‘Outsiders,’ the Show That Predicted Oregon’s Bundy Militia

On WGN America's new drama ‘Outsiders,’ a group of off-the-grid mountain men go to war with the government, drawing parallels to the standoff in Oregon.

To executive producer Paul Giamatti, Outsiders is a “biker movie crossed with The Deer Hunter.” To creator Peter Mattei, it’s more like “Shakespeare crossed with Winter’s Bone.” But to many viewers, it will look a lot like the showdown between Ammon Bundy’s Oregon militia and the federal government, only with more drum circles.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Mattei makes clear that any parallels between his new cable drama and the real-life situation in eastern Oregon are purely coincidental. He says he doesn’t “know shit” about the details of the standoff, which concerns a couple of ranchers who were convicted of setting fire to federal land. But if there is a connection, it is reflected in the “anger” he sees from a wide swath of the American people.

“You just have to watch a Republican debate to see that people are very angry,” Mattei says. “Right now, a lot of people in this country are angry and they feel that their freedoms are being impinged on. Some people think it’s by the government, other people might think it’s by corporations or by technology.”

Outsiders, which premieres next Tuesday, Jan. 26 on WGN America, is set in Kentucky coal country. As the show opens, a coal company has enlisted the local sheriff’s department to evict the Farrell family, which has lived isolated from society on the coal-rich mountaintop for more than 200 years. In the view of one executive, it’s time for the “retarded hillbilly animals” to relocate.

The Farrells have their own customs, rituals, and hierarchical structure, developed over centuries, and don’t believe in things like money or, from the looks of them, haircuts. They count the years in “winters” and don’t look kindly on those who stray from the flock.

When the first night of summer arrives and the clan needs to make its highly potent “Farrell wine,” members do not hesitate to ride directly into the local big box store on their ATVs and take all the yeast and cigarettes they desire. They know that as long as they don’t hurt anyone or take any guns—though, somehow, crossbows are OK—no one will dare press charges.

When the Oregon militia parallels come up, Mattei is quick to defend his characters, whom he says reside somewhere in the gray area between heroes and villains. “The Farrells are not trying to take away someone else’s land, whether it’s government land or private land or whatever,” he says. “The Farrells have been living on that mountain for over 200 years and they’re just trying to hold onto it. So I think there is a huge difference there.”

Mattei says that he originally envisioned the show as portraying the “struggle between haves and have-nots,” which he views to be the “major narrative of our time.” He describes the Farrell family as a “mash-up of a hillbilly clan, some gypsies, a biker gang, and a hippie commune.”

In some ways, he says they represent as much an “obvious fantasy” as the various Houses in Game of Thrones. At one point in the pilot, the clan burns an enormous wooden structure of a wolf, a clear allusion to the annual Burning Man festival, which also eschews the use of the money.

Because the idea was so “weird,” Mattei wrote the script before trying to pitch it to networks. “I kind of just wrote it for my own satisfaction, never thinking that anybody would put something like this on the air,” he says.

It was the interest of Mattei’s old Yale drama buddy Giamatti, with whom he shares an agent, that helped get WGN America on board. After the critical success of last year’s Manhattan, the network was looking to expand its still-limited slate of original programming.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly last fall, Giamatti said he was drawn to the “libertarian” leanings of the central characters. “I remember when I first read the script, I thought, ‘I’ve never seen someone burn money on a show or in anything, and it’s a really radical act.’”

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“If you step back and you look at this angry debate in this country, a lot of times it’s about dispossessed people being angry at other dispossessed people. And not really directing their angry at the people who are really running things,” Mattei says.

In the case of Outsiders, the Farrells are “literally have-nots,” albeit by choice. “And the townspeople, mostly unemployed coal miner types, hardly have any money either,” he continues. “The two groups are pitted against each other, being manipulated from above by people who are looking to benefit from all this.”