‘Outer Range’ Season 2 Review: Josh Brolin’s Time-Traveling Western Improves With Soapy Twists

Amazon’s sci-fi family drama follows up its less textured first season with more compelling character work

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Lili Taylor and Josh Brolin in "Outer Range." (Prime Video)

Season 2 of “Outer Range” picks up around where the series’ debut left off two years ago. Or was that a century and a half? Time paradoxes in this sci-fi Western multiply this go-‘round, and while they don’t make a lick of sense, the temporal dysphoria of jumping around eras leads to compelling character work and relationships that, fantasy elements aside, ring true and deep as a Rocky Mountain crevasse.

It’s an improvement over the intriguing but less textured first season. That could be by design; this tale of warring Wyoming ranch families baffled by the appearance of a mystical black hole in a disputed pasture required a good deal of setup before it could effectively pay off. More likely though, replacing creator Brian Watkins with more experienced veteran Charles Murray (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Luke Cage”) as showrunner brought in a sharper storytelling sensibility.

The new season not only gives us impactful interactions with stronger acting moments, but worthwhile new ironies, spiritual dimensions and just plain cool plot twists.

And some of the questions about the time-transporting hole are answered. Not all, and so many new story threads are left unwoven by the finale you’ll both pray for a third season and feel somewhat cheated. But enough is done with history and humanity this time around to leave an overall feeling of satisfaction.

The new season opens on the town of Wabang, WY, coping with the aftermath of the buffalo stampede that came out of nowhere. Actually, the bison came from the hole, which also swallowed up sheriff candidate Joy Hawk (Tamara Podemski) and Perry Abbott (Tom Pelphrey), sending them to different points in the past. Bison-wrecked vehicles litter the landscape, and Autumn (Imogen Poots), the odd young woman who’s been encamped on the Abbott spread, is pretty trampled herself. Abbott patriarch Royal (Josh Brolin) still doesn’t like her much, but feels more connected to and protective of Autumn since realizing that somehow (well, hole, that’s how) she’s an older version of Perry’s eight-year-old daughter Amy, who went missing at the end of last season, too.

Which has Royal’s religious wife Cecilia (Lili Taylor) in damn near mourning for her granddaughter. This and other losses in the family, not to mention the increasingly bizarre Autumn situation, moves frontier stoic Royal to share the secret he’s hidden since Cecilia found him wandering on her family property as a little boy: He came to our time from another, via the hole.

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Noah Reid in “Outer Range.” (Prime Video)

Lots of soap opera ensues, and it’s marvelous. Taylor is especially adept at making wild spasms of anguish seem earned rather than overacted. And while born-to-play-cowboys Brolin approaches this season even more taciturn than he did the previous one, he somehow emanates the vast reserves of love and guilt that Royal has kept on the down-low for decades. Toss in other sudsy melodrama about Perry’s surreal relationships, the rodeo-riding other Abbott son Rhett (Lewis Pullman) and his restless, bank employee girlfriend Maria (Isabel Arraiza), and the looming threat of losing the family ranch, and you’ve got a couple seasons worth of “Yellowstone” complications right there. But better written, even if their centuries-spanning arcs impossibly unfold all at once.

You want more? Grand Biblical allegory, maybe? Look no further than the neighboring Tillerson ranch. Thanks to the miraculous properties of the hole’s consumable, visions-inducing Dark Mineral, monstrous big daddy Wayne Tillerson (Will Patton) recovers from his stroke to threaten the Abbotts and lord it over his two surviving sons, screw-up Luke (Shaun Shipos) and not-quite-fatally wounded Billy (Noah Reid). Wayne increasingly views himself in Old Testament martyr terms, while the boys play out various Cain and Abel scenarios. They all bring welcome dimensions to their characters, who were more like sneering bad guys last time out.

Autumn, too, is on her own sacred, out-there journey, kicked into overdrive by a wild night of Dark Mineral abuse (such trips are filmed with just the right seasoning of psychedelic filigree and horror movie disorientation). Poots navigates a very fine line between kook, vengeful truth-teller and messianic megalomaniac who may just be able to back up their apparent delusions. All in all “Outer Range” — which unfolds in a dirge-like, spirit journey register that nicely modulates all the crazy stuff — is the rare pop culture product that’s seriously concerned with the many manifestations of faith, whether nourishing or warping, hypocritical or heartfelt.

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Josh Brolin in “Outer Range.” (Prime Video)

And smack in the middle of the season, there’s a full-blown Western episode. The hole plops Joy in 1886, where she spends the next four years living with her Shoshone forebears (and, in Kimberly Guerrero’s Falling Star, another time traveler who’s delighted to see her; finally, someone to sing Led Zeppelin songs with in the ancestral tongue!) It’s a good, self-contained, Natives-vs-settlers morality play, with key clues to Royal’s past and emotional makeup sprinkled in. Directed by “Reservation Dogs” veteran Blackhorse Lowe, the episode examines the complex knot of racism, economics and class that still hogties the range. Indeed, in a later episode, tension between white law enforcement officers and the Indigenous police on the Wind River Reservation is dramatized in a culturally loaded yet refreshingly humane way.

Star and co-producer Brolin makes his own directing debut with the season’s event-filled, penultimate sixth episode. It’s when most of this year’s themes reach vivid crescendos; the finale plays them out when it’s not launching new plotlines. Brolin generously shares his episode’s screentime with the rest of the ensemble, though he does make sure Royal has an uninterrupted moment to deliver the immortal line, “It’s some cosmic destiny bullshit.”

That kind of encapsulates “Outer Range” and its whole attitude. Swaggering cowboy pragmatism butts up against the inexplicable, with skepticism but enough rodeo brio to ride it out and see where you land. Done right, which Season 2 mostly does, it’s unlikely entertainment with a dangerous edge.

“Outer Range” Season 2 premieres Thursday, May 16, on Prime Video.

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