Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
“Outer Range” is a new sci-fi western series from Amazon Studios. It follows directly in the rural-clad footsteps of another surprise hit of the streaming era, “Yellowstone.” Amazon seems eager to capitalize on the trend that show started, putting some serious marketing muscle behind “Outer Range,” relative to the other offerings in its stable. At first blush, it’s paid off: the series recently concluded it’s eight-episode run, and as of this writing, “Outer Range” was the number one show on the company’s Prime Video streaming service.
To make sense of whether the show measures up to all that hype, I asked my colleague Jan Pytalski to help me break it down. Jan brings an enthusiasm and expertise for the more cryptic and surreal parts of both rural fiction and rural life, exemplified by his fandom for shows like “Twin Peaks” and others like it.
Instead of a traditional review or analysis, Jan and I talked through our experiences watching the show. It’s a slightly longer and looser approach than our standard M.O., but I hope you enjoy it. There are some mild spoilers below, but we took care to ensure our conversation was safe to enjoy whether you’ve watched the show or not.
Adam B. Giorgi: What did you make of this show? What was your experience with “Outer Range?”
Jan Pytalski: I came into this show with pretty high expectations, primarily because I like the genre. I was hoping for a subtle approach to science fiction mystery in a rural setting, in how the plot is being revealed to us over time.
I’m always drawn to these shows, first and foremost, by the visuals and the building of the atmosphere and the world. And that’s where I felt the most David Lynch vibe coming through. There was enough of that bizarre, and almost expressionistic elements in it, where I thought, “Wow, it reminds me of the most uncanny moments in ‘Twin Peaks’ where characters are stripped suddenly of their normal everyday decorum and they explode with this energy of an unknown origin.” So I was very much drawn to that at first.
AG: By the end, my frame of reference really, the points of comparison I brought to this show, ended up being “LOST” and “Westworld.”
It struck me as a middle of the road mainstream drama, with touches of weirdness. And in some ways I wanted it to be weirder. But the other way that I really found it to be like “LOST” and “Westworld” is that this is what I would call a “mystery box” show.
That’s a style of storytelling that became very popular in the “LOST” era, which is a show that’s really built around setting up all these questions. For “Outer Range,” everything, like you said, seems normal and then it’s like, “Oh, there’s a giant hole in the property. What’s the story with the hole.” There are all these little weird things happening. What’s the story with all these weird things? So much of what then animates the show is the mystery box, wanting to know what’s going on. So how did the core questions, or how did the mystery element of the show, how did it work for you? Did it compel you in a good way? Was it overdoing the mystery? What do you think?
JP: That’s the first snag that I hit. I think you locating it as a mystery box type of show is perfectly on point. The one primary difference that I felt was visible in this show is that too many characters out the gate know the mystery box … the sense I got was that we are far more lost than some of the characters in the show. And that to me, unfortunately, took away a little bit from it because I felt like it’s more unfinished business rather than a true mystery.
Regardless, I felt like over time, as the episodes progressed, that the big hole in the ground became less of an actual mystery and more a metaphor for more mundane, prosaic, everyday problems. There’s a lot of talking around the core mystery between the characters which for me feels like it’s standing in for a lot of modern-day issues that you could easily locate in rural Wyoming or in other parts of rural America, which is not a good or a bad thing, it’s actually quite interesting.
AG: Our point-of-view character is Royal Abbott, played by Josh Brolin, and as you’re alluding to, he knows a lot more about these mysteries than is led on at the beginning. In some ways, the character that I found the easiest to connect with and who I think may have been, if you were really going to hone in on the mystery, the most sensible point-of-view character would actually be Sheriff Joy. She’s the prototypical small-town sheriff, and she knows the least about what’s going on, so she’s that natural entry point.
Also, I just found her to be a really interesting character because she does buck some of the expectations. It’s an Indigenous story, it’s an LGBTQ story she occupies, and it’s a rural politics story. I think she brings something interesting there. But I want to transition into the rural angle, because you talked about how you thought the modern metaphor was the value of the mystery as opposed to just intrinsically the mystery itself.
It’s impossible to not talk about this show in the context of a slight boom in “rural shows.” “Yellowstone” is the big one that everybody talks about and is a massive success. You have other rural shows that are becoming more in vogue at the moment. So let’s talk a little bit more about those connections to modern rural life. In your opinion, why tell this story now and why tell it in the rural Mountain West, in rural Wyoming?
JP: For these types of genre pieces, rural became a go-to setting because of its remoteness, because of its uniqueness in a cultural sense. Oftentimes, the biggest audiences may actually not be rural, for these types of shows, and the clash of worlds adds to whatever mystery you’re building. It’s this world where you have this population that is mastering nature around them. In this case, you have these really self-reliant ranchers who, despite all the odds, managed to do business in this harsh environment and run a successful business. Then, of course, you take away that control from them and, in my mind, that’s what ratchets up the fear factor that even they can’t control the world around them anymore.
It’s a good moment to tell this story because it’s about exploitation and it’s about, in some ways, literally getting stuff out of the ground at all costs without taking consequences into consideration. In that sense, I feel like it’s a very timely piece because God knows how much we talk about depleting resources, so I see a straight line from this to any number of things, climate change I guess being one of the most obvious.
AG: The building blocks are very familiar, the way it sets things up. The real emotion that drives Royal is fear of losing the ranch, and similarly with his wife, Cecilia. Preserving the ranch and really holding onto that family legacy is really the thing that drives their journey. Early on the show is very intentional about showing the homespun, old-fashioned ways that they do it. It shows Royal and Cecilia on horseback with cowboy hats approaching things in the traditional ways.
Then when we’re introduced to one of our chief antagonists, the Tillersons, they have bright blonde hair, they’re not wearing cowboy hats. They’re on four wheelers. You even just get the very stark contrast between the Abbott home and the Tillerson home, which the production designers, I think must have had a ball filling that Tillerson home with taxidermy, just with animal heads and taxidermy animals, really a maximalism that’s out loud.
JP: I have to say, the way the show introduces the characters visually, especially the two families, it’s so over the top that it has to be intentional in my mind.
It’s very interesting. I think both families are over the top. The Abbotts in the way that you’ve described, the other guys sort of being this modern, contemporary pop culture idea of what a millionaire rancher could be in that setting and the grotesqueness of it all, like you said, because it’s not that they lack typical cowboy paraphernalia. They have all of it. They just have all of it all at once and characters like Billy, one of the Tillerson sons, he’s not your typical cowboy, meaning that he’s not really living off of ranching and yet he goes singing country songs infusing them with, or at least I think we were supposed to think that he’s infusing them with some meaning. He’s this younger version of his slowly-deteriorating father who has this almost mystical insight into the workings of the universe. The most Lynch-ian parts of it are with the Tillersons for sure, especially those two characters.
AG: I mean it all starts with a land dispute, which, even if you take all the sci-fi out of it, is a pretty traditional rural tale. You have this modern, greedy, wealthy ranching family trying to take land from the Abbott estate. So you’re thinking, well, “This is just about money. This is just about extraction.” By the end, I actually found Wayne Tillerson to be one of the most fascinating characters on the show, because what you find out is like, this is an odd guy and what’s making him do the things he does is not just the money but is something else.
And likewise, there is a Tillerson son who is really in the traditional extraction mold. He’s like, I want it and I want to sell it and I want the money. But then you find out that Wayne actually favors Billy, who like him is the odd duck, doesn’t really fit in, and is driven by very different things than just pure profit and extraction. By the end, I think they did complicate the conflict between the Tillersons and the Abbotts a little bit and by the end of it, all the Tillersons aren’t really the antagonist. We don’t have to spoil who the primary antagonist is here, but I did find it interesting, and Will Patton is just a terrific actor in that role. I mean, I just thought Wayne Tillerson was one of the more entertaining parts of the show to me.
One thing that I came into the show very attuned to was just plain old rural representation. In other words, does the show, regardless of its plot, does it do harm or does it do good work, or is the setting really just a necessity because it’s easier to put a giant hole in the ground in Wyoming as opposed to middle of New York City? I’m curious what you thought about that?
AG: As I mentioned earlier, it really sets things up in a way that looks pretty conventional. Even with the Abbott children, you have this push-pull obligation to stay and to keep the ranch going versus to leave and get out. Royal goes to a university outside of town to seek help, but then he clearly doesn’t trust throwing in his lot with them. And likewise, he has conflict with the county assessor who is identified as an out of towner, a guy who came from out of the area and from the city I presume, and he’s a caricature. I actually found him to be a very humorous character.
So they set up all these conflicts that are pretty conventional, but all in all, I think it’s most interesting in how it then unsettles those conventions. I think it does complicate the picture a decent amount. And they do a really good job of setting the scene. The town that this is all hovering around is Wabang, Wyoming, which I believe is fictional. But they do a nice job with the local bar, the local bank, the local pharmacy, they do a pretty good job of setting that scene and connecting with the humanity of the place.
One of the Abbott sons has a love interest who works in town. There are other side characters. We mentioned Sheriff Joy. I think Sheriff Joy is really connected to the community and gives you a window into the culture and politics of the community. Again, she unsettles some of those conventions because she is an Indigenous lesbian, a relatively popular local sheriff. So all in all, I didn’t see many red flags with regard to representation. I thought it was interesting and well done for the most part.
JP: I agree, especially about the sheriff. One thing that I tend to be very sensitive about is how do you present those characters or issues that may unsettle what you expect in a way that’s not heavy-handed, that it doesn’t become a thing in and of itself. The last thing I would want is for this character to be defined by the fact that she’s a Native American or that she’s a lesbian. Because that’s not what ultimately the story is about, but the way they introduce all those elements enriches the entire story and complicates her relationship with others that she meets along the way.
So I thought that actually did a huge service to showing how those realities might actually look as opposed to a caricature of we either accept you wholly or reject you entirely. She’s in a very weird spot where good town folks may want to be as supportive as they can, and still do some harm because of whatever historical precedence or just differences that are still hard to reconcile. That was one thing that I really appreciated how they chose to handle it.
Into the Abyss
AG: Going into this, I thought this would be a self-contained story, for some reason. I just didn’t have any expectations that this was some sort of franchise they were setting up. But by the end, it’s very clear that they have more in mind. Did this feel like a complete story to you and, like me, did you expect that going in? And what do you expect going forward?
JP: By no means do I feel like it’s a complete story. That’s what I was hoping for, because I find with a lot of these shows, they start really strong and the writing is good, and unfortunately with success comes dilution of the writing and the more plot lines they have to handle, the harder it gets to make it compelling. With the particular themes of this show, it is so easy to branch off into multiple directions and have weird plot loops come back and add extra twists that I’m certainly worried with the next season, or however many seasons they plan on creating, that it might lose that fundamental tension that it introduced originally.
Because I want to go back just briefly to what you said about the primary driver for both Royal and Cecilia being the desire to hold onto the ranch. At the end of the season, I felt like there was a clear divide between them in what they were fighting for. For Royal it became really about the people and with Cecilia, it remained the land. Her blank face… I thought it was a pretty powerful performance. Lili Taylor, I thought did a wonderful job of showing us the transformation, her starting as a bedrock of this family and someone who always held everything together and towards the end, when certain problems arise and the future of the ranch is in question, she almost dies inside.
AG: Yeah, you can really see her alienation. She clearly knows something is wrong and something is off. Of the core characters she is among those who know the least of what’s really going on, but you can tell that she has a sense that something is off and just her sense of growing alienation about it. I thought her performance was very strong.
JP: Ultimately, throughout the story, she was stripped of almost everything, or thinks that she’s losing everything that she ever cared for, fought for, it’s her religion, it’s the family, it’s all that. Because of that, it’s very difficult in my mind to then bounce back and create another eight episodes where you somehow either try to rebuild her in an equally powerful way, or complicate matters even more to introduce some alternative paths. I’m sure it’s doable, I just worry that it might not work out as good as we would hope.
AG: Yeah, it’s frustrating. This might be naive, but I thought going into the final episode, I really did think they could settle things. I did foresee a path for them to tell a satisfying story, even though there were a lot of questions. I had a hunch, and on some of the key questions I was on the right track. Like the story of what the hole is and what the deal is with the hole. I generally guessed correctly what that was going to be about. The Autumn character, who is one of the key characters here, I had a theory about Autumn and I was more or less correct about that.
Some of the big twists are not that surprising. So that tells me that there was a path for them to land this in a satisfying way. But instead, I feel like in the back half of that final episode, they just decide to throw five other questions into the pile. Like, what about this? And what about this? And it does go back to that “mystery box” that I talked about. They clearly have a lot more on their mind and more that they want to explore. But I do agree with you that that’s a risky prospect.
The thing that frustrates me the most is the show clearly has a lot of really interesting things on its mind, like you said about religion and loss of faith, about family and legacy, but I didn’t feel like any of it really culminated or really came to a head. And one thing that I think would make a second season very challenging is I do feel like throughout the season, everybody begins acting more erratically. By the end of the season, it feels like everybody had lost their gosh darned minds. Characters begin acting more and more erratically, particularly Royal and his children and Cecilia. I wanted to ask you the question, because you live in the rural west on a plot. If you found a mysterious hole on your property, do you feel like you’d be able to keep it together or do you feel like that would really unmoor you?
JP: Yeah, I think I would probably go towards the Tillerson side of things where I would like don a coat made of furs and scream. No, I don’t. That’s part of why I was so attracted to this because it is fundamentally talking about people confronted with this cosmic horror of proportions that you can’t possibly grasp with your mind and then how you confront that and save your family because you’re sensing the danger of it, but it’s so beyond you that there’s really no way to understand it. It talks about all those grand questions and it wants to at least ask what really is the reality of things. So obviously stuff that we can’t explain. So, yeah, I think it would unmoor me and I would be spending a lot of time at the edge of that hole just staring into the abyss.
But I’m glad you brought up the point about everyone becoming more erratic and behaving completely off the rocker and that poses a great problem because in order for you to be invested in the show, any show really, there is a degree to which you have to suspend your disbelief. You have to agree that certain rules in a world that you’re watching, even if they’re a little more loosey-goosey than our actual reality, that it makes sense within that particular world.
Here we are asked to think that this is just good ol’ Wyoming and then everyone starts behaving in a way that, from episode to episode, you’re like, “Nobody, even with a giant hole in the middle of their property, nobody would do that. That’s just a plot device to move a story forward.” And I struggle with that quite a bit because I tend to be nitpicky about those things and it just takes me out of it.
Another thing, briefly touching on my expectations for season two, is that there’s this unfortunate drive across the broader TV and movie industry now, especially when it comes to these more out-there genres like science fiction, where there’s this expectation to always crank it up to 11 with each step. By the end of this first season, there’s so much that has happened that I don’t know how it can remain contained within Amelia County, Wyoming, where the action takes place, and not become an international sensation of just things happening.
It starts with, “Things are happening in this town.” People disappear, someone called in a missing mountain. It’s very odd and bizarre and it then turns into this grandiose thing and I hope they have a good solution for that because I really find it hard, how you dial it back in a way. It’s like when you’re seasoning your food, it’s always easier to add a little salt than to take it out.
AG: Particularly once the lid comes off.
JP: Yeah, exactly.
AG: It’s an escalation of stakes. The stakes are very personal out of the gate, and then by the end, you’ve had such an escalation that it is hard to know how to reconcile that. I agree with you, that’s a symptom of modern entertainment. It feels like the world is always at stake, that we really have abandoned restraint because modern production technology, with CGI and everything else, we don’t need to have restraint. We can just throw whatever we want at the wall.
My final question is, is this show worth people’s time? Would you recommend people check it out if they haven’t already?
JP: It was ultimately an entertaining show. I did find parts of it to be fun and intriguing. I would say it certainly ranks above average for me. It wasn’t as much as I hyped it up to be in my mind before watching it. I know it’s a milquetoast recommendation, but I’d say yes, ultimately. It’s a fun rural mystery show.
AG: I’d echo you. I’d give a recommendation with the caveat that people know what they’re getting into. Know that you’re not going to get a satisfying ending, know that there’s probably more on the way, and if you’re okay with that level of setup, I think there’s a lot to recommend. Like you said, talented actors, it’s a good cast. I think it’s a good-looking show, it’s well made. It does not look like a low-budget production. It has some gloss to it, and as I mentioned earlier, even though there’s not a lot of resolution, it seems to have a lot on its mind.
All episodes of “Outer Range” are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.