In the opening moments of Outcast, Cinemax’s new series from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, we see a 10-year-old boy named Joshua (Gabriel Bateman) eat the bloody remains of a cockroach. The stomach-turning image of the demon-possessed boy sets the tone for this supernatural horror show. But it’s when we meet the boy’s mother Betsy and teenage sister Mindy, bickering almost stereotypically about whether or not Mindy can go out that night, that things take a turn. There’s anxiety and even exhaustion in the argument, the kind that gives the sense that it’s not an entirely happy home. That a demon can creep its way into this familial milieu speaks to where Kirkman is going with this series. Everyone has their demons — these folks just also have real ones.
Outcast, based on his ongoing comic series of the same name, is Kirkman’s third TV series after The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. Here, it’s demons instead of zombies, but the writer is no less interested in exploring the human condition in the face of horror. As in TWD, there is a deep wellspring of sadness and anger underpinning the character interactions onscreen. His first show sought to make a statement about how desperate people will act when their world collapses around them. In this show, it’s abuse and the scars it leaves behind.
Outcast is about abuse and the scars it leaves behid
The pilot for the new series, which aired here at SXSW, takes place in the sleepy town of Rome, West Virginia. Kyle Barnes (Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit) is a broken man living in squalor in his childhood home. Fugit plays Barnes with a palpable weariness that colors the entire series. When we meet him, he’s withdrawn from the outside world for two years, surviving on the assistance provided by his sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt). But Barnes is dogged by past trauma and past sins, and his reclusiveness comes out of a need to punish himself. It isn’t until he hears of Joshua — apparently one of a string of possessions that includes Kyle’s mother’s possession years prior — that he starts to come out into the world.
And it’s in Joshua’s family household that the series really reaches for what it clearly views as the height of the supernatural horror genre: The Exorcist. The Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), a grizzled, self-styled warrior of God, quickly steps into Max von Sydow’s shoes after being called in to exorcise the demon in control of Joshua. Director Adam Wingard references the William Friedkin classic at every chance he gets, from Joshua’s feral behavior all the way up to the child levitating atop his bed. It’s an obvious homage, but it’s no less effective, especially when Wingard takes things to extremes the original film wasn’t technically capable of.
Before long, we learn from that Kyle has the power to drive out the kind of demons possessing Joshua, and the reverend asks for his help in his holy work. The devilry on display is unsettling. We learn early on that demons are among us, destroying lives and homes all over the world. But Kyle has a unique connection to them, and inexplicably has power to drive them out. Whether or not it’s God-given — or if there even is a God in this series — remains to be seen.
Kirkman has done a deft balancing act portraying Kyle as both a troubled spiritual hero and a victim of brutal child abuse. His mother was actually possessed, but he’s convinced himself that she was sick and dangerous, and he carried that trauma with him into his failed marriage. The actual demons that haunt him are supernatural, but his suffering is still grounded and relatable, and he understandably blames himself for the pain that happens around him.
Kirkman and Wingard are unafraid of shocking their audience
Which is why, in the conclusion, watching him punch the living daylights out of Joshua to exorcise the demon is at once shocking (how could it not be?) and cathartic given the context. After watching the child taunt him, he lashes out blindly — just like he did as a child. Without doing the character development to justify the act, one would have to be disgusted by how far the story goes to get to its conclusion. Though it’s mostly in keeping without the brutality in The Walking Dead, seeing it so plainly and so early on in this series is bound to shock people. It only works because the writing and Fugit’s performance work to draw us into his pain.
Outcast promises to expand on the supernatural world descending on Rome and Kyle Barnes’ place in it when it premieres this June. And after getting picked up for a second season, it’s clear Cinemax has faith in Kirkman, still riding high on the continued success of The Walking Dead, to bring his particular take on the supernatural to another series.