You’re going to see a lot of reviews comparing Yellowstone and Outer Range, and it’s no surprise why. Amazon’s new series starring Josh Brolin has a lot of the same ingredients as Peacock’s Kevin Costner hit. But Outer Range has something Yellowstone doesn’t, yet: a serious inclination toward the paranormal.
Before you read any further, know that we won’t be spoiling any plot points for Outer Range, created by Brian Watkins, in this review. It’s not a spoiler to say that on the surface, at least, the similarities between Outer Range and Yellowstone are undeniable. Both focus on rough-hewn ranchers who are fiercely loyal to their families, and the unexpected violence and drama they encounter while roaming around on horseback, tending cattle, chugging beers at the local honky-tonk, and dealing with the annoyance of pesky outsiders and local politics.
But Costner and crew never had to deal with the sudden appearance of a giant hole in one of their vast fields—a perfectly symmetrical, seemingly bottomless pit descending into the unknown. When Brolin’s Royal Abbott makes this particular discovery, it’s so unsettling his reaction is to stand at the edge and yell, “What the fuuuuck?”
Though Royal tries to keep its existence a secret, the hole’s arrival changes everything, not just for the Abbott family (a fierce Lili Taylor as Royal’s wife Cecelia; Tom Pelphrey as his son Perry; Lewis Pullman as his other son, Rhett; Olive Abercrombie as Perry’s young daughter) and others in their rural Wyoming orbit—but quite possibly the fabric of space and time itself. We have an inkling about this, though, thanks to Outer Range’s fondness for foreboding voice-overs and monologues, as well as carefully chosen production design elements that feel like symbolism and omens.
Episode one opens with Royal intoning about Chronos, the Greek god of time, and informing us “the world has been waiting for something like this.” It’s admittedly a bit heavy-handed. But it’s the right kind of tease for a show that might otherwise be mistaken for a straightforward Western. Outer Range runs eight episodes and will have a staggered release, with two installments rolling out weekly—bad news for bingers, since episodes tend to end in cliffhangers, though the plot mostly takes a slow-burn approach (during its earlier episodes, at least), dropping clues both seemingly minor and “LOOK! AT! THIS!” along the way.
Every character has hidden layers; many also have “holes” of their own. The big hole that isn’t the hole is the missing Rebecca Abbott—Perry’s wife and Amy’s mother—who suddenly vanished without a trace nine months prior. It’s not long enough for the family to have given up hope, but it’s long enough for the FBI to call off their search. And Royal’s past is its own gaping maw. With no memory of his childhood before age eight or so, he just turned up at the ranch one day and was taken in by Cecelia’s family, eventually growing up and marrying her. It’s family folklore so charming that Amy asks for it as a bedtime story. But again... it feels like an omen.
Other dominoes start to tumble on the Abbott family as the story gets started. There’s what Royal’s lawyer calls “a good old-fashioned topographical fuckup” —the fact that a certain amount of Abbott acreage apparently legally belongs to a neighboring ranch. It’s land Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton), the frail yet fierce patriarch of the Tillerson family, proves eager to reclaim. You get the sense that’s due to something beyond greed and his long-standing rivalry with Royal, and that it definitely ties into Wayne’s (foreboding!) mutterings early in episode one: “Something is coming... you feel it, don’t you?”
There’s also no love lost between Royal and Wayne’s sons, a conflict that explodes in episode one and soon involves Sheriff Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski)—Native American, gay, mother, keeps her cool amid mountains of bullshit, knows she’s facing a tough election to hold onto her job. In other words, a character that could’ve easily have been written as one-note but, again, is filled with unexpected layers.
Maybe the most puzzling element lurking among the vast prairies of rural Wyoming—other than that hole, anyway—comes in the form of Autumn Rivers (Imogen Poots), who by all appearances is a harmless, hippie-ish drifter looking for a place to camp, and heard Abbott Ranch might be just the spot. When Royal gruffly gives permission, she shakes his hand and says “Glad to finally meet you.” It’s the “finally” that makes you pause, and from then on every scene with Autumn is full of things that make you pause. Her manner—she’s friendly, but also overly familiar to the point of being overbearing—is off-putting and a bit worrisome; we eventually learn she has a chemical imbalance that accounts for some, but definitely not all, of her peculiarities. You also get a strong sense that she’s somehow connected to the cosmic oddities swirling around Royal.
As Outer Range unfurls its plot—a blend of both conventional Western tropes and twists so far-out you have to witness them if you want to make sense of them—it leans heavily into darkness; one of the show’s trailers made excellent use of Royal’s pre-meal “blessing” that snowballs into a fierce rant about “the great void” between God and humanity, and faith is one of the themes the show explores.
Brolin is a commanding presence and he has a natural gravitas that helps ground Outer Range’s more fantastical components. But there are also moments of warmth, as well as bizarre humor—a cowboy who spontaneously breaks into song (Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” never sounded so quirky; overall, the show’s musical selections are top-notch), Wayne Tillerson’s obsession with guzzling Clamato—that feel natural in this world, rather than calculated efforts to break up Outer Range’s bleak subject matter. It’s not Twin Peaks, it’s not Lost, it’s not quite The Outer Limits, but it definitely veers off Yellowstone’s dusty turf and ventures into those directions.
The biggest mystery, besides that damn hole, becomes whether or not Outer Range will stick the landing as it puzzles through Royal’s freaky journey. Suffice to say once you start watching, you won’t be able to stop yourself from tuning in to find out.
The first two episodes of Outer Range premiere on April 15 on Amazon Prime; then you can catch two per week up until the finale on May 6.
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