Cynthia Erivo in HBO's The Outsider: An Appreciation

The Oscar nominee has become the show's shadow protagonist.
  • Cynthia Erivo in The Outsider. (HBO)
    Cynthia Erivo in The Outsider. (HBO)

    HBO's The Outsider was good from the start. Based on the Stephen King novel and brought to the screen by producer Richard Price (The Night Of) and actor/director Jason Bateman, The Outsider began like many crime serials, with a mysterious murder leading to fear and recrimination in a small town. But it quickly shifed into something else, something darker and more sinister. And with every episode, that darkness has grown creepier and more threatening. 

    From moment Cynthia Erivo showed up as criminal investigator Holly Gibney, things went from good to great. Holly is a familiar archetype on a show like this. She's an outsider too — both from a literal out-of-town perspective, and also because she operates on a savant-like level, uncomfortable with a great many social situations and customs, but able to zero in on details that will help solve the case. She's also open to ideas about the supernatural and the occult, which have proven to come in handy as Ralph Anderson's (Ben Mendelson) investigation into crimes that may or may not have been committed by Terry Maitland (Bateman) has run into such impossibilities as doppelgangers, premonitions, and dark hooded figures of pure evil feeding on the pain of others.

    The British-born Erivo is a relatively new talent on American shores. In 2016, she won a Tony Award for her work in the revival of Broadway's The Color Purple. Then she crossed over seamlessly to films with last year's Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows, where she literally stood toe-to-toe with Viola Davis and did not blink. Appropriately enough, Erivo's breakthrough year was rewarded with an Oscar nomination; she's currently a Best Actress nominee for her work on the Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet.

    In recent weeks, Erivo's Holly has become The Outsider's shadow protagonist. This fits with the show's doppelganger theme, so let's call it intentional. It gives the series a dual perspective: one that can't believe the things we're seeing and presses for a rational explanation, and one which embraces the irrational and stops trying to explain it away. From the looks of the super-tease HBO released to preview the second half of the season (below), it appears that a big part of these episodes is going to be Holly selling Ray and other skeptics (Julianne Nicholson's Glory, for one) on the belief that the supernatural is real, it's happening, and it's threatening them all.

    This in and of itself is a new flavor for Erivo to play, as previously we've seen her as tough and striving. Holly is a unique character on the TV landscape, she's a bundle of nerves and fears who is also incredibly confident in her ability to do her job. She's also a new angle on The Outsider that cuts through the heaviness of the plot, while giving the audience something new to fear: that something bad might happen to her. God forbid she gets taken out before the finale. Not when we've just become so attached.

    The Outsider returns with a new episode this Sunday Night at 9:00 PM ET on HBO.

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Outsider, HBO, Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo