The Unorthodox Politics of WGN America's Outsiders

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The Unorthodox Politics of WGN America's <i>Outsiders</i>

Haylie Grimes (Francie Swift), the flaxen-haired “community relations manager” pulling the strings in Blackburg, Kentucky, launches her campaign to remove the top of Shay Mountain at a tumultuous “town hall”-style meeting. With a voice that sounds like sweet tea tastes—pleasant at first, then cloying, and finally indigestible, turning the stomach with its honeyed extravagance—she promises to “revitalize” this tiny corner of Appalachia. Even here, though, in the state’s easternmost reaches, the residents’ opinions are beyond her command. The rowdy assembly, the most sneakily absorbing sequence in Outsiders’ first season, pauses to hear Ledda Dobbs’ (Rebecca Harris) concerns over coal dust and black sludge; her husband, Breece (Jeb Kreager), an unemployed miner and Iraq War veteran, follows her at the podium, pleading with his fellow citizens to support the project. When cotton-mouthed Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson) lifts the microphone to his lips, reciting a twisted rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on behalf of his clan of isolationist squatters, WGN America’s otherwise inconsistent drama establishes its estimable interest in politics’ ever-strange bedfellows, as if to test the red-blue hermeneutic of our Electoral College maps: “O say does that far-fangled banner act depraved,” he concludes, “O’er the home of pure greed and the land of the slave.”

Now in its second season, Outsiders, created by Peter Mattei, remains hamstrung by its obsession with the rites of the Farrells, mountain folk descended from the region’s first Scots-Irish settlers; the rueful machinations of the clan’s current leader, or Bren’in, G’Winveer (Gillian Alexy), and her predecessor/husband, Big Foster (David Morse), resemble the rote palace intrigue of “serious” TV, transplanted to the shady glens of Shay Mountain, with an uncomfortable soupçon of anthropological awe. The men ride ATVs in makeshift jousts and mix hallucinatory moonshine for the clan’s frequent gatherings, the camera leering at such peculiar practices as it does bloodied corpses or suppurating wounds: If Outsiders has a central (if not fatal) flaw, it’s that it seems unable to hold back when restraint is required, and unable to press the issue when the moment demands.

If the contortions involved in bringing Big Foster back from the dead suggest a series still trying to find its sea legs—his apparent assassination in the Season One finale segues into a frankly risible, mercifully brief kidnapping subplot—Outsiders nonetheless continues to shore up its keen sense of Appalachia’s combustible atmosphere, forging a portrait of the zeitgeist as seen from the epicenter of the post-industrial devolution. Once relegated to a supporting role in the narrative, Blackburg’s blight now figures prominently in the series’ depiction of a desperate, and divided, locale, hemmed in by the ghostly outlines of its past: The clan elicits contempt from the townspeople not because its presence halts progress, but because the Farrells offers a piercing reminder of what their neighbors have long since signed away.

It’s when Outsiders turns from rites to rights, then, that the series comes alive, its bedeviling knot of traditions, convictions, compromises and hard lines more engrossing to unravel than any turf war on Shay’s slopes. Anchored by Swift’s superb turn as the merrily villainous Grimes, smiling and nodding with unnerving equanimity as she plots her coal company’s ruthless conquest, the second season emerges as an incisive reconsideration of political empathy—one that neither excuses the fear of outsiders nor writes it off as a result of mere personal prejudice. In particular, the series is at pains to emphasize the collaboration between corporations and public officials in pitting downtrodden residents against those, in this case the Farrells, without political power.

In the season premiere, for instance, Grimes introduces Blackburg’s uncertain sheriff, Wade Houghton (Thomas M. Wright), to an “emergency manager” installed by the governor to “restore confidence” after Houghton’s attempt to bring the Farrells to heel at the end of Season One goes awry. That the man is a mercenary determined to strip the town bare is apparent from his first exchange with Houghton, in which he offers to “save” the jobs of two deputies by reducing the frequency of trash collection and closing the county’s sole health clinic instead. (His familiar paeans to “fiscal responsibility” ring false, of course, when one considers the cost of fencing in the mountain and hiring private security guards to monitor its margins, a border wall in microcosm that frames orthodox conservatism as a wealth-addled sham.) As Outsiders shifts the action more and more to Blackburg proper, it raises—still fitfully, still distractedly—the specter of a strategy that’s shadowed Appalachia since the days of the first Farrells, when Bacon’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion and a host of smaller, lesser-known uprisings threatened to fuse those on the frontier into an alliance against the power of the American aristocracy. As yet, no such resistance has held together long, beset by the forces of racism, tribalism and nationalism by which our elites have always protected their authority, but Mattei and company’s focus on the terror the prospect strikes in powerful hearts acknowledges that the yawning ideological gulfs of our present politics are not too wide to be bridged.

As the Farrells steel themselves against the coal company’s poisonous intrusions, Outsiders’ second season thus finds faint echoes of solidarity in church basements and insurance offices, abortion clinics and courtrooms; its understanding of the consequences of “pro-life” legislation and put-upon public defenders has become its most striking feature, as if animated by the political climate’s angry court and spark. “That’s a death sentence,” Wade snipes at an administrator when he learns that Ledda, his sister, recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, has been slapped with a $135,000 co-pay. “How’s it feel to work for a system like that?” Work for a system that kills people? You might not be pulling the trigger yourself, but you might as well be.”

Outsiders recognizes, in short, that needing to sell one’s house to pay for treatment—like needing to drive to St. Louis to end a pregnancy or rot in jail on trumped-up charges or accept the risks of a job at the mine in order to put food on the table—is an inhuman position in which to find oneself, and that it’s in such circumstances that political extremism is born. In the series, as in the country, it remains unclear what form this frustration with the status quo will take, but in dissent Outsiders discovers at least the potential for a new paradigm. As a small band of protestors chants in next week’s episode, “How We Hunt,” the blame for the many crises we face—economic, environmental, medical, political—falls at the feet of the governors and emergency managers and executives whose very brand is crisis: “Coal kills the Earth. Coal kills the sky. Coal gets the money. We get to die.”

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.