simple and must choose to hold it together for their kids instead. Jessa needs her, there are monsters that must be held at bay.