‘Outsiders’ Review: Mountains, Mayhem, and Modern Mythology

     January 25, 2016


Some countries get legendary stories of elves, giants, even vampires to populate their lore. In America, our mythos seems more attuned — in these modern times — to tales of the moonshine making, ATV jousting, pelt-wearing Appalachian mountain folk that populate WGN America’s new series Outsiders. The Farrell family is the stuff of living legend, and Outsiders is accordingly filled with the very old themes of love, power, and blood ties, as well as a strange echo (superficially) to the so-called “Oregon standoff.”

In both cases, an entrenched family battles for what they believe are their land rights, but with Outsiders, it goes far beyond that struggle to encompass the group’s very way of life. The Farrells subsist — as they have for two hundred years — off of the land (although they do occasionally make ATV runs into town to steal sugar for their moonshine). It’s one reason that they can’t be blockaded and driven off the mountain, and it also adds to their mythology. They are outsiders both in regards to the town they abut, but also because of their own choices. They have no use for modernity, except for when it suits them. The name Farrell is even Dickensian in its descriptive nature: they are a “feral” clan.


Image via WGN America

Part of what drives the show’s early narrative relates back to themes of insiders and outsiders, when Asa Farrell (Joe Anderson) returns to the mountain after a decade in the outside world. He spends time in a cage to pay his penance and prove his desire to become part of the family again, but things are hardly so simple. He’s met with the most hostility from the powerful and taciturn Big Foster (David Morse), who has ambitions to lead the clan in the position of “Brennan” (“chief”). Foster’s mother, Lady Ray (Phyllis Somerville) feels that Asa’s return is a fulfillment of prophecy, while Asa’s ex-paramour G’Winveer (Gillian Alexy) and her new beau, the gentle giant Lil Foster (Ryan Hurst), see it more as an ill portend.

The major conflict, though, arises when a powerful coal company has designs on Shay Mountain, atop which the Farrells dwell. It’s one of the many complicated dichotomies that the series presents, since the coal company is also the employer of many of the poor, blue-collar townsfolk. They resent the Farrells, but won’t make a move against them (their legendary status and secretive nature works to protect them). A sweeter side to this standoff, though, plays out through an unlikely relationship between Hasil Farrell (Kyle Wallner) and the beautiful townie Sally-Ann (Christina Jackson). The town and the mountain are connected, and how those two cultures interact are some of the series’ most dynamic scenes. (In fact, the townsfolk are portrayed by some of the most real and natural actors I’ve ever seen representing small-town America on TV). Further, there’s always something compelling to be found in a story of the People vs. Big Coal.

But most of Outsiders’ first few episodes (of an eventual thirteen) focus on Asa’s attempts to get back in with the family, which includes the aforementioned ATV jousts, a lot of beatdowns, and one fantastically entertaining standoff on a construction site. Asa’s ability to read, and his knowledge of things like drones (which the coal company sends to spy on the Farrells), give the clan an advantage beyond their survivalist skills, and their reticence to trust him begins to thaw once he starts proving his unique worth.