“The Outsider” Ends on a Subdued Note With “Must/Can’t”

The Outsider, "Must/Can't" Ben Mendelsohn in The Outsider (HBO)

Viewers expecting the season finale to have an exciting climax will be disappointed, as characters and grim reality drive the ending.

Warning: don’t read until you’ve seen the episode!

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I know I’m going to be a lot easier on “Must/Can’t,” the finale of The Outsider, than other people. With the last few episodes a whole lot of nothing (well-acted nothing, but nothing all the same), expectations that the show would end with a horror movie-like confrontation between heroes and monster were high. Well, surprise — it’s over barely halfway through the episode, and not the most action-packed ten minutes or so of television you’ll ever see. Despite its spooky, supernatural themes, The Outsider ended up being less about monsters and more about people, for better or worse.

But let’s move on and take a look at the casualty list that’s racked up before we even get to the opening credits. Deader than disco are Alec, Detective Andy (sad face!), Howie, and Seale. So, basically everybody you expected to get killed. Yunis (Yul Vazquez) is wounded, but alive. Also in very bad shape is Jack (Marc Menchaca) who, after successfully killing off more than half the team, is rewarded for his trouble with multiple rattlesnake bites. There are bosses from Hell, and then there’s El Cuco.

After telling what’s left of the team where to find El Cuco, Jack, who ended up a surprisingly tragic figure (whereas in the book he was a one note Renfield who enjoyed what El Cuco made him do), finally manages to kill himself. Left on their own, Ralph (Ben Mendelsohn) and Holly (Cynthia Erivo) venture down into the Bear Cave, where El Cuco (Paddy Considine) has itself set up in a nice little bachelor pad. Ralph and Holly are already at a disadvantage when they encounter it — loud noises, like someone shouting (or, say, a gunshot) can cause a cave-in.

Holly and El Cuco, who seems admiring of her open mind, have a chat, while Ralph all but trembles with rage at not being able to kill it. Claude (also Paddy Considine) shows up, however, and, not having gotten the news about the structure of the cave, shoots El Cuco. It turns out it can die, and fairly easily, though as a parting fuck you to Ralph it sends him one more vision of his dead son. It is good and dead, though, with almost a half hour left in the episode, though we soon learn that El Cuco’s work is not done, in a number of ways.

Despite its spooky, supernatural themes, The Outsider ended up being less about monsters and more about people, for better or worse.

Much of the second half of the episode focuses on the surviving characters coordinating their stories with each other to avoid any mention of El Cuco (though the way they go about it seems unnecessarily complicated and confusing), and dealing with fresh new grief. Holly, who may have loved Detective Andy but was averse to admitting it, is particularly stricken, struggling both with his loss and insurmountable guilt over her inadvertent part in it. Thanks to the work of Ralph’s team (even if the story they offer doesn’t make any sense), Terry is exonerated, but he’s still very, very dead, so it doesn’t matter in the long run for Glory (Julianne Nicholson) and her daughters. El Cuco being gone (or so we think) doesn’t make her, or Holly, or Claude’s pain go away. In a way, it still won. It did the damage it intended to do, even if it missed out on some of the feast.

Is it exciting? Not particularly, but at some point it was decided that The Outsider was going to be focused on characters instead of action. The mid-credits stinger revealing that Holly’s arm is scratched, suggesting that perhaps El Cuco lives to see another day, ends up feeling kind of cheap. Up to this point the show never tried for “gotcha!” moments, and in this case it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Holly is simply too smart and too observant to overlook a scratch, particularly when she knows that’s how El Cuco moves from person to person. It’s like an epidemiologist not being concerned about someone sneezing in his face.

For me at least, the show is at its most powerful where it initially ends, with Ralph and Jeannie (Mare Winningham) visiting their son’s grave, and the episode closing on a shot of Frankie Peterson’s headstone, bringing things back to the beginning. Nothing’s really changed, except that now Ralph is aware that there are things beyond his understanding. All the suffering El Cuco caused is still out there in the world, ready to suck the air out of a room and bring a person to their knees. It no longer serves as food for an otherworldly creature, but it does its own kind of damage, and worse, it knows no timeline.

Random Thoughts:

  • The more I think about it, the more the idea that Holly has been El Cuco-fied doesn’t sit right with me. A brief look at Twitter shows that some viewers of the episode think Holly asking “Who’s Terry?” means it’s already happened, but (a) it doesn’t work that fast, and (b) isn’t El Cuco supposed to know everything the person its impersonating knows? On the other hand, Holly definitely knows who Terry is, as evidenced when she visited his father’s nursing home. This is what we call in the TV reviewing biz a “plot inconsistency.”
  • Ralph suggests that he and Holly should work together again, leaving the door open for another season, which, whatever Holly is, I hope doesn’t come to pass. The Outsider was a good show, very well-acted, and there absolutely does not need to be any more of it.
  • It was a nicely creepy moment in “Must/Can’t” when the dying El Cuco’s face cycled through the last few people it imitated. The series could have used a few more moments like that, and still remain focused on the characters.
  • Don’t know that we needed Holly to say out loud that she, too, is an “outsider,” but eh. Erivo is just so good and genuine in the role that she manages to sell what could otherwise be a huge eye-roll of a line reading.
  • And that wraps up The Outsider! Please comment or tweet us with your thoughts: do you think Holly is in the process of becoming a different kind of outsider? Do you want to see another season? Should Ralph and Holly become a new Mulder and Scully, but reversed?
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