Airing on Cinemax on Friday June 3, the first episode of Outcast promises a thoroughly compelling new television series, the most compelling I’ve seen in a while.
Based on the comic of the same name written by Robert Kirkman (and in this opening episode, at least, the series is quite faithful to the comic), Outcast is not unlike Kirkman’s better-known epic, The Walking Dead—although the bleakness of Outcast seems more unrelieved, the characters and landscape more monochrome. Even though the world as we know it is not actually over yet in Outcast, the desolation seems more palpable—perhaps because the world is ending in a way that cuts a bit closer to home than the zombie apocalypse. Despite that difference, Outcast and The Walking Dead are similar in that each takes a violent and easily sensationalized horror subgenre (exorcism, zombies) and weaves it into the fabric of everyday life, creating a horror narrative that relies on realism to induce dread.
At the center of Outcast is Kyle Barnes (played brilliantly by Patrick Fugit). Kyle is the titular “outcast,” although the first episode ends without shedding light on what exactly that means. Kyle has returned to Rome, West Virginia, and is living alone in his childhood home on the outskirts of the dying town.
We learn through flashbacks that Kyle has a history of violence—first with his mother, who used to routinely drag him to the pantry and lock him in. Moreover, it soon becomes clear that violence ended Kyle’s marriage, and he is barred from even calling his ex-wife and daughter. What is interesting about Kyle’s relationship with both his mother and his ex-wife, though, is that we’re not entirely sure if Kyle was the perpetrator or the victim of the abuse—or both. Outcast presents us with a complicated portrait of what domestic violence can look like.
And the violence is not Kyle’s alone. The episode begins with a boy named Joshua, who looks uncannily similar Kyle when he was a boy. Joshua is possessed by a demon. As the Revered Anderson (Philip Glenister) says to Kyle, as he tries to recruit him to help with the exorcism, “These things are all around us. They’re everywhere.” The Reverend is anxious for Kyle’s help because Kyle has been through this before—and he somehow survived the experience.
I should say that one of Outcast’s strengths is undeniably its fantastic direction and cinematography. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next , The Guest , and the upcoming The Woods) relentlessly highlights the striking poverty as well as the bleak beauty of a dying small, rural town—and the constant return to scenes of Rome and its struggling “ordinary” inhabitants is actually integral to what makes Outcast unique: in a way I’ve never seen done quite this effectively before, the series lingers in the liminal ground between the real and the supernatural. Elderly women who go religiously to church talk matter-of-factly in the grocery store, for instance, about the “dark forces” to which the townspeople routinely fall prey. The realistic shots of Rome, then, bleed into the more surreal indoor scenes of possession and exorcism.
Outcast is, in short, at the same time about demonic possession and about the dire things that poverty, abandonment, despair, mental illness, and drugs can do to the family, how those conditions breed abuse. One of my favorite lines is when Reverend Anderson says to Kyle, with a devastating matter-of-factness, “There’s a house like this one in every town in this world.” A house possessed by demons? Or a house in which one family member abuses another? Or both?
Outcast is about the always profound closeness of “dark forces.” And we’re not talking here about some visible “hellmouth” that spews supernatural monstrosities. The “dark forces” are closer to us than that—so much so that they seem to be inherent, already within us. Even as they are also clearly demonic. The real and the supernatural are of one cloth.
The character of Reverend Anderson adds to the ambiguity of Outcast (is the evil real or supernatural?) in that he so clearly wants to believe the “dark forces” are demonic. They give him a purpose, and their existence revived his flagging faith, which was dying like the rest of Rome. As he says to Kyle in a moment of telling honesty: “I saw the devil was real and I didn’t question anymore.” Indeed, Joshua’s mother jumps immediately to the conclusion that her son is possessed by demons because, as she tells the Reverend, “It’s just like you’ve been talking about on Sundays.” Has the Reverend planted a seed in his parishioners that grows by itself? In one key scene, Reverend Anderson talks about the fact that his church is literally falling apart—and he looks over at the town youth who mock him and paint obscenities on the church walls. In some ways, demonic possession is so much easier to solve than the problems of poverty and hopelessness.
Robert Kirkman has written an open letter to fans of the Outcast comics in which he says that Kyle is “your average everyday human—aside from the fact that he’s been tormented by demonic possession.” Kirkman claims that the “exorcism genre is open to a dramatic, realistic interpretation in the same way that the zombie epic was when The Walking Dead began.” The comic and the TV series (so far) do indeed offer a “dramatic, realistic interpretation” of the exorcism narrative.
Kyle says of his demons near the end of the first episode, “Seems like they been coming after me my whole life.” In both the comic and the TV show, this line about the relentlessness of demonic forces is delivered in a mundane setting, as Kyle and Anderson, dressed in normal, drab clothes, sit in or stand by an ordinary car; the background is unremarkable and dull. The entire mise-en-scène, then, embodies the way in which what may well be supernatural demons are also those realistic demons that are more pervasive and maybe harder to exorcise.