HBO's 'The Outsider' Spoiler Review: How The Show Diverged From And Deepened The Stephen King Novel

With the airing of last night's action-packed finale, HBO has delivered a gripping climax to its ten-episode Stephen King adaptation, The Outsider. Focusing on a community rocked by a gruesome child murder, the show, like the book, was something of a genre-buster, tipping from police procedural in its first half into full-blown supernatural horror in its second half. Given its steady ratings climb and the finale's post-credits scene, it's possible that HBO will go The Leftovers route with The Outsider and continue the series with new stories beyond the scope of King's novel. The mythology at play in the narrative might even allow the network to anthologize it, adopting a new cast and setting in its second season, as AMC did last year with its Dan Simmons adaptation, The Terror.

For now, however, the dust is left to settle around a stellar first season with a top-of-the-line ensemble cast led by Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo. Developed by Richard Price — the author/co-screenwriter of Clockers and co-creator of The Night Of miniseries, among other things — the show adhered to many aspects of the book while also deviating from the source material in some notable ways. Price penned the majority of episodes, with executive producer Jessie Nickson-Lopez and novelist Dennis Lehane also picking up writing credits. Here, we'll look back on the season as a whole and examine some of the changes they made in order to bring King's vision to television.

Major spoilers lie ahead, of course.

Sober yet scary in its treatment of a shocking crime, The Outsider initially struck something of a True Detective tone, with its supernatural elements lurking on the fringe in the form of the titular outsider: a mysterious hooded man with a burned, Play-Doh-like face. Yet while the first season of True Detective teased connections to the weird fiction of Robert W. Chambers, its Yellow King/Carcosa signposts ultimately landed more as gothic window-dressing, part of an ambiguous tale where — if you took it at face value — it could have all been happening in the natural world with no cosmic interference or supernatural goings-on whatsoever.

Instead of pulling a True Detective and downplaying it at the end, The Outsider went all-in on the supernatural, playing up its Mexican boogeyman, El Cuco, in a progressive manner as the season wore on. In the finale, it even showed us a couple of cave-dwelling ghosts, right before the protagonist, Ralph Anderson, doubled back and smashed the monster's head in with a rock. Let the record show that the monster lay impaled by a stalactite at the time.

What separates The Outsider from True Detective is that it inhabits a more heightened reality where monsters do exist—and not just those of the human variety. When the show crossed the halfway point in the sixth episode ("The One About the Yiddish Vampire"), it went full-tilt King with the scene where the dead mother showed up and hammed, "Hey-ya, Jackie-boy!" before flinging the alcoholic sniper cop, Jack Hoskins (Marc Menchaca), around his apartment.

This is just one example of a scene that played out differently in the book. King's novel had Jack waking up from a nightmare to find his mother's putrified, talking corpse in bed next to him. There was also a Shining-esque scene in the book where Jack encountered the Outsider in his bathroom, watching in horror as the shadowy figure in the tub curled its tattooed fingers around the shower curtain. The show offered up a different riff on this spooky beat in the moment when the Outsider's hand reached up from the back seat in Jack's car as he was driving.

We're getting ahead of the time flow of events here, which isn't entirely inappropriate, given The Outsider's intercutting use of flashbacks at odd junctures. If you weren't paying close enough attention, you might not have even realized that some of those flashbacks — like the one with the two boys getting lost in the 25-cent cave — were, in fact, flashbacks, until the show confirmed that more explicitly.

But let's backtrack a bit and try to approach this in a more linear fashion. Part of what made The Outsider work so well was that it was rooted in character drama, a murder mystery brought to life by a murderer's row of actors, with the aforementioned Mendelsohn, Erivo, and Menchaca being joined by the talents of Jason Bateman, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Bill Camp, Jeremy Bobb, and Yul Vazquez.

One of the most impactful changes the show made was to give Ralph Anderson and his wife, Jeannie, the backstory of parents who had lost a child. In the book, their son was merely off at summer camp, and Ralph never spent a lot of in-scene time in therapy sessions or struggled with a past drinking problem that saw him getting into bar fights. Accused child murderer Terry Maitland still had a history as his son's baseball coach, but the boy was very much alive. Yet his being alive didn't serve much purpose, plot-wise, since he was out of the picture while everything was happening, anyway.

By putting Ralph and Jeannie in a place where they were still grieving over the loss of their own son, the show gave them a more personal stake in the murder of young Frank Peterson. Ralph suddenly had a deeper, more painful personal motivation for sending in officers to arrest Terry Maitland in the middle of a baseball game where the whole town was watching.

Whereas the book had Ralph interacting with Terry's widow more directly at times, the show allowed Jeannie to forge an empathetic bond with her, woman-to-woman, thereby acting as a much-needed go-between. Thrilling and contemplative, even emotional at times, the season finale of The Outsider built on all this character work, culminating in a final pre-credits scene that rang some real pathos out of Ralph's arc. He started out the show as someone who had "no tolerance for the unexplainable." While everyone else around him got on board with the idea of a shape-shifting, child-devouring boogeyman, he remained the lone skeptical holdout.

Early on, The Outsider even had a strident district attorney quoting Shakespeare to Ralph, telling him, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." By the end, Ralph could sit down with his wife at his son's grave and, for the first time in his life, maybe, recognize the possibility that those words were true. As he put it himself, his experience with this case had "cracked the world open" for him.

That might never have happened had he not met Holly Gibney. In the book, Holly didn't show up until the halfway point. Terry Maitland also didn't die until about a third of the way into the story. The show expedited Terry's departure and Holly's arrival. Two episodes in, it had already burned through much of the novel—though part of this may have to do with King's self-admitted "literary elephantiasis," an affliction that causes novelists, even horror masters, to go long and maybe sometimes overwrite as they get caught up in the flight of their prose fancies.

The book padded out certain moments, like Terry's fateful arrival at the courthouse, with pages and pages of description and sensory detail (or minutes and minutes of it, if you listened to the audiobook version, read by actor Will Patton, as I did.) It also crossed over with King's other work in a significant way, with the character of Holly having first appeared in his 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes, where she played a major role. Mr. Mercedes (audiobook also read by Patton) has since been adapted into an Audience series, starring Brendan Gleeson as Detective Bill Hodges.

The HBO adaptation of The Outsider disentangled Holly from Hodges and his adventures, giving her a standalone presence as a private investigator. In the grand tradition of The Shawshank Redemption, which turned a redheaded Irish character named Red into Morgan Freeman onscreen, The Outsider also changed Holly from a grey-haired, older white woman into Erivo's black, braided, old-souled, "neuro-diverse" P.I. In addition, the show invented a new character, Andy (Derek Cecil from House of Cards), to act as a love interest for Holly.

Unfortunately, Andy was one of several fatalities in the parking lot shootout that kicked off the thrilling climax of The Outsider this week. The show fleshed out her relationship with Andy's killer more, giving her some quality time with Jack in the car, a few episodes earlier, as he attempted to abduct her. This caused Jack to hesitate while he was looking down the barrel of his sniper rifle at her this week. It was the impetus for him to take back control of himself from the Outsider and surrender himself to a rattlesnake attack.

Prior to his death, Andy served another vital function beyond love interest in that he was able to act as a verbal springboard for Holly, who spent much of the novel investigating things off on her own. Since King does operate in the prose medium, he's able to delve more into the character's thoughts, their memories and imaginings, some of which can be quite tangential to the main plot. What Price and company had to do was boil the book down to its basic action and dialogue and let the camera and soundtrack provide the sensory details and let the actors internalize the rest.

They did that magnificently, in this reviewer's humble opinion. I've got about six hours left on my second listen-through of The Outsider audiobook. (The full audiobook is over eighteen hours long, so I'm bearing down on the last third of it now.) When the book came out two years ago and I did my first listen-through, however, I remember being vaguely disappointed, feeling that King's story started out strong, only to unravel toward the end.

This is a common complaint with some of his stories, but with The Outsider, I remember being particularly put off by some of the groan-worthy speechifying that the monster did in the cave where our heroes had their final confrontation with him. It's the kind of thing where I found myself nodding along with HBO this week when Ralph was pointing his gun at the monster, telling Holly to stop asking it questions. Don't let it talk, I thought at the TV screen.

Who knows, maybe some viewers who are tougher critics were as underwhelmed by HBO's The Outsider as I was with the book's ending. If the show had any weakness, it might be that it wasn't completely smooth about shifting gears into the supernatural. The book arguably suffered from the same weakness. It had Holly show her fellow investigators scenes from a B-movie called Mexican Wrestling Women Meet The Monster, whereupon Yune Sablo, the state policeman of Mexican descent, drew an immediate link to an old story that his "wife's abuela told her when she was just pequena."

The show's version of Yune was thankfully less of a Spanglish caricature, but if I were Ralph Anderson, sitting in with everybody on Holly's big presentation, listening to her introduce El Cuco as the new prime suspect in the Frank Peterson murder, I'm not sure I would be convinced, either. In the show, Holly was exposed to the El Cuco story by the mother of a prison inmate who overheard her interviewing one of the people caught up in a pattern of previous murders matching the Frank Peterson M.O. It did seem like some of the other characters were too quick to accept this random old folk tale as a viable explanation for what was going on with Terry Maitland and the conflicting evidence surrounding him.

But hey, that's TV, and as we've already discussed, such skepticism goes toward informing Ralph's character's arc. He, in his disbelief, is perhaps meant to be a surrogate for the audience, which needs to willingly suspend its own disbelief in order to enjoy this piece of entertainment.

Minor qualms aside, HBO's The Outsider proved to be another in a long line of winning King adaptations that we've seen in recent years, as the author's work has undergone something of a screen renaissance. The show reached a satisfying conclusion before it cut to credits; then it snuck in a little extra tease, with Holly Gibney reappearing, seeing Jack in the mirror, and checking the back of her neck for the telltale boils that would indicate she's becoming the Outsider's new familiar. There were no boils, but when the camera panned over to show the scratch on Holly's arm, it seemed to suggest that the cycle of evil might continue.

I could be wrong, but I don't necessarily think this means we'll be seeing Cynthia Erivo return next season to play two different versions of herself, one good, the other evil. Don't get me wrong: the prospect of seeing her take on a dual role in a second season isn't a bad thing. But the way I interpret that scene, it's more like the open-ended final shot of HBO's Watchmen last year.

Just because our heroes beat the monster this time doesn't mean the story is over, because, metaphorically, there are always other boogeymen out there, lurking somewhere in the world, looking to replenish themselves in new feeding cycles. At the same time, the scratch on Holly's arm also serves as a kind of branding to remind us of her own outsider status. As she observed in the finale: "An outsider knows an outsider."

As the finale fades from memory, we'll soon go back to life outside The Outsider. For yours truly, as a reader and viewer (technically, listener and viewer), the show improved upon the book and struck just the right balance between mystery, horror, thrills, and good old-fashioned drama.