Inside the Outsider: Episode 7
Jim and Ryan discuss "In the Pines, In the Pines" and also spook each other with real scary stories
Inside The Outsider is a conversation between punk-rock literary hero, Jim Ruland and me about HBO’s show The Outsider and the Stephen King novel on which it’s based.
Go subscribe to Jim’s newsletter Message from the Underground (I guess) to follow along. We’re more than halfway through the show, and there’s still a lot of time to catch up.
Sorry for the delay this week. Jim was out busy being a famous writer at a conference in Mexico, leaving ole Bradford to tend to Outsider HQ on my own. Things got a little lonely. Things got weird.
But not as weird as what's going on in this show.
Episode 7, "In The Pines, In The Pines," is sneaky—a slithering python that seems dormant while it's actually strangling you. There's a lot of action in this episode, but it's hidden underneath long scenes of dialogue and people riding in cars.
After the cliffhanger in Episode 6, we catch up with Holly, who's been taken hostage by Bad Cop Jack. Jack confesses that he's just as much in the dark about what has taken hold of his mind as everyone else, and pleads with Holly to give him some answers.
Meanwhile, Ralph and private investigator Alec Pelley put two-and-two together and realize and that Jack is, indeed, bad, and has kidnapped Holly.
Holly makes a triumphant escape while stopped at a gas station, and Jack retreats to the woods where he wallows in failure.
Once the gang's back together, Jeannie tells Ralph—oh, stubborn Ralph—to either get over his skeptical shit or move out of the way of the investigation.
Okay, think we're caught up to speed.
Ryan Bradford: It was a big episode for Jack—probably the best showcase of his character in the series so far. How do you feel about him after that episode?
Jim Ruland: I have several problems with the show's efforts to humanize Jack. From the early episodes we gather that he's a bad cop, a mean drunk, and he kills for sport. Those things add up to an interesting but unlikable character. As the episode progresses he seems to be coming more zombie-like in his appearance, and no one loves a zombie. I don't see him wrestling with his conscious so much as being self-pitying: why me? Jack's condition is like a back-ache: when it flares up he resolves to do something about it, but when it's a nagging, low-grade nuisance he tries to muddle by. A demonic backache is pretty weak sauce as far as demonic possessions go. I thought Episode 6 was way more interesting in terms of Jack's character and it gave him his best line so far—the quip about his wife leaving him being the happiest day of his life. I'm only interested in Jack in that I want to know more about the outsider and how it operates. Either the show's creators are holding that information back or don't know. Neither possibility is particularly compelling.
RB: I guess for me, Jack's arc in this episode mirrors the classic body horror trope. I'm a huge fan of body horror movies where the terror is not external, but internal (werewolf movies, The Fly... hell, really anything that David Cronenberg has done). Some of the most anxious moments in my life have come from not knowing what's happening to my body, and have had the occasional experience where it felt like my body is actively, maliciously working against me. And that idea is terrifying.
Working off that notion, I like how Jack really doesn't know what's going on with him either. I mean, we've gotten a sense of his mindset, but I think this episode hit on the complex relationship he has with the outsider: his fear of it, paired with his devotion to it. Love me some of that classic parasitic stuff. I also dug his garish makeup, which is, I think, as far as this show is going to get in terms of showing us a monster. The more that I think about it, it seems less likely that we're going to get a good look at the figure that inspired all the creepy drawings (or, as they call him in the book "the play doh face"). I just think this show is too serious, but then again, I didn't expect Jack to get beat up by an apparition of his dead mom, so there's always the chance for surprise.
Another thing I liked were all the scenes in cars. I think that confined space really upped the tension, especially when Jack seems so unpredictable and always on the cusp of falling victim to the outsider's puppetry.
JR: Maybe, but I thought it was boring. We don't learn anything about Jack or his condition that we didn't already know. It was a long slow build-up to nada. I was excited for this episode because it's Dennis Lehane's first with the show, but I thought it was bloated and empty. He told us he loves car scenes in the behind-the-scenes segment after Episode 7, but we’re not much farther down the road than we were at the end of Episode 6. We ripped through the first half of the novel in two episodes for this? What have we learned besides this should have been an eight-episode show?
RB: Only boring people get bored, Jim.
JR: You didn’t find this episode dull?
RB: I think you and I just have different tastes when it comes to pacing. We've covered how I love a good slow burn (e.g. Hagazussa), and there was something very compelling about this episode for me.
But I also see how people would find it boring. And, that shot of the little bug on its back—bookends this episode—sort of goads viewers, as if saying, "we're stuck."
But not really. There's a lot of stuff happening in this episode. Ralph is still stubbornly opposed to Holly's theories—which I'd otherwise find super annoying but the show feels like it's going on without him. And Jeannie essentially telling him to get out of the way—that ruled. I think that narrative trick of moving a story forward without bringing the main character is interesting, and creates an interesting, tense dynamic for me.
And also, we've pretty much broken away from the book at this point, right? Like, the skeleton's there, but this is a completely different beast now.
JR: Yeah, we're in uncharted territory now, but it looks like we're headed back to some of the terrain that King mapped out in the book. I like that Andy is back but he's a true wildcard since he's not in the book. I wonder if that means his days are numbered...
From what I can tell online, the Dennis Lehane ball-washing crew loved episode seven, everyone else thought it was slow. I loved the scene where Jeannie tells Ralph to get out of the way. Mare Winningham doesn't have a lot of lines, but I'm a huge fan of what she does with the role. She's a much thinner character in the novel. She gives Ralph a much-needed wake-up call toward the end of the episode.
It's interesting how obstinate Ralph is. Here's a guy who doesn't have the words to express himself but knows what he knows with an almost religious fervor. What did you make of him sitting in the chair that Jeannie insists on throwing away?
RB: Not sure what to make of that chair-sitting scene. Was Ralph trying to feel something? Perhaps it’s him dipping his toes in the water of belief, as if sitting in the chair will move him in a way. And I do like his growing frustration over, like you said, not having the words to express himself. That scene with his therapist—where he can’t even float the idea that something could exist beyond science—was painful in that regard. (Although I did like how the therapist was wearing what looked like a skater boy hoodie. Definitely had a “how do you do, fellow teens?” vibe).
I also like Andy, but yeah, he’s probably doomed.
Did you happen to catch when Ralph visits Tamika, and she puts her baby back inside before they have a conversation on the lawn? There’s a brief moment when Ralph looks back at the door with a look that’s like “what’d she do with the baby?”
JR: That's the frustrating thing about Ralph. He's super intuitive and quick to action, but only to a point. You're right about the scene with Tamika Collins. Ralph knows that she isn't telling him the full story. If pressed, I don't think he'd be able to say how he knows; he just does. He has faith in those instincts, which isn't exactly the stuff of hard science, right? It's almost like he's having a crisis of faith. It really makes you wonder if there's something with regard to his son's death that is making him draw a line in the sand with regards to the supernatural. Also, Holly speculates to Jack that the outsider is drawn to pain. Well, is there anyone in this show more tormented than Ralph?
RB: That’s a good point. I wonder if that’s gonna come into play in the last two episodes. But also, Ralph was already hurting before the outsider showed up, whereas it seems to enjoy the pain that it specifically causes. Or who knows, maybe we’ll get a reveal about Ralph’s son’s death that’ll places the outsider in the story before Terry Maitland. We don’t know how the Andersons’ son died, do we?
JR: Well when Jack responded to Holly's comment about pain, he immediately brought up his mother. Whatever issues Jack has with her predates the outsider's arrival because she's dead.
I don't think we know how the Anderson kid died, but do you remember a conversation Ralph and Jeannie had about "injustice"? Maybe I'm misremembering that, but I thought it would have been addressed by now. Obviously, everyone in Cherokee City knows the Andersons lost a son. So why keep us in the dark about the details? That's not suspense; that's withholding. What are your feelings on backstory being paid out this long into the season?
RB: Yeah, now that we’re talking about it and I’m thinking about it, I’m gonna be a little upset if there’s no connective tissue between the outsider and the son’s death. I mean, in the book, the son was just gone to summer camp or whatever, and it felt unnecessary or superfluous to even mention him as a character. So when they introduced him in the show as a dead kid, that’s quite weighty. So, yes, I agree that there’s something being withheld from us about all that, especially given the “dream” Ralph had a few episodes ago.
Anything scare you in this episode? Or were you just so BORED the entire time?
Also, let’s not ignore the fact that the new after-show minidoc is called “Inside The Outsider.” I already have our lawyers working on it.
JR: I was scared Holly might cut herself climbing through the broken glass window but she used the old "toilet tank cover through the window" trick to foil the zombie cop. Also, I'm afraid of what the rental car company is going to say after Jack shot up her car. I bet her deductible is scary high!
Seriously, although this episode was a drag in terms of the story not really going anywhere, I'm really impressed with the acting. It's such a stellar cast. I read a fascinating interview with Yul Vázquez (who plays Yuniz Sabo) about his career in film and television, and there's a really interesting bit at the end where he discusses the Cuban culture in which he was raised. He revealed there was a moment during the filming of The Outsider where he discusses his own belief in the possibility of the supernatural with the show's creators that echoes that climactic scene in episode seven where everyone lays their cards on the table.
Since everyone on the show is fessing up, have you ever had an experience that defies rational explanation?
RB: It's funny you should ask that, because I related to the story private investigator Alec Pelley tells Ralph while they're driving. In Alec's story, he's young and he gets lost in the woods. Right before he's found, he hears someone or something call his name two times. Of course, Ralph immediately dismisses it in typical Ralph faction, and why shouldn't he? Alec was young, and the story is just a fleeting, underdeveloped memory. It's not something that would necessarily captivate a campfire audience.
But when I was about 10 or 11, I was home alone one evening (my parents often worked late), and I swear I saw... something in our house. I was watching TV, and the layout of our living room was such that I could see the space behind me in a reflection of the window next to the TV. So, I was there, watching Full House or The Simpsons or whatever, and suddenly I saw a figure a standing in the doorway of the hall that led to my brother's room. It stood there for a second and then turned and walked into my brother's room. I was so scared that I buried myself in the couch cushions until my parents came home. I mean, I was a pretty scared kid in general, and by the time my mom came home, I was convinced that I had just imagined it. But I still vividly remember the terror that I felt.
I love listening to other people's ghost stories, and I usually don't offer that one because it's just so transitory, fleeting and devoid of drama. But when Alec told his story, that memory came back.
What about you? Anything that defies rational explanation?
JR: Whoa! That's a scary story. When I was in the Navy (you knew this was coming), our ship steamed across the ocean for a six-month tour of the Western Pacific. At some point during the voyage back, I had the midnight watch on aft lookout. It was a lonely, quiet night. Dark with no moon. The night sky full of stars. I felt as if something was watching me. I looked around, but I was alone on the fantail. I checked the breezeways. I checked the flight deck. Nothing. Then I looked up. You know those videos when a whale swims under a boat and all you can see is its immense shadow? It was like that, but in the sky.
I don’t know how else to explain it, but there was something hovering above the ship. Not just above me, but the entire ship, all 438 feet of it. I couldn’t see it, but I could see the edges of it, a boundary where the stars were visible. Then it was gone and when it disappeared I felt inexplicably sad. Like I’d been in the presence of something significant.
Maybe there’s a rational explanation, but I was salty enough to know it wasn’t smoke or some kind of aircraft or my shipmates playing a trick on me. Whatever it was, I’ve made my peace with it. I’m okay with it being beyond my capacity to understand.
I never told my shipmates about it.