When I was in fourth grade, we spent a solid week learning how to read brands.
It was probably a Social Studies unit; I’m pretty sure fourth grade was the year designated by the county as being the one for Wyoming state history. And brands—as will quickly become clear to anyone who queues up the first two episodes of Prime Video’s new speculative high plains thriller, Outer Range—are a big part of that history. The Lazy M Bar. The Rocking J. The N Bar N. The Double Four. We learned them all. (By sight, at least, if not yet as visceral manifestations of frontier settler colonialism.) Was this a skill set I’d go on to need in the leafy suburbs of the second most populous city in the state? I mean, not really. But I guess it didn’t hurt to know that, should the hyper-aggressive, ATV-obsessed owners of the ranch neighboring the stretch of acreage where we boarded our horses ever made good on their threats to shoot any dog that set so much as a paw across the property line, I’d at least be able to name their brand in a line-up.
If it seems like I’m taking my time getting to the point, well, the wait will make good practice for Outer Range. Created and executive produced by Ben Watkins and starring Josh Brolin, Imogen Poots, Lili Taylor, Tamara Podemski, Lewis Pullman, Tom Pelphrey, Noah Reid, Shaun Sipos, Will Patton, and The Haunting of Hill House’s Olive Abercrombie, Prime Video’s eerie, Wyoming-set speculative mystery series is so damn unhurried it’s easy, half the time, to forget you’re watching a mystery at all. Hell, it’s easy, half the time, to forget you’re watching anything. Just stretched-wide vistas, a vast, open sky, and a giant, supernatural hole whose secrets no one—or at least, no one with any meaningful narrative power—has the slightest interest in plumbing.
In short: If an entire landscape could be laconic, that’s how I’d describe the fictional Amelia County of Watkins’ Outer Range.
This isn’t a failing. An economy of dialogue and a protraction of plot serve Outer Range well, as the mystery of the big spooky hole in the Abbotts’ west pasture isn’t the point of the series so much as its psychological fulcrum. That is to say, what the hole is is far less important than what it represents—to Royal (Brolin), who seems to see it as proof God has abandoned humanity to a great void; to Autumn (Poots), who seems to see it as a portal to a world whose bones she might better fit; to Wayne Tillerson (Patton), who seems to see it as the next frontier that’s rightfully his to conquer; to whoever else might stumble across it, they might see in it their darkest inner truth. It’s the ultimate blank space against which any broken person can project their deepest fears; the ultimate well into which they can cast their most shameful secrets. It is both a precursor to and object of a kind of frontier-born religious ecstasy, a divine madness, a theia mania that overtakes every major player by season’s end. It might, too, be a doorway to a different plain. Although if it were, Royal et al would be the last ones to tell literally any other soul.
The point is: In the unsettled and unsettling world of Wambang, Wyoming, the big spooky hole in the Abbotts’ west pasture doesn’t have to mean anything to upend reality. It deranges the Abbott and Tillerson families plenty just by existing, a feeling that director Alonso Ruizpalacios and cinematographer Jay Keitel do a particularly good job stirring up for the audience on a visceral level in the first episode (“The Void”) with an array of hard cuts that yank the viewer from scene to scene before any of them really start or end, lots of atypical/odd closeups that cut off more of whichever character in the frame than is formally useful, and a dogged unwillingness to give the viewer nearly enough time with the hole to get any real sense of its (un)reality.
Smart visual storytelling aside, I realize that I still haven’t gotten to the point of this review—at least, not fully. Because if the mystery of the big spooky hole isn’t the narrative engine behind Outer Range’s first season—and it really isn’t—then I should probably say in plain language what is, and whether or not Outer Range has the tools to make that story engaging enough to watch in doubleheader drops for the next several weeks.
So here, in the broadest possible terms, is the story Outer Range is telling: On a vast stretch of (fictional) Amelia County land just north of the (real) Wind River Range, two legacy ranches sit on either side of a disputed fenceline. On Royal Abbott’s side is a working ranch, with maybe eighty head of cattle that Royal and his wife (Taylor), two sons (Pullman and Pelphrey) and nine-year-old granddaughter (Abercrombie) move from pasture to pasture as needed. On Wayne Tillersons’ side, by contrast, there is voracious speculation, avaricious mineral extraction, and a trio of entitled, ATV-revving assholes (Sipos, Reid, and Matt Lauria) whose sense of brotherhood seems rooted more in the mad power their family holds over everyone else in the county than in the blood they share. In Royal’s west pasture, we learn early in the first episode, there is a hole. Perfectly round, perfectly flat, but not perfectly empty: It is filled (as you might only be able to discern if you watch in the dark with all the lights turned off) with a swirling, blue-gray plasma, something like smoke but a lot more solid. On the Abbotts’ side, only Royal seems to know about the hole. On the Tillersons’ side, well, if Wayne doesn’t know about the hole, then he knows there’s something valuable enough in Royal’s west pasture to spend months terrorizing the family in ways both psychological and legalistic to get it.
This last point, the legal headache the Tillersons have plagued the Abbotts with, is positioned early on as *the* thing constituting whatever interpersonal drama might exist between the two families. And in the sense that Wayne and his sons spend the bulk of the eight-episode season refusing to drop the case they’ve made that a few historic surveys show Royal’s west pasture as actually being on Tillerson land—which in turn obliges Royal and Cecilia to always be on and off the phone with their lawyer, his lawyer, and the possibly shady county assessor, no matter what else in their life is on the verge of falling apart.
And yet, given the shocking act of violence that disrupts the already (intentionally) disjointed pilot episode and sets the two families on a crash course towards bloody, mutually assured destruction, this might feel to viewers like a real misalignment of creative priorities. As someone who grew up in the state, though, I can say that apart from Billy Tillerson’s love of Fox Racing hoodies and the fact that the local feed and tack store is tucked up right alongside the Rialto theater on downtown Wambang’s main drag, nothing else rang so true about the psychic vibes of life in the modern Mountain West than Outer Range’s unwavering commitment to showcasing the tedious stranglehold individual (white) claims on stolen (Shoshone) land have on the imagination of landowners looking to maximize the value of their own private utopias. It’s a bad look! But it’s a very real one.
Anyway, good luck to Deputy Sheriff Joy (Podemski) on running her campaign for Sheriff in the middle of investigating the violence at the heart of all that colonialist chaos.
Where Poots’ Autumn comes into the story verges enough on the core (and embargoed) mysteries that I’ll just say she arrives as a backpacker from Boulder simply looking for a place to set up camp for a few nights, but then gradually becomes a central enough figure in both families’ lives that she deranges their reality even more than the big spooky hole does. Whether or not you’ll think the conclusion of her mysterious arc will justify the painfully unhurried path this first season takes to get there, well, you’ll just have to see. I can’t say I was sold when I first watched the final screener and put the pieces together, but then again, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. So maybe that’s a win!
That said, if what you’re hoping to get out of your Wyoming-set, Brolin-starring speculative mystery series is answers, well. See above re: getting practiced at waiting. Similarly a long time coming? Catharsis of any other kind. Because while the first few episodes—hell, the whole first season—will give you plenty of weird, tightly wound characters just curling themselves tighter and weirder around all the private traumas and personal obsessions that the West’s love affair with rugged individualism has saddled them with, release is a long time coming.
Me? I waited more than two decades for all that Wyoming brand knowledge I learned in fourth grade to mean anything. I can wait a season (or more) for the religious ecstasies of Outer Range to find psychic release.
Outer Range premieres Friday, April 15 on Prime Video. It will roll out two episodes at a time, until its finale on May 6.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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