Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for the Prime Video series, Outer Range.
There’s some strange stuff going on in the west pasture on Prime Video’s latest original series, Outer Range, and there’s a lot of confusion about what will happen next. This modern western thriller (with plenty of sci-fi twists) has managed to push the boundaries of genre while constructing a solid, slow-burn narrative that could keep audiences engaged for years to come. There’s a lot to love about this oddball series (and the host of strange characters in it), and certainly one of them is the mystery of that mysterious black hole on the Abbott Ranch.
How exactly does the time-traveling black hole work? While we might not have the answers to every question that the recent Josh Brolin sci-fi/western asks, we’re hopeful that we can shed some light on the dusty darkness, and better explain how the time-displacement sinkhole operates. Of course, much of this might border on pure speculation, but let’s start with what we know.
Royal and the West Pasture
As it turns out, Royal Abbot (Brolin) is from the past — 1886, to be exact — and only traveled to the future/present of 1968 after accidentally killing his own father when he was 9. Because of Royal’s desperation, the hole seemed to take him to a place and time when he’d be free from the consequences of his actions. Of course, that isn’t really true since his secret is the catalyst of his actions the entire season, but it seems as if the hole knew that Royal was trying to run away and gave him the opportunity to do so (“The West”).
However, the hole also seems pretty inconsistent as far as when it chooses to send people. When Autumn Rivers (Imogen Poots) pushes Royal into the whole at the end of “The Void,” we learn in the very next episode that Royal only arrives a few years into the future, and two years after his own death (“The Land”). It’s possible that the void itself sends people where they want to go, and since Royal didn’t intend on falling into the hole it sent him somewhere randomly, but that seems like it’s a bit too random for this show.
We know that young Royal’s desire was to get as “far away as possible” after the death of his father, so the hole sending him nearly 80 years into the future lines up with his wish. But what’s strange is that the older Royal – who seems to fear the void’s power after his previous experience – is sent to a time not too far from now, almost as if the supernatural object were warning him of what may be. We also know that the hole itself closes almost immediately after Perry (Tom Pelphrey) jumps through it, but we’ll get to that in a second…
The Black Dust
The supernatural black hole itself seems to come and go as it pleases, though it’s never fully gone. The land seems rich with the black ore that allows for time travel in the first place. Though we have yet to discover the origins of the strange mineral/liquid, we actually know quite a bit about it already.
In “The Soil,” Royal makes contact with the black powder from Autumn’s necklace (the same material that makes up the black hole in the west pasture) and sees a vision of the future, a vision of him dying in Cecilia’s (Lili Taylor) arms. After Autumn shows him the black hole, Billy Tillerson (Noah Reid) ingests this same dust, and eventually gives some to his sickly father Wayne (Will Patton), which gives him undisclosed visions of the future. It seems that if the black hole is a portal through time (a “tear into the unknown,” as Royal calls it), then the black powder itself gives one the ability to see into time without traveling through it.
This could be an easy explanation as to how and why Sheriff Joy (Tamara Podemski) sees a field of Native Americans and bison co-existing together at the end of “The West” after following a trail of the black dust into the woods. Now, it’s entirely possible that Joy has made her way into the past via a portal she was unaware she walked through, but what’s more than likely is that it’s a vision based on her proximity to (and contact with) the black dust trail. That, or the Native peoples and the bison traveled to the future themselves, as we see the bison do later on.
Speaking of bison, after seeing the black hole with his own eyes, Luke Tillerson (Shaun Sipos) begins to dig into the Abbott’s west pasture to rediscover the portal after it vanishes. Eventually, he finds a liquid form of the black dust and touches it, accidentally opening a portal that allows an entire herd of bison to break through. Now, if Royal and Perry both traveled through the hole to escape something in their own lives, it’s entirely possible that the bison too were attempting to flee extinction. If this is true, then the portal seems to respond — opening and closing — to the desperate needs of those who enter it (or, in Luke’s case, who activate it).
We also know that when Royal first traveled through the vortex, the hole closed until 2022 when it reappeared in the west pasture, presumably causing the small earthquake in the first episode. Likewise, the hole remained open until Perry, hoping to escape the consequences of his own actions for killing Trevor Tillerson (Matt Lauria), jumped in and traveled to an undisclosed time. Then, it closed, with no signs of reopening. While we do see Perry in the background in the future that Royal accidentally travels to, it makes us wonder just how far forward (or backward?) in time Perry actually traveled, or did Royal jump to a future that may no longer exist now that Perry’s gone? Only time will tell.
But this also begs the question of when Autumn comes from. Unlike Royal, or even Perry, we never see Autumn travel through time, and when she pushes Royal in the black hole, it seems like she has no idea what’s going to happen to him. She’s even shocked to see him alive again in the next episode! We also know that she’s actually Royal’s granddaughter and Perry’s daughter, Amy Abbott (Olive Abercrombie), presumably from the future, who doesn’t remember her life before the age of 9 — the same age Royal traveled to the future — which means that sometime soon, Amy will travel through time (possibly to the past) and grow up to become Autumn.
The Disappearing Mountain (and Other Complexities)
As it turns out, Royal and Autumn aren’t the only strange visitors to make their marks on the world of Wabang, Wyoming though. Besides the herd of bison that Luke lets through in the finale, there’s apparently a prehistoric mastodon running around in a cave outside of town (which implies the longevity of the phenomenon), a single bison with two Indian arrows in its side, and reports of other people and places that have disappeared for seconds… One of these such places is a mountain near the Abbott Ranch that disappeared when Royal and Autumn shook hands (“The Time”).
It seems that when these two known time-travelers interact with an element involved (the element here being Autumn’s necklace with the black powder inside), it created some sort of temporal paradox that forced time to collapse in on itself. This means that, at some point in time, the mountain no longer stands. Whether that happened in the past or future is unclear. Many people in the town, including both Royal and Sheriff Joy, witness this miraculous event, though nobody can prove it since it returns to normal the moment Royal and his time-traveling grandchild disconnect.
But the mountain itself isn’t the only disappearance we know of… We also hear a story of a man whose meth-addicted cousin disappeared for six seconds, which seems to correspond with when Royal and Autumn met for the first time and shook hands. It seems like any physical connection between two time-travelers could have disastrous effects on the world around them. Whether the necklace itself was truly a part of that paradox remains to be seen, but it seems likely given the effects of the black powder.
Of all the themes on Outer Range, one of the most prevalent is the idea of predestination. Whether it’s Royal’s monologue in the series premiere about the Greek god Chronos or Cecilia’s own Christian faith (where divine providence and predestination are common themes), there are a lot of threads that point toward the idea that the future is set. Royal has now seen his own death, and he’s also traveled to a future where the mining company BY9 (a third reference to the number nine) has begun digging for the black ore substance and examining the black hole (which has seemingly returned).
This leaves us with the question of whether the future can be changed? Or is it already pre-written? Is Outer Range more like Back to the Future, where the future can change in real-time, or like The Terminator franchise, whereby by sending people back in time we’re effectively changing the future forever? This remains to be seen, but at this point, there’s certainly potential for either free will or predestination. Some have pointed out that the revelation via Autumn’s scar that she’s actually an older version of Amy sort of comes out of left field, with seemingly no obvious scar present on Autumn before the fight between Rhett (Lewis Pullman) and Perry in “The Family.”
Is it possible that Autumn’s presence in 2022 actually changed her own personal history, or did we just not see her scar beforehand because of her hair? And is it possible that Royal, now knowing his granddaughter’s identity, could change his own fate? Right now, we have a lot more questions than we do answers, but that’s what makes a thriller like this so, well, thrilling! Only time will tell exactly how time travel works in Outer Range as we eagerly await the next season of Prime Video’s engaging new series.
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