The fourth episode of “Outcasts” is the first that feels like the show is hitting its stride, finding the right balance of elements and working with (or around) the strengths and weaknesses that have been present since the beginning. It’s not perfect, and it’s not even as good as episode 1, but it’s enough to keep viewers entertained and engaged for the duration, and that’s a big step up.
The latest instalment is a much more focused story, in which an AC named Elijah wanders right up to Forthaven’s front gate, seemingly on the verge of death as a result of last episode’s white-out. The mere presence of an AC, coming on the heels of Richard Tate revealing their existence to the Forthaven community, is enough to cause tensions, but things get worse when Elijah starts having violent episodes that leave an innocent woman in the medical centre. Between the hunt for this dangerous man is the question of why he is the way he is and what to do with him once caught, and mixed in as well is the drama of Stella and Lily’s tenuous relationship, Cas and Fleur’s partnership, Richard having what might be the beginnings of a mental breakdown, and Julius Berger’s political and theological manoeuvring. It’s a full load for a single episode, but what’s amazing isn’t that “Outcasts” attempts to juggle all this: it’s that it does it well.
After a slow start and some quieter moments that only serve to remind the audience where things stand – Lily is miffed with her mother, the ACs are out there and dangerous, etc. – things really start to pick up and the pacing is, for the most part, enough to carry viewers right through to the end of the episode. Much of the navel-gazing present in the last two instalments is ditched in favour of things happening, and happening quickly. Nothing was quite as shocking as witnessing Elijah the AC’s first episode – and some major credit to the writer and director, who took the “nothing is scarier” maxim to heart in their depiction (or lack thereof) of this – quite early on, but the rest of the story does its best to live up to that first twist in the tale and keep the audience on their toes about what’s going to happen next.
The writer of episode 4 seems to have a better handle on how to do characterisation than any of the writers who came before, and the crew seem to finally trust the actors enough to know that they’ll deliver good performances and convey subtle details without having to be prompted by a big navel-gazing moment. The episode is all the better for it: Stella benefited the most, and after three episodes of doing everything but shouting “WAAAAAAALT!” at the top of her lungs in every scene, Hermione Norris gets the chance here to give her character intelligence, power and guilt simply in the way she plays her fast-paced plot-heavy scenes with the other characters.
The rest of the actors get that same kind of breathing room, and it’s a boon to the series. Richard Tate comes across as a darker, more pragmatic leader than he did before simply through Liam Cunningham’s performance; Daniel Mays gives Cas more loyalty and love than ever came through in the writing, just as Amy Manson gives Fleur the kind of big heart that makes the audience believe she’d go to such great lengths for people who ostensibly want to kill her.And it all happens in the midst of the episode’s main action, without feeling like everything’s been paused so a character can talk about his or her feelings before moving on.
Even the few beats of navel-gazing worked much better than they had in previously, and the highlight of the episode was easily the rooftop scene with Cas and Elijah. Both actors give very naturalistic performances in a scene that balances, as an author once put it, “the intimately human and the grandly cosmic” by having a sci-fi police officer and an experimental super-human talking about girls. The biggest hiccup in the episode’s characterisation is Richard and Stella’s complete one-eighty on Julius Berger, but it’s almost justified as the character starts living up to all the potential he had in episode 2 by bullying a wounded woman, making alliances with the expeditionaries and trying to manipulate the Elijah situation.
The other great strength of the episode was the ability to build suspense, both in the short and long term. Elijah’s episode makes the audience just as scared of him as the other characters, and every subsequent scene with him and Fleur or Cas or someone else – especially the rooftop scene, for all its heart – has viewers worried for them. The chaos of the ambush at the end work just as well at keeping the audience on the edge of their seat and wondering how it would all go down, even if they’d probably guessed. And throughout the A-plot, lots of little nuggets were dropped that will hopefully pay dividends later in the series.
Richard’s hallucinations are depicted with just the right amount of confusion and ambiguity that it’s still up in the air whether or not they’re memories, phantasms or something else entirely, and Jack’s discovery has all manner of implications for this (so far) hard sci-fi series.
Easily the best instalment of “Outcasts” since the premiere, episode 4 plays to the strengths of the series by keeping the plot moving quickly, upping the suspense and making use of the more interesting players in this story. The actors prove that they’re much better at developing characters than the writers and with any luck, this will continue through the rest of the series and help it to live up to all its potential.