Deep Thoughts Outlander 409: “The Birds and the Bees”

“Now it’s like… like my own fortress has been blown up with gunpowder – there’s nothing left of it but ashes and a smoking rooftree, and the little naked thing that lived there once is out in the open, squeaking and whimpering in fear, tryin’ to hide itself under a blade of grass or a bit o’ leaf but…but not …makin’ m-much of a job of it.”
-Jamie Fraser, Outlander

This was, simultaneously, a difficult watch and a viscerally rewarding one. The Fraser base family unit is finally together for the first time since Jamie saw his pregnant wife through the stones right before Culloden. It’s far from a storybook reunion, as so many things are, both in Outlander and in life. There are periods of intense joy and deep sorrow. The brutal reality of it is jarring and yet, instinctively recognizable as truth. The writing moved along at an energetic pace and while the plot points were all dutifully ticked off, it was done with a meticulous attention to characterization that was satisfying in the extreme. Even if certain choices seemed obvious course-corrections (I’m looking at you, Murtagh suddenly at the Ridge despite your successful smithy), every emotional note was right on beat, weaving together a melody that was as mournful as it was joyful.

Spoilers ahead for episode 409, “The Birds and the Bees”.

A Difficult Lord to Serve

Despite the angry words they both flung at each other the night before, both Roger and Brianna expect that they will come back together. It’s not the healthiest relationship dynamic, but you can’t deny they love each other. Unfortunately, once again Bonnet is there to casually threaten Roger and derail not only their reunion, but the means by which to enlighten Lizzie as to who Roger really is. For a moment it seems as if Roger will risk the limb over the lass, but he isn’t given a choice, bodily escorted out by Bonnet’s men. He makes sure Brianna knows he was looking for her, but when she finds the ship gone, as per the usual when it comes to Bree and Roger’s assumptions about one another, she assumes the worst, that he loves her “not at all”. Roger, though, is steadfast, not only keeping his promise to return for Brianna, but asking to be paid via gemstone with an eye to their return trip. “You have Danu, I have Eros,” Roger tells Bonnet, but he’s really communicating to us, in the most succinct way, that every action he takes is because of love. A man that committed wouldn’t be likely to abandon a wife, and so he shows up at the Ridge, heartbreakingly friendly and utterly unprepared for what happens.  Unlike in the novels, he doesn’t even get a chance to defend himself, and it’s even more horrifying to watch because we know him to be innocent of that which he’s accused.

Call Me Da

It’s sweet beyond words to see Jamie touch his daughter’s face, but it’s especially significant that his stroking her face is the first loving touch Brianna allows after her rape. When Jamie says that he hadn’t thought of her as grown, but still “his babe,” it’s a melancholy bookend to Claire’s “My baby,” near episode’s end, and prompts Bree to initiate her own touch, flinging herself into his arms and crying in relief. Her reunion with Claire is electric in an entirely different way, since her mother is glad to see her, but knows the danger and difficulties faced by a woman traveling through time. Bree goes back to the Ridge and we get to see her interact with her extended family. Jamie observes her as much as he interacts, empathizing with her heartbreak and, like Brianna herself, avoiding the subject of Frank. Jamie is shy with his love, and gentle, trying to go only as far as Bree allows, watching carefully for hesitation. The bees are a metaphor that Brianna recognizes, telling Jamie she has a home and that she feels disloyal to Frank, being with him. Jamie, however, has also been forced from his home, and his understanding and plain speaking enable her to do the same, making what was once a complicated thing into something “simple”. His patience here makes what comes later both more and less understandable. The idea of violence being done to your child is so unthinkable that the mind shies away from it, and you can’t help but see them at their most vulnerable, when you were most able to protect them. Claire cannot heal this hurt and Jamie, a warrior, used to bearing his own pain and suppressing his own violent memories, cannot do the same with the pain of a child he has barely regained and already worried he could not protect. He seems to be handling things… until he just isn’t, Lizzie’s painfully detailed description of Bree’s condition (while standing next to Ian, another victim for whom he feels responsible) causing him to explode. Not only is the beating savage, but Jamie seems reduced down to his most primal, his usual strategic thinking gone, telling Ian simply to “get rid of him” without killing him. It’s one of the few times Jamie acts rashly, heart before head, and it will come back to haunt him.

A Disturbance

When Bree recites the poem on her bracelet, it seems she is outlining yet again the ebb and flow of her relationship with Roger. Despite thinking that he might love her “not at all,” she later confesses her love and regret to her mother, who wisely doubts Roger would leave after one argument. Bree’s connection with Claire is uninterrupted, warm and intimate. Her relationship with Jamie is more of a work in progress, though both parties are well-intentioned, and a truce of sorts is struck after their hunting trip. Brianna is open to Jamie, but despite agreeing to call him “Da,” she still refers to him as “Jamie” when speaking to Claire, who she affectionately calls “Momma” instead of the more adult “Mom”.  There is usually no time when we want our mothers more than the times we are in pain, and Brianna is no different. Although she has been doing a passable job of pretending to be okay, the occasional looks Claire shoots her daughter throughout the episode finally culminate in her tearful confession in the garden. It’s terrible enough for a mother to hear, but even worse to realize that there is nothing you can offer besides a sharing of mutual grief and horror, and the promise of support. Brianna doesn’t tell Jamie herself, but leaves Claire to do so, while Lizzie mistakenly fills in the blanks for Jamie. This piecemeal communication will cost Roger dearly, and it’s easy to think that Brianna is too overcome to think clearly, but the opposite is chillingly, horribly true.  In maybe her most MacKenzian act to-date, Brianna, having put the pieces of the puzzle together and confirming Bonnet as the thief of her mother’s ring, shields both her parents from the terrible truth to protect them from their own feelings and actions. It is then that the “baby” is shown to be taking care of her parents, shielding them with her very body as if they are the child, and she the mother.

This was hands-down Sophie Skelton’s episode, and she hurt my heart to watch. From that first, shaky-breathed standing bath to her pale, distant calm every time Bonnet’s name came up to the final, desperate moment of self-recrimination, it was both excellent and unbearable. Brianna is a woman who has grown up consistently making the best of terrible situations, but she is also a child of the 20th century, raised with love and imbued with a sense of her own independence and worth, and Bonnet takes more than her body that night. You can see her struggle to reassert the very bones of who she was, clutching at her own body as if to ground herself in it, flinching at unexpected touches, seeking the comfort of her parents’ bodies, as if by somehow pressing against those that created her, she can be reborn again, whole and inviolate.

Deep Thoughts Outlander 313: Eye of the Storm

So here we are, staring down another Droughtlander, and aside from thoughts specifically about this episode, I had some thoughts about the entire series.  Thinking back to where we started, with a pregnant Claire and the aftermath of Culloden, the scope of what needed to be covered is pretty overwhelming. For the most part, we got there…and there was a lot more sex.

Spoilers ahead for episode 313.

Here are five takeaways:

I’m surrounded by Frasers. Seasons 1-3 really did focus mostly on Claire and Jamie, but that won’t be the case being forward. While the Frasers’ story continues to take center stage, all the characters we’ve been introduced to as part of the expanded Fraser clan will need time and audience investment to develop properly. One of the issues going forward that was glaringly obvious during this episode is how adapting these increasingly more complex subplots will affect the flow of a televised series. This episode attempted to cover a lot of emotional and plot ground, and it didn’t always do so in a way that made sense to anyone who didn’t read the novels. One book per season may have worked up until now, but I really hope they’re negotiating at least two seasons per book going forward.

Who’s doing what to the who now? I had a hard time following the purpose of the coach pausing for the group walking with torches, and later, the masked dancers. Sure I’ve read the books, but I made a point of not doing so during the season, just to see if I could follow the story without them. I didn’t feel that either of these choices was given any context. I assumed the former was a group of escaped slaves (the “maroons” Father Fogden spoke of in 311), and the latter Geillis’ slaves practicing some of their native rituals, but this wasn’t really explained aside from using this group of people to represent a magical “other” that I’m not sure jibes with the story as told onscreen. Are we supposed to believe they are all infected with a sort of bloodlust, or that being okay with the sacrificing of a chicken, they decided Archie was a bonus?

Friendship is great but villains are better. I’ve said it before, but morally ambiguous villains are one of the things Outlander does best, and Gillian/Geillis Edgars/Duncan/Abernathy is one that’ll be missed. The second half of this season suffered from some disjointedness (the plot to find Young Ian took a slightly comedic detour that echoed the Dance Tour to Find Jamie from Season 1), but nothing helps pull your heroes together and give them a purpose quite like having a great antagonist. Part of what makes Geillis so fascinating to watch is her heartfelt, maniacal commitment to her cause. You get the sense that she truly does value Claire, even as you know she would kill her without a moment’s thought. It’s villains like these that throw our main characters’ heroism into stark relief: Ian’s bravery, Jamie’s steadfastness, Claire’s fierceness.

The sanctity of life. It seems like at least once per season, Claire’s commitment to a life with Jamie in the much less-regulated past means she ends up having to betray her physician’s oath and take a life. Each of these choices have been life-and-death, split-second decisions made to protect herself, but this is the first time she did so not for her own sake, but her daughter’s. In this instance, we also find out that Claire’s ability to suss out the cause of death of Joe Abernathy’s remains was because she was the one who dealt the blow, and the echo of that moment contributed to her insight. What doesn’t seem to ever click into place for our heroine, however, is any sort of regard for her own safety. Claire’s need to help the wounded during the storm that hits the Artemis after Ian’s rescue almost kills her New Moon-style.  I’m not sure which made me want to throw my shoe harder: knowing that Claire was putting herself in danger again, or knowing for sure that if Jamie and Claire made it on a crosspiece of timber, that Jack could have lived.

A Whole New World.  So thanks to Mother Nature, our heroes end up at the fictional Les Perles plantation, Georgia. It’s probably a safe move, because Jenny Fraser is waiting in Scotland with an itchy slapping hand and Young Ian’s been through enough. Also, much as I love that Scottish countryside, it’s been kind of a shark tank inside a snake pit for the Frasers. The colonies represent a chance to start their life over again, plus Murtagh is there, and that’s reason enough to visit a continent for anyone.

Deep Thoughts Outlander 312: The Bakra

By now, I should know that Claire or Jamie telling the other that they won’t be separated again ends with them being separated again, but what can I say? If loving this show is wrong, I don’t want to be right. We finally arrive in Jamaica, and get to revisit characters, outfits and plot points that went a bit MIA for a while. We also got to check back in with everyone’s favorite Scottish Regina George, and their favorite Lovelorn English Lord, and our first-ever (if brief) POV from a character other than Jamie and Claire. In truth, Young Ian’s time with Geillis represents a kind of Wentworth in his life, and these experiences cause the character to grow in ways that will be very exciting to see onscreen. Finally, the introduction of the prophecy of the Brahan Seer (referred to as The Fraser Prophecy in the books) marks the beginning of the story’s shift past Claire and Jamie as a couple, to encompass their entire dynasty and what it potentially means to the future of Scotland. One more episode to go!

Spoilers ahead for episode 312.

Here are four takeaways:

Return of the Mack. The Mackenzie plotline we last revisited in the 1960s with descendant Roger Wakefield picks up once more with the re-appearance of his five-times great grandmother Geillis. Geillis is now an Abernathy, having black-widowed her way into what I can only assume is a goat plantation on Jamaica and being referred to by the Jamaican patois nickname of “Bakra,” which means slave driver (literally ‘back raw’). It’s a thrill to see her, mostly because Outlander excels at the Morally Irreverent Villain, and the story overall is better when our heroes are, well, being heroes. I know Geillis is evil and probably a sociopath, but I just love her. I didn’t even get angry when Claire basically provided her a plot outline at the Governor’s reception, because there was a true closeness and friendship between these women. The seminal difference is that Claire values human life, and Geillis doesn’t (it’s a small distinction, but pretty important). Geillis’s #1 concern is still putting a Scottish ruler on the throne, and the fact that she speaks more affectionately of Dougal’s testicles than their child should probably tell Claire something. That, and all the husband-killing.

More Things on Heaven and Earth. It’s been hinted at for a while now, but this week Outlander slides feet-first into the religious cultural collision of the Caribbean.  A rich native culture fused with African traditions from the slave trade and European religions to create spiritual practices that fascinate people even today. The first hint came back in 306, when we first met Margaret Campbell and she prophesied about Abandawe, the cave that Father Fogden would later tell Claire was used for sacred rites. The alligator skeleton last episode was a callback to the one that hung in Master Raymond’s shop.  Jamie himself heard talk of a “white lady,” equating her to Claire, and not an actual witch. For all that they are 200 years apart, Claire and Jamie are both highly pragmatic, and except for the stones, have yet to experience the collision of magic and spirituality that so vividly color the Caribbean experience of spirituality. It’s an entirely new worldview, and it’ll be interesting to see how each character processes and interacts with this new take on spirituality.

The Importance of Being Other. The slave market was as hard to watch as I anticipated, but I didn’t anticipate the line that would make my head snap back. The slave merchant’s disdainful “What do you take me for,” in response to Jamie’s inquiry about selling a white youth was so matter-of-fact and time-appropriate that it instantly set the scene.  It was, like the men and women lined up like so much window dressing, a ruthlessly effective way to make a point about these people’s standing and significance in the world at that time.  So, too, is the way that Yi Tien Cho is first addressed at the Governor’s reception, the young woman marveling that “Goodness, he even speaks English” when the ‘he’ in question is standing right in front of her. The show slightly alters the circumstances of both characters, but there are lovely allusions to both Yi Tien Cho’s and Temeraire’s humanity that are doled out with respectful kindness. Temeraire’s assistance is requested, not demanded. Terms are set up that he is free to accept or reject. Jamie and Claire refer to people as “enslaved,” and to him as a manservant.  Yi Tien Cho is given a formal, respectful introduction by Jamie at the ball, and, despite his claim that he came to a place where women reject him, he finds a mutual admiration and understanding in fellow outsider Margaret Campbell.

The Jamie Fraser Fan Club. I wallowed in Lord John’s return like a pig in mud. Beautifully embroidered, sapphire-accented mud. Not only is the chemistry between Sam Heughan and David Berry electric, but add Caitriona Balfe to the mix and it’s like I’m back in high school and someone just shouted “Fight” down the hall. I am desperately craning my neck trying to find every nuance of expression and hear everything that is being said. The warmth between Jamie and John is so gratifying to see, because it is obvious that Jamie appreciates this man not only for the care he gives his son, but knows of his feelings for him and is tenderly solicitous of him. There is a true bond there, and while Claire is at first as warm as Jamie, it doesn’t take her long to notice that John’s attachment to her husband is more than friendship. When John speaks to her and very subtly attempts to test her relationship with Jamie by alluding to their great shared secret…and finding out Claire knows everything. Claire in turn gently but pointedly asks for clarification on the ‘gift’ of the sapphire, and John admits Jamie surrendered it after he went searching for her, thinking she had come back, “And now you have.” Claire’s smile is kind, but her eyes are solemn, and her words, an unmistakable warning. “Yes. I have.”

Deep Thoughts Outlander 308: First Wife

This week, the series came roaring back with the goodness. Last episode was the troublesome middle child in the Fraser Reunion Trilogy, but this week resolved all my issues with 307. 308 was all the things I love about Outlander: real talk, athletic sex that serves the story, a successful Bechdel test, emotions, Science!Claire and more fun words (kebbie-lebbie, Hogmanay) than you can shake a stick at.

[Quick personal update: Still doing the recaps, just very slowly. I knew the moment the series changed from summer to fall that I would likely not be able to keep up, so for the meantime there are these, and recaps to come when life slows down.]

Spoilers ahead for episode 308.

Here are five takeaways:

The Gideon of Scotland. For a dude who is nominally childless, Jamie sure does have a lot of kids. Only William and Brianna are of his body, but besides Fergus and now Young Ian, we find that he has played father figure to Laoghaire’s two daughters, and that he was upset when his nephews didn’t recognize him upon his return from Helwater. Jamie genuinely loves children, and enjoys their company. The two young men closest to him, Young Ian and Fergus, differ in that one was bred in a whorehouse and is no stranger to crime, and the other raised in a peaceful home, with only the stories of his uncle’s (mis)adventures to aspire to. The real kicker with children is that as much as you counsel them with words, it’s the actions that they mimic, and Ian Sr.’s advice to Jamie to be mindful of Ian’s love and tendency to follow him “like a puppy” proves to not only be accurate, but premonitory.

Dishonorable Second Wife. Whatever else you can say about her (mouth like a sailor, cute daughters, fine ability to sew a pleated cap) maybe the most relevant thing, to me, is that Laoghaire MacKenzie MacKenzie MacKimmie Fraser is a woman who courts unhappiness. I never hated this character like a lot of people did. I have a lot of sympathy for her early unrequited love of Jamie. I think her setup of Claire was more heedless than evil. To me, she is more of a cautionary tale about the dangers of drawing self-worth solely from the object of one’s affection. As a young woman, Laoghaire let her feelings for Jamie and an assumed moral superiority over Claire draw her into sinful and criminal behavior. As an adult, holding on to her unhappy union with Jamie supersedes everything. She is not above using her children, a gun or the law. And I don’t think it’s because Laoghaire truly values what Jamie provides. She’s an attractive woman, and could still marry elsewhere. The reason Laoghaire balks at giving Jamie up is because having him is the sole thing that has given her life meaning, and if he goes, he takes her identity with him.

Ghosts of Past and Present. For all the comparisons that can be legitimately drawn between Frank and Laoghaire — most obviously the fact that they both failed miserably in their chance at happiness because the person they loved would never love them back, and their resulting bitterness — what struck me most deeply was their differences. Frank wanted to make things work with Claire, but ultimately decided to let her go. Laoghaire and Jamie seemingly struggled from the very beginning, but even when the end was inevitable Laoghaire turned to violence rather than accept the inevitable. Frank and Claire both struggled to put parenting Brianna first, while Laoghaire thinks nothing of subjecting her daughters to their stepfather’s humiliation, leaving Jamie to console little Joan and assure her of his love. It’s not the first time I’ve thought that, after all is said and done and for all her own suffering, Claire was much luckier in their life apart from each other than Jamie.

If You’re Coming for Jenny Murray, Make a U-Turn. The world according to Jenny Murray might have shades of grey in it, but probably only two or three. She is, without a doubt, the best representation of the moral compass of the time. Jenny’s greatest asset is her ability to see directly into the heart of a matter. Her greatest failing is her resistance to applying that insight inward.  She may have seemed hard, but when Claire first came back, Jenny gave her a brief opportunity to come clean. When Claire attempted to resume their old closeness without its accompanying honesty, that door shut tight. Instead, Jenny hastened to arrange matters to lance the infection she saw poisoning her family.  Not even Ian agrees with the way she dealt with the situation, but where other people have self-doubt, Jenny has a gold-plated statue of herself giving herself a thumbs-up. I may not always agree with her, but she speaks a lot of truth (love her pointing out that Claire went looking for Jamie last time she was told he was dead, and that by leaving him, she left the rest of his family, including Jenny herself). I can’t help but love a woman whose f*ck field is so very, very fallow when it comes to anything other than her family.

The Power of Love. One of the things I have always loved best about the story of Jamie and Claire is that neither is perfect in anything but their love for one another. Time and again it has served as both an inspiration and a reality check. As much as we all love to call him the King of Men, it’s instances like this that show how Jamie gained the wisdom he did to truly earn this moniker. He and Claire were not married long before their separation, and though his delay in telling her the truth was understandable, so is Claire’s disappointment. These are two people who have risked much to be together, and though it would be tempting to make their reunion all wine and roses to compensate for their time apart, it felt very satisfying to finally see the depth and complexity of these feeling exposed and discussed. Unlike last episode, this all flowed, it all felt rooted in genuine emotion. This is the part of marriage that almost no one shows on television: the constant reaching out, past hurt and pride, that ties each pearl and sinew of a lifetime together. The look, touch, or words from one heart to another to say, “Are you still in this with me?” “Are we okay?”

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