Deep Thoughts Outlander 408: “Wilmington”

It feels like just yesterday that I was complimenting some the adaptation’s changes to the novels, so it seems karmically fair that this week I should be slapped in the face by how deeply the tiny shifts from the novels affected one of the episodes to which I was most looking forward. Drums of Autumn, the novel upon which this season is based, prominently features Roger and Brianna as individuals and as a couple, setting up the second great love of the novels. It had been hinted the show would give these characters a romantic hour of their own that would cement the emotional connections between them upon which rest several future plot points. I’m not sure that happened. As for Jamie and Claire, Murtagh’s leadership of the regulators manifested into a side plot that seemed to leave his relationship with Jamie weaker than we found it. Let’s revisit what was, for me at least, a pretty challenging hour. Spoilers ahead for episode 408, “Wilmington”.

All The World’s a Stage
After a visit to Fergus and Marsali that establishes that Bree and her parents are in the same place as well as the same time, Jamie and Claire attend the theater with Governor Tryon and his wife. There they meet the Governor’s Public Registrar of Deeds, Assemblyman and Judge Edmund Fanning, a man suffering from what Claire immediately recognizes as an inguinal hernia…and a young Colonel George Washington and his wife, Martha. Jamie is playing the part of loyal English subject, cultivating a cordial relationship with the man who is responsible for his land bequest while still trying to protect his godfather, Murtagh, from the ambush Tryon has set for him. It ends up not only cementing Tryon’s view of Jamie as a loyal subject, but also his opinion of Claire as a qualified surgeon. At the end, though Jamie stops Murtagh from committing “a hanging offense,” it’s not by showing up himself but rather returning to the theater with the Governor and sending Fergus in his stead, an act which Murtagh interprets somewhat disdainfully. Jamie, once again walking a fine line between loyalty and sedition, proves Roger’s assertion that it is dangerous to decide who lives and who dies. His actions have alerted his godfather to a traitor in his camp, but Tryon has also guessed the same about his own side, and now blames an innocent General Washington. The outcome of the Revolutionary War is a foregone conclusion, but it was by no means an overnight occurrence. With four years to go before the Boston Tea Party and six before the “Shot Heard Around the World,” it sets the stage for a long-term conflict which seems inconsistent with the level of focus Murtagh’s activities are occupying in the current narrative. It’ll be interesting to see how this plot line is resolved.


I Plight Thee My Troth
Just a few minutes into the episode, a tired Roger overhears a tired Brianna inquire about Cross Creek and the two are reunited. Their affection for each other is obvious, but by the time they take their conversation outside they are back to bickering that would appear, to a casual observer like Lizzie, that they are angry with each other. I understand that the TV version of Roger/Brianna rests largely on this dynamic, but it’s problematic for many reasons and this episode saw several of those rear their head. At first, things go well. During the course of their argument, Brianna confesses that she loves Roger, and the resulting make-out session has Bree agreeing to marry him. It’s a bit sudden but still believable, and their ceremony is sweet, a mashup of the older and newer wedding traditions that ends with them plighting their “troth” to one another, i.e. their faith and loyalty. It’s here where things begin to fall apart. The same comfort that allows them both to be swept away by grand gestures and romance causes them both not to think before they speak. Brianna discovers that Roger knew about the obituary, and she accuses him of being domineering. Roger retaliates by pointing out her recklessness, both in assuming she can change the past and in risking her life, and by extension his own, in trying. Once again, they both say things they don’t mean and care less about listening to each other than they do about getting their own point across. A prime example is when Roger says that, now they’re married, she should start listening to him, and Brianna interprets that as doing what he says. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch a couple that loves each other repeatedly stall in the growth of their relationship, withdraw from each other, and fight unfairly. For example, in the novel, Brianna leaves Roger after she discovers he knew about her mother’s death. Here, it’s Roger that leaves her, and what was empowering for her and motivating for him now looks like an unfeeling abandonment by a man who just swore to take care of her. Taken together with their post-proposal fight and how this incredibly sensitive character has been portrayed as a thoughtless misogynist, it leaves me with a feeling of alienation from Roger, and for Brianna for choosing him. Perhaps the intent is to make the television audience feel closer to Brianna, who was a somewhat polarizing character in the novels, but it ends up making me question why I should be excited about a relationship where two people are so careless with each other’s feelings. I want to cheer for Roger and Brianna, but when they keep being set against each other in these maladaptive ways, it’s incredibly difficult to keep overlooking.

You Can’t Protect Them
Still ringing from an argument with Roger in which she assures him that she and Lizzie have done “quite well” alone, Brianna comes back to the inn where she is staying, only to run into Stephen Bonnet and his possession of her mother’s ring. Her attempt to retrieve it unlocks Bonnet’s casual cruelty once more, to devastating effect. The resulting scene is not only traumatic for the fact that the real-time audio means you can close your eyes and see it in your mind’s eye, but because it’s heartbreaking proof of how very alone Brianna is, and how vulnerable despite the courage and fire in her heart. Outlander has never been a series that hesitates when it comes to the use of rape as a plot device, but the placement of this particular scene, directly after a loving first time, feels particularly traumatic because it happens the same night, not two days later and told as a flashback, like in the novels. Several meanings could be assigned to it. Maybe it was meant to evoke the horror of what is happening in those who watch it. Maybe it was meant as a contrast between the loving interlude with Roger, Bonnet’s relaxed violence making Roger’s careful reverence more tender and tragic by comparison. Or maybe it was simply one of those meaningless acts of violence to which reason simply doesn’t apply, presented without comment and without comfort. Brianna’s body is shown less care than her boots, stacked up carefully by the doorway. She walks back through the tavern —slowly, painfully, but upright.

Deep Thoughts Outlander 407: Down the Rabbit Hole

Brianna Randall serves tea

I’m a book queen, there’s no denying that. But I am HERE for some of the changes the producers are making, and one of them was the decision to draw a parallel between two of the show’s most vilified characters. Having once drawn this parallel myself, I can tell you it’s a not popular pursuit to put yourself into the shoes of two of the story’s most controversial characters. I don’t feel it merited the amount of time it was given (I would have liked a bit less Laoghaire and a bit more Roger) but it certainly paid off as a way to fully round out the consequences of Claire and Jamie’s choices on those most impacted by them. I’m only going to look at two things this week, so this’ll be a little longer than usual. Bear with me. Spoilers ahead for Outlander episode 407, “Down the Rabbit Hole”.

Stephen Bonnet

Of Heroes and Villains

In the third flashback of the night, we see both the Fraser fire obituary and a letter from who I presume to be the Reverend Wakefield. The letter speaks of Frank’s ill health, emotional well-being and, of course, the death of Claire and Jamie. Frank is as drunk and disheveled as the night of Claire’s graduation, a visual cue of his emotional distress. Bottom-level assumptions would indicate that he now knows the following a) Claire told the truth about her time with Jamie and b) she will leave the present to go back to him, and die there.  He hides in his study and doesn’t answer his phone, trying to process this reality alone, but is sought out by his daughter. It’s evident that they are close, and Brianna takes his silence as rejection when Frank chooses to protect her, sending her home to Claire. The next morning, after a mutual apology, he mentions studying abroad.  When he finally does ask her to come, it’s immediately followed by informing her that he and Claire have decided to divorce, and Brianna is understandably sidetracked. The irony is that Frank has suddenly provided exactly the sort of communication that Brianna was looking for that night in his study, but she proves his initial instinct correct. Bree’s not able to be her father’s confidante because the word “divorce” makes a child out of anyone, near-adult or no. She verbally lashes out, telling Frank he’s “too old” to divorce (as if there’s an age you are okay with being unhappy) and implying that he’s giving up on their family. Frank is gentle, patient, but firm. Brianna is seventeen at the time, and her father is operating under the assumption that her mother will leave her to go back to Jamie. There is no mention here that Frank knew of the Fraser prophecy, as he does in the books, but what if he was trying to get Bree to England where he had intelligence contacts that might be able to protect her? Frank’s murkier motivations aren’t very much illuminated, but he does tell Brianna that she is his family, the center of his and Claire’s lives and that he loves her…twice. Divorce means picking a parent to live with and dividing your time between them. Splitting holidays, living in two houses. It’s not an unreasonable ask. Bree carries the memory of their last interaction with her when she leaves, but with regret, not resentment, referring to him as her “hero”. Frank is Bree’s father in every way but biological, and he asks Brianna to “Come with me,” (much like he once asked Claire) because loving her has given his life meaning. Tragic? Absolutely. Ill-advised? Probably. But not the act of a villain.

Two Sides of a Coin

Love and hate are often seen as the yin and yang of human emotion, but things are almost never as simple as the kind of binary that works best in symbolism. The parallels drawn between Outlander’s two best-known scorned lovers attempt to lend some context to characters at the periphery of Claire and Jamie’s great love. The series has given us much more of a look at the life of Frank as the man who loved Claire deeply, but ultimately resolved to walk away from his marriage when he finally realized she wasn’t capable of giving him what he wanted from her. His choice is framed in much more noble terms than Laoghaire’s, who seems to cling to the specter of Jamie’s ‘love’ despite all evidence to the contrary. Frank’s unhappiness is relieved, to a great extent, by his role as a parent. Laoghaire loves her children, but doesn’t hesitate to pit them against their stepfather or stepsister. Frank’s bitterness is, for the most part, contained, while Laoghaire complains loudly and at length about Claire and Jamie to anyone who will listen. One resolved to move forward, another is stuck in the regrets of her past. One dies, one lives a half-life.

When first we met Laoghaire, she was a young girl who idolized the man who had volunteered to take a whipping for her. The impression it left upon her is so marked that she tells Brianna about it when describing how he once loved her. Perhaps even more so than in the novels, where she’s not really her own person outside of the events she sets into motion. Here, we briefly see the woman she would have been had she not channeled so much energy and anger into revenge. By all accounts a devoted and loving mother, able to accept Fergus as the father of her grandchild and charitable, despite reduced circumstances. A good Samaritan. It’s only when Ian visits and she learns about Claire that the tide of her bitterness is released with absolutely nothing to dam it. At the core of this rush of anger is the loneliness of a single mother whom life disappointed one too many times. Laoghaire’s greatest opportunity at living a successful life was always going to rely on a successful marriage, and she’s failed several times. Now firmly in her middle age with no husband or sons to advocate for her, she’s in a much different position than Frank was. This isn’t to excuse her. She takes some unconscionable, mean-spirited actions that are rooted in willful ignorance but there are also circumstances that work against her, limiting the scope of her choices in a way Frank never faced.

She’d Better Be Worth It

It was good to see Roger as an assertive presence this episode. Up until now, the show has focused somewhat reactively on his feelings for Brianna, resulting in a characterization that veers from sweet, lovesick pushover to sudden angry misogynist, if the more damning public opinion is to be believed…which I don’t. It’s an opportunity to watch him operate alone, a sixties humanist and idealist who has traveled back to a time where it is sometimes impossible to be one. There is a playfulness and daring about Roger that enables him, early this episode, to connect to the part of Bonnet that respects a risk-taker. Unfortunately, the other side of that coin is one that viewers are already familiar with (notice Claire’s ring on Bonnet’s pinky). Bonnet’s tale of avoiding immurement based on the flip of a coin reveals a man who, for all intents and purposes, considers every action beyond that flip a gratuity. Both Bonnet and Black Jack share a lack of conscience, but while Jack was motivated by hate, Bonnet is empowered by unpredictability and as such, devoid of fear. Roger’s own fear is readily apparent in his expression when Bonnet informs him that his life hangs on a coin toss, but he never moves, standing in front of Morag and the baby, protecting them with his body when his reason won’t do the trick. Roger represents everything Bonnet is not: the rule of law, faith in his fellow man, and the rightness that reason should triumph over senselessness. Roger is the head and Bonnet the tail, and for now, order wins over chaos.

Another little gem worth noting: Twice this episode Roger refers to Bree as “my own woman” and “my lass”. It’s a running reminder of the reason underlying his urgency and a lovely tip of the hat to one of the pet names Brianna’s father calls her mother. He went from barely acknowledging his feelings to Fiona to declaring himself to complete strangers. Roger may never have repeated his declaration to Bree, but his feelings are constant, and where words once failed him spectacularly, action will no doubt do the trick. Brianna’s rejection of his proposal was rooted in the fear she would end up in a loveless marriage, and this is quite obviously not the case. Roger’s voyage is proof of the depth of his commitment, even before a single vow is spoken. Not only does he care about Brianna’s well-being and safety, but his very real reaction to Bonnet’s careless sacrifice of one innocent is followed by a decision to place himself in harm’s way to protect another one. He’s still the “good one” in whom Claire recognized the same quality that she has (albeit with much less impulsiveness): a bone-deep empathy for his fellow man. Neither Claire nor Roger could have anticipated that they would eventually share another common bond, that of traveling through centuries in the name of True Love. Thankfully, for the abbreviated time these characters have suffered onscreen this season, Bree is nothing if not a quick study. Roger’s mere presence in the past is a love letter, and when she sees him, she’ll know.