Watch HBO’s “The Outsider,” and you can’t help but be drawn to Holly Gibney.
The character, played by Cynthia Erivo (of “Harriet” fame), is an arresting presence in the TV adaptation of the Stephen King’s novel. The series revolves around a brutal murder and a suspect who seems to have been in two places simultaneously; Holly Gibney is a private investigator called in to help solve the mystery. She is a recurring character in the universe of King novels, but “The Outsider” showrunner Richard Price said that he didn’t read all the King books she appears in when developing the TV version of Holly — he wanted to start fresh. The result is a character that is stranger and more gentle, with a sensitivity rarely attributed to the eccentric, hyper-talented detective archetype that litters the public imagination. This is probably as much due to Erivo’s deft acting as to the writing, working in tandem to create a version of Holly Gibney that is much more human and much less human all at once.
As an autistic woman, I found Holly’s mere existence on-screen to be more than I had expected. While she isn’t explicitly given an autism diagnosis, her mannerisms, speech patterns and highly specific skills are suggestive. There are so few of us in the public consciousness. I undeniably love the character; I’ve always had a soft spot for characters who are strange but talented.
Holly is first introduced in the series’s third episode. Facing a mounting amount of bizarre and conflicting evidence, those involved with the case discuss calling her in. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find where she parked her spaceship these days,” Howard, a defense lawyer, remarks in response to the idea. The derision in his voice is palpable and familiar. But, as another character in the room points out, “there’s no one better at retracing steps.” They hire Holly despite her strangeness. After all, she is the best — a detective extraordinaire, idiosyncrasies aside.
The eccentric, hyper-talented detective is common in popular culture. He — the character is almost always a white, decidedly heterosexual he — is awkward, unintentionally or intentionally off-putting, and frequently rude. He may have intense interests and habits that perplex others, like beekeeping or eating only a specific number of pancakes. He is also completely brilliant and has a savant-like skill, to the point that people will disregard his many oddities and faults. Only he can fix whatever the problem is. Only he can solve the mystery with his exceptional talent and out-of-the-box thinking. Thus other, more “normal” people must tolerate him and accommodate the many things they dislike about him. They must make room for him. Some even grow to love and admire him.
For me, the peculiar, hyper-talented detective is a power fantasy. I suspect that’s true for many people — there’s been much writing on the American love for competence porn, the thrill of watching characters completely conquer a problem. Who doesn’t want to imagine being admired for incredible talent and skill? But for me, there’s something deeper and more hungry in it. I love it and hate it all at once. For my entire life, that archetype has been one of the only kinds of characters I get to see myself in. It’s not technically representation, since most of the time, the character isn’t explicitly autistic. But the character’s mannerisms, tone of voice and desire for certain specificities are traits I also embody.
Unfortunately, this type of detective’s existence is only justified by his skill. He isn’t loved for who he is. He is tolerated for what he can do. (As a child, I found that inspiring — perhaps I could be accepted if I could just be good enough at something. But as I enter my 30s, I am more wary of the exchange. What happens to autistic people when our skills are no longer of use? And not all of us have exceptional skills in the first place. Like everyone else, most of us are completely average.) Sherlock Holmes in the eponymous BBC adaptation and CBS’s “Elementary,” Will Graham in NBC’s “Hannibal,” Dr. Shaun Murphy on “The Good Doctor,” and the stars of “House” and “Monk” all fit the off-kilter, brilliant detective bill. So does Holly Gibney. But Holly marks the first time I have ever seen a woman, let alone a woman of color, occupy the role. And more importantly, she’s not just a palette swap — Sherlock Holmes in a different color.
When we first see Holly in the flesh, she is alone and recreationally identifying the make and model of cars she can see from her apartment window. That made me feel a little defensive. I have some autistic friends who love cars and could probably do the same, but why do it out loud? It seemed cartoonish — a way to demonstrate difference and nothing more. But she quickly softened into someone more real. Someone I could see myself in. Someone who might make other people see women and girls like me differently, too.
During her first meeting with Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), the seasoned cop at the center of “The Outsider,” Holly rattles off her autistic superpowers. She knows what day May 1 is on 204 years from now. She can look at a skyscraper from a speeding car and accurately tell within six inches how tall the building is. She can recite the lyrics of every rock and roll song written from 1984 to the present, and which Billboard chart positions they were in.
The meeting with Ralph is essentially a job interview, so it makes sense for Holly to play to her strengths. The danger is that it can make an autistic character come off as a human calculator with hair instead of an actual person. We are, fundamentally, people, even if some writers seem to miss that. But then something extraordinary happens. Holly continues: “I don’t listen to music, because I don’t like it. Heights make me throw up. And if you ask me what date it is today, I have to look at a calendar.” She is more than her skills, as fantastic as they are. She has a rich inner life that the show depicts beautifully and that I am deeply appreciative of.
HBO’s Holly is deeply Catholic, and carries statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and an icon of St. Casimir with her when she travels. St. Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania, a nod to the character’s Lithuanian cultural roots in the book. She also carries a doll her Trinidadian grandmother gave her as a child, a detail unique to the television adaptation. Normally, the eccentric, hyper-talented detective archetype is the most obnoxious kind of atheist. That doesn’t reflect the reality of the autistic community I know. While I’m not a believer myself, I have autistic friends and acquaintances who are rabbis, ministers and priests who I hold in high esteem. Many autistic people are deeply, ardently faithful. Holly doesn’t just reflect autistic diversity in the sense that she is not a white man. She also reflects autistic diversity of thought. Most of us are not more disabled versions of Richard Dawkins. Holly is allowed to be more than that.
Another excellent addition to HBO’s adaptation of “The Outsider” is that Holly has a romantic story line. She is pursued and wooed by a retired police office and current mall security guard. He seems to be attracted to her exactly as she is, not despite her strangeness. When he does not understand her, he makes his best effort to bridge the gap. When she does not understand him, she does the same. It’s not clear where the relationship will end up, or if it even is a relationship, but whatever it is, it’s remarkably healthy and normal. Usually, autistic or autistic-coded characters are portrayed as uninterested in romance, too broken to date or too inflexible to be fit for human companionship. “The Good Doctor” has an ongoing romantic story line that I despise — every part of it is women teaching Dr. Murphy how to be “normal.” In one episode, he doesn’t want to hold hands, and instead of developing a compromise, everyone around him essentially tells him that his boundaries are wrong. The idea that anyone might try to meet him halfway is considered ridiculous. It makes me cringe.
I don’t think Holly Gibney is blowing up stereotypes or a groundbreaking advance in autism representation. She is still, fundamentally, an eccentric, hyper-talented detective — someone who buys often begrudging social acceptance with remarkable skills. She allows women and people of color to share in the power fantasy, but she is still, fundamentally, a fantasy. She’s not quite real. Nevertheless, this iteration of Holly Gibney is richer and more nuanced than anything I expected or have seen before, and that matters.