Deep Thoughts Outlander 404: Common Ground

Jamie Fraser cuts the cable cherokee

Should we not therefore run all risks, and incur all consequences, rather than to submit to further loss of our country? Such treaties may be alright for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will hold our land.

~Chief Dragging Canoe, Chickamauga Tsalagi (Cherokee)

This week had a lot of calm, chatty Jamie/Claire moments, hugging, dogs acting startled and a metric crapton of woodworking. None of those were what stuck with me. Spoilers ahead for episode 404, “Common Ground.”

Roger Wakefield crying spoilers

Hello, Friend

The similarities between Native and Highlander cultures are repeatedly highlighted throughout the hour. The title sequence featuring Nawohali dressing echoes Jamie’s rolling himself into the long kilt from  episode 109, Tawodi spouts philosophical phrases (shout out to Nietzsche) with the same nonchalance as a young Jamie and early on, Gov. Tryon states outright that Indians and Highlanders are alike. This is no coincidence, as Tryon expects Jamie’s empathy with the native plight and therefore wants to hammer home the obligation to the Crown that comes with accepting such a substantial land grant. Jamie responds with his classic grin and noncommittal answers. It’s pretty obvious that he identifies with the native plight…to an extent.  When Jamie spoke to Claire of the “rightness” of knowing that the land he accepted was meant to be his home, I couldn’t help but think of the same emotion passed down from one generation of Cherokee to the next and I found myself experiencing echoes of the feelings I had while watching 402. This might be the reason that I couldn’t wholeheartedly cheer for Jamie and Claire, homesteaders. I was very conscious, once again, which side of the ridge I would be sleeping on, and it wouldn’t be the Fraser side. Jamie understands the Indians did not willingly admit the English into their lands (and fought a war over it not long before) and the problematic nature of assuming a culture is ignorant just because it is not shared. Still, his priority is to settle the land, protect Claire and Ian while doing so, and he doesn’t really stop to think about the inherent wrongness of what he’s doing. Instead he muses about how a few lines on a map aren’t stopping the Cherokee (as if they would have stopped him). It made for a bit of emotional distance on my part, because I couldn’t see myself in his eyes here. Even Claire was strangely silent about the ethical implications of what they were doing, which I understand as a dramatic choice. Claire and Jamie’s settlement drives the story forward in a key manner, but it doesn’t make it any easier for me to watch. All the comparisons between the natives and the Highland Scots ignore one crucial difference: race. It’s a significant omission that ignores the privilege that was so expertly highlighted in Rufus’s story. By episode’s end, a truce between the local Cherokee and the Frasers has been struck, and while I don’t doubt Jamie’s sincerity in doing so, it remains to be seen how long it can endure under such fraught conditions.

Good-Bye, Brianna

These poor bastards. I don’t like to get into book vs. show much in these shorter pieces, but the show has really suffered in the development of Roger and Brianna’s relationship. Simply alluding to a year or so of long-distance dating doesn’t really inform the emotions that power and motivate their interactions. Last week’s fight showed us that Brianna and Roger aren’t only on opposite ends of the commitment scale, but also that they have deep, complex feelings for each other. Brianna, logical to the point of being clinical, would not discuss her feelings for him until prompted, despite being much more physically demonstrative than he. Roger never initiated any kisses or physical contact, so it stands to reason he takes this cue on her part as evidence of greater commitment…except it isn’t. Brianna is ready to give her body but not her word, and she of course should expect her partner to acquiesce to that boundary, except sex requires two people to consent, and how Roger chooses to express his lack of such is where it all goes south. The fact that it devolves into the mess it became and that two adults can’t find the words to tell each other they’re sorry is emblematic of the awkwardness that we have come to associate with them, but it needs to stop. In order for this relationship to become like the one we cheer for in the books, there needs to be the careful building of a dynamic here, not just the tossing together of two characters like blocks destined to bounce off each other. Their telephone conversation is loaded with subtext. Listen to it with your eyes closed and Roger’s silences and professional, detached tone are so at odds with the wealth of emotion in his eyes as to make you cringe. Do the same with Brianna, and you miss the regretful twist of her mouth after every impulsive conversational opening that she quickly shuts down. It’s a painful conversation to watch, and not just because I want to shake them both, but because having a stronger foundation for this relationship would help give this so much context, and it just didn’t happen. As a result, we see more of the flaws in their interactions than the reasons we should want them to be together, even if they make perfect sense. Bree opened herself up, and she won’t make the same mistake twice without motivation. Roger laid his cards on the table and now all he has is his pride. By servicing that pride, however, he misses a chance to reconnect and Brianna, her last tether to the modern world cut, quietly leaves to connect with the only people she has left in the world that will love her no matter what.

 

Deep Thoughts Outlander 403: The False Bride

Roger Mac Wakefield stares at deer

Oh dig me a grave and dig it sae deep,
And cover it over with wee flowers sae sweet.
And I lay me down for to take a long sleep
And maybe in time I’ll forget her.

I was ready for some lightheartedness this week, and Outlander delivered…for at least 15 solid minutes. Spoilers ahead for episode 403, “The False Bride”.

Harmony on Earth

The book Tuscarora have been changed on the show to the much more documented Cherokee, the largest tribe on the southeastern coast. The Cherokee had already lost about 75% of their original tribal lands to English treaties and half their people to a smallpox epidemic by the early 18th century. As John Quincy Meyers tells the Frasers, not only could Cherokee women pick their own partners, they sat on councils, owned property and were religious leaders. In a 1757 visit to the governor of North Carolina, the Cherokee leader Attakullakulla said, “Since the white man as well as the red was born of woman, did not the white man admit women to their council?” These are the people that the English (and early on this episode, Jamie, which made me flinch) refer to as “savages” in the common parlance of the time. The skull Claire finds in the woods, with its bone-deep cut and fiery opal, belong to a man she initially believes to be Cherokee, but later discovers is a time-traveler like herself. It’s a call back to Gillian Edgars, and the fervent desire to change the outcome of a culture destined to be on the losing end of history. We don’t know the reason the man the credits call Otter-Tooth traveled back in time, but his benevolent treatment of Claire establishes her once more as a link not only to the supernatural, but of empathy and knowledge from one culture to another.

May We Never Fall Out

I was so ready to see my book boyfriend Roger this episode. His character is so sweet and I needed a dose of that after the emotional battering ram that was 402. It was no coincidence that we began the episode with a clip of Roger, alone, playing the guitar in the empty Reverend’s manse as he waits to turn the keys over to newly wed Fiona and her husband, Ernie. Roger is obviously suffering a loss, but puts on a brave face to wish the new couple happy in their new home. When he arrives to see Brianna, their reunion is the awkward, sweet comedy of errors we’ve grown used to, except for one thing: Bree is open, demonstrative, and you can see on Roger’s face what this does to him. When Bree makes her move the night of the Celidh, he is ecstatic, declaring his love for her in a sweeping, idealistic proposal that hurts to watch. “I want this to be perfect,” Roger says, his love a monologue that Brianna tries to gently interrupt, three times. First, by telling him it already is perfect. Second, by telling him it’s too fast and finally, heartbreakingly, by outright stating she isn’t ready.  This last statement is what finally penetrates Roger’s vision of their future, and from there, it devolves into an exchange of merciless observations and pointed insults that guarantees the observations won’t be heard. Roger, the product of parents who loved each other and of a history he was raised with, is asking the woman he loves for the commitment which, to him, is emblematic of true love. Brianna, the product of a bitterly unhappy marriage who only recently discovered the cost of her mother’s second, stronger love, is asking the man she loves (though she won’t say it yet) to understand that her commitment, though unspoken, requires space to breathe and grow. All Brianna hears is that it’s marriage or nothing. All Roger hears is that he might not be good enough. As so many young people do, Roger and Brianna are not reacting to their own situation but instead to what their parents taught them of love. Roger loves Bree, and sees a proposal as an (albeit old-fashioned) honorable way to make his intentions known. Bree loves Roger, and would not risk turning him into another Frank (she thinks herself more like her mother than either father), eternally pining for a woman who doesn’t want him. The terrible, sad thing is, that in refusing to speak candidly, openly, and accept each other’s fears, they end up making some of those fears come true.

The Pursuit of Happiness

We spent some time checking back in with Jocasta and establishing that yes, she’s an unrepentant slave owner but she loves a spunky lady and also her nephew. I kind of rolled my eyes at the appropriateness of giving silver candelabra as a housewarming gift to people who can fit their entire lives on two horses and a mule (I know it was his mom’s, hold onto it until he actually owns candles, Jo), but that’s the least of my issues with Jocasta as a human. I was pleased to see that both Jamie and Claire took under 24 hours to peace out on River Run, and their goodbyes were markedly different. Jocasta spoke to Jamie with affection and resignation but while her final conversation with Claire started respectfully enough, Jo just had to run that mouth.  Her assurance that Jamie is wasting his talent by seeking to live an unassuming printer’s life angers Claire enough for a clap back but ultimately the fact that she lets Jocasta have the last word clues me in to the fact that Claire isn’t as confident as she seems about Jamie’s reasons for choosing to go back to printmaking as a career choice. Their subsequent conversation about Brianna’s indecision re: a career path causes Jamie to say that unlike in their daughter’s time, in his time a man followed his family’s career path and was “thankful for that.” Jamie, like his daughter, had no burning desire to follow his chosen career; he did so because he thought he should, and he wanted to give his family what he thought they wanted. As any good spouse or parent will tell you, however, all they want for their child or spouse is that they should fulfill the dictates of their own hearts and pursue their own happiness. By the end of the episode, Claire and Jamie’s decision to settle Fraser’s Ridge (somewhere near Boone and Blowing Rock, according to Herself)  does what their descendants couldn’t, rearranging the concept of what they *should* want to make room for the bravely building something just for the two of them. Something new.

Deep Thoughts Outlander 402: Do No Harm

ulysses outlander

This was a hard watch by any estimation (and political AF for a production that claims not to be) but especially watching it through my personal lens: female, immigrant, person of color with 43.9% native DNA (top 20th percentile for Neanderthal variants, what what). As a rule Outlander is part inspiration, part escapism and part brutal truth but this episode, for me, was a truth hammer with no escapism and little romance to cut through it. I was reminded, inescapably so, that I would not be in a pretty dress in that grand house, should I travel back in time. My humor and my thoughts were trapped, days after I watched, in a terrible sense of mourning. I don’t think I’ll ever fully recap it. It was too painful. And I mean painful in the sense of a pain that my parents and grandparents carried, whispered to them furtively by their parents, who learned of the Spanish arrival in Peru not as the fulfillment of a Great Spanish Dream of personal independence but rather the beginning of a genocide that would eradicate the great Inca empire, rob them of unheard-of wealth, kill their men and rape their women. Our side of the story, the brown side, isn’t romantic. It is a poignant reminder to me that I stand on the bones of my ancestors and if I do nothing else, I must endure. This is the central tenet of the underprivileged: survive, endure, wait. Maybe you don’t see the end of it, but your children might. Bide your time. No hay mal que dure cien años, ni cuerpo que lo aguante, my mother would tell me in times of pain: There is no ill that lasts a hundred years, nor a body that will bear it.

That said, this was an excellent hour of storytelling and a lyrical examination of and homage to the heartbreaking, difficult work of doing good in bad times. It’s a hero’s story. A martyr’s story, and one which forces us to ask timeless ethical questions. What would I do? What should I do? What can good people do in bad times? Spoilers ahead for episode 402, “Do No Harm”.

All Men, Created Equal

From the beginning of the hour, the Frasers and the highland culture are paralleled to the native and slave populations in several ways. Claire’s objections to slavery are rooted in her 20th-century life experiences and inherent respect of all life. Jamie and Ian’s empathy with the Native Americans springs from the Highland clearances and other post-Culloden laws meant to subjugate the Scots. Claire’s previous brush with slavery was an isolated event where she and Jamie retained a large level of control over the outcome. In the colony of North Carolina, however, slavery has existed for at least a century, and colonialism for twice as long. That’s anywhere from four to eight generations’ worth of struggles and stories passed on from fathers and mothers and neighbors about the horrors of trying to peacefully erect a house while an Indian scalped you and the inability of black people to think for themselves. Sure there would be people who were free-thinkers and questioned the prevailing narratives, but they, along with the natives and slaves, lived in a time where this prevalent paternalistic thinking was supported by laws, social mores and an economy dependent on zero-cost labor. Jamie and Claire are coming from Scotland, where Jacobite “Red Jamie” was a second-class citizen to his English overlords, a savage who needed ‘civilizing’ much as the North Carolina tribes were viewed by English colonialists. Unlike the slaves, however, Jamie’s indentured servitude had an end date and he was still, legally speaking, a person. However much the Fraser’s life experiences to-date allow them to empathize and however much they long for the American Dream, they are unprepared for the American Experience. It’s a cultural minefield in the way only our country can be — created by and for immigrants, and yet a melting pot that fights the melting, every time.

A Woman’s Work

Jocasta MacKenzie Cameron Cameron Cameron is worth a mention. Much like her niece Jenny, she’s an outspoken alpha female. Unlike Jenny, she has no living children, and she’s surrounded by wealth and comfort. Jocasta made not one but two strategic marriages to successful businessmen, and not for love. This is a woman who enjoys having a hand in the decision-making, and being an 18th-century southern belle (and a wily MacKenzie), she married men who were willing to give her a seat at the table. As a widow, she charms a series of officers and local gentry, using their influence and power for the benefit of River Run. Jocasta welcomes Jamie as her heir, proxy and mouthpiece…until he, through Claire, threatens her stability. She genuinely loves her family, but River Run is her life’s work, and when Claire takes a stand by refusing to let Rufus be hung it’s not only frustrating to her but at a very basic level, incomprehensible. Jocasta is not a woman that is looking to the larger ethical issues in life. She’s carved out an island, and she’ll fight tooth and nail to defend it. As far as being admirable or brave, she’s neither. As far as understanding the psychology of the women and landowners of the time, she’s a pretty flawless character study.

Prevention is Preferable to Cure

It surprised me not at all that Claire is the kind of person that rushes to fix a problem and is empathetic to the point of self-harm. That’s just Claire 101. Claire will always try to do the right thing (unlike canny Jamie, who will do the right thing if it’s also convenient unless it’s family), but this was a paradigm-altering experience she won’t soon forget. No one can divorce their identity from their perception, and it’s important to remember what Claire brings to the table at the beginning of 402. She is a woman who has experienced sexism and objectification, been both dependent and a person who calls the shots, seen the consequences of ethnocide and culture loss, but also witnessed man’s attempt to rectify the same: the integration of the public school system, the end of segregation and the Civil Rights Act. This is a woman whose best friend is black, and whose child would have brought home black children that she would have seen grow up. This is a woman who became a surgeon, so that no avenue for healing would be closed to her. This is not a woman used to standing down, and because of this, it takes almost the entirety of the episode for Claire to do so. Unlike his wound, the construct of the inferior race isn’t something she can cut away from Rufus’s body or from the hearts of the people of Cross Creek. A system like slavery doesn’t thrive unless there are supports in place to protect it, and Jocasta’s economy, social standing and even health depend upon her complying with the societal norm. Claire, an indigent, new arrival dependent on her in-law’s goodwill who has never complied with the societal norm now attempts to make people see Rufus as a human by sheer bent of will. But as Ulysses points out, colorblindness is not an asset when trying to understand the entirety of the slave experience and the tools by which hopeless people limit and defer their harm. Claire is, by her insistence in healing Rufus’s objectification along with his wound, poking a finger into the slave population’s ethnocultural allodynia. Claire is passing through River Run, but the people she will leave behind will have to deal with the fallout of her defiance. None of this is to say that nothing should be done, but that sometimes, there is no good choice and all you can do short of doing no harm, is to limit the harm you do.

A Grave Error in Judgment

It is hard to pinpoint the spark that lit the fuse of Rufus’s tragic end. Certainly someone who falls on the lawful good side of the alignment system would say his decision to hit his overseer set off a chain of events that justly ended in his punishment. Looking to the circumstances which caused him, a previously free man, to be at the mercy of an obviously immoral abuser well….it’s a bit murkier, isn’t it? The truth of the matter is that the chain of events that led him to this moment is complex, with doors slammed shut and torn open that Rufus, due to his current standing in the society which he lives, is unable to affect or change. Rufus can’t walk away from slavery, even as he struggles to hold on to his sense of identity, his connection to his family and his honor as a man. Claire and Jamie arrive at River Run still smarting from an intellectual, physical and economic beating. Jamie is very conscious of his standing as a poor relation, but he tells Jocasta he shares Claire’s views on slavery as a means of supporting his wife, just as he might perceive the cause to be. In the urgent, frantic moments after Claire discovers Rufus and sees his wound, she is powered not only by outrage, but the bright, hard kernel of hubris that makes any surgeon tick. Rufus’s survival is her focus to the exclusion of all else: the other River Run slaves, Jocasta, her neighbors, even Rufus himself. Her focus on healing him and her refusal to think past it for once, are ultimately selfish, providing the means by which she could emotionally distance herself from the reality of the situation. At the end of the day it’s Jamie who gently manages to get her to accept what she wouldn’t hear from anyone else. It’s heartbreaking to watch for many reasons, but one of them is that earlier in the episode, Ulysses took a much greater risk than Jamie to convey the same message and was patronized and ignored. Here was a man who had lived in that skin, on that path, who recognized what was meant as a kindness and tried to give it context…and he wasn’t seen as an authority of the subject of his own experience. It was a searing reminder that the best, kindest thing we can do to truly advocate for people that we wish to raise up is to take our lead from them, to be good listeners, to check our egos. In the end, Rufus died the way you would euthanize a cat, without even an honest explanation that he would have understood: I am sorry. I can’t give you freedom, or a prayer in your language, but I can give you a choice, authority over your own body, autonomy over your end. Jamie and Claire’s sad faces were the final frame of the episode, but they will move on next week, free to leave what little imposition Jocasta has made on them while having, however unwittingly, added to the already unbearable burden of those they leave behind.

Deep Thoughts Outlander 401: America the Beautiful

Outlander S4, Jamie and Claire, Jamie Fraser, Claire Fraser

Irony, thy name is Outlander.

You also have several other middle names, some of which are Gaelic, some the Latin names for various flora and some, just wonderfully original curse words. Spoilers ahead for the season 4 premiere.

outlander spoilers, ed speeler, stephen bonnet

It’s a Round, Round, Round World

The episode opens in 2000 B. C., with unnamed tribes dancing in a stone circle and Claire speaking about the symbolism attributed to them, of which she is intimately aware. When we rejoin the Frasers in 1767 North Carolina, the brutality of English justice calls back to Jamie’s original capture, and he visits Hayes to offer him the same kindness Dougal once offered him: escape. He and Claire end this episode on their way to ask for a MacKenzie’s aid, same as Jamie once did after his escape from Randall. Jamie offers help to Stephen Bonnet in the same spirit it was offered to him, and it is Bonnet that breaks the circle of trust by stealing and killing those who once helped him. Claire and Jamie lose a friend, but their bond still holds them together and Claire’s knowledge of history will help shape their future choices, even if it doesn’t guarantee their success. Still, from the infinity symbol created by Claire’s twin wedding bands moments before she swallows them to Marsali and Fergus’s happy surprise, we are reminded that circles by their very nature continue spinning, and this is only the beginning of their second chance.

Of Thee I Sing

Season 4 has been framed over and over again as the Frasers’ immigration story, and as any first-generation immigrant will tell you, it’s no bed of roses. Their current situation in Scotland might not be as deadly as it once was, but it certainly isn’t as promising as it could be in the Carolinas, the wee issue of loyalty notwithstanding. Jamie, Claire, and their family differ from the standard immigrant to the Americas not only in their beliefs (Catholic vs. Protestant) and nationality (Scottish/Scottish-by-marriage vs. English), but in their morality and belief systems. I didn’t find the last scene as upsetting as searingly, terribly honest. The jazzy, upbeat version of America the Beautiful playing over the violence at the end is disturbing only to those who haven’t experienced this version of America…and the Frasers aren’t part of the population that will ultimately suffer the most from the realization of the American Dream. They are about to experience, maybe for the first time, what it is to be part of the victor’s side of an equation where victory can at times ring hollow. From the natives that we have heard about (but have yet to see) to the slave trade, Jamie and Claire will face every immigrant’s dilemma: how to carve out a space for themselves and their family that holds on to the dearest parts of their identity while learning what to let go in order to survive in a new world.

The Bakra and the Sea

The question of good and evil is never a black-and-white issue in Outlander, and we are reminded of this three times this episode. First, when Hayes bravely accepts his fate as his due for laying with a married woman and killing her husband in a panic. Jamie knows him to be a good man, and reaffirms that goodness well past the man’s death, ensuring Bonnet’s safety in his name. Although these were actions taken in good faith, they ultimately enable the escape of a man who will come to be a great thorn in the Frasers’ side. Second, when Ian experiences a flashback of his time as Geillis’ captive while digging Hayes’ grave. He confesses to Jamie his shame at the pleasure of it, despite the “unspeakable things” she made him do. Jamie encourages him to speak of it to him the way he once spoke of it to Claire, and reduces it to a simple yet brutal truth that Ian can accept. “What it comes down to is your cock doesna have a conscience, but you have.” Third and perhaps most poignantly, when Bonnet tells Claire his dream of dying at sea, and she empathizes with him as a healer and human being only to have him later violate that trust by taking her most cherished possession, the iron circle, made from Lallybroch’s key, that Jamie gave her on their wedding day 24 years ago.

Suck It, Science

Ultimately we are left with the central, circular truth in this show: Love holds everything together. Marsali, despite Claire’s contraceptive, is happily carrying her first child, the first generation of Frasers in America. Jamie, thinking of America as his daughter’s future home, once again considers pledging an allegiance he will eventually need to break when the revolutionary war breaks out in eight years. Fergus, Marsali and Ian choose to remain with Jamie and Claire rather than go back to Scotland. Lesley honors his friend by singing a caithris in his honor, and dies protecting his leader’s wife. Ian finds comfort in the unconditional love of a selfless companion. Claire and Jamie meditate on the fragility of life and the importance of whatever moments they have together, even if they don’t last forever. Jamie pledges a love that lasts beyond death. “Nothing is lost, Sassenach. Only changed.” When Claire replies that it’s the first law of thermodynamics, he replies that no, it’s faith. That belief in things unseen, in the eventual harmony of all things, in the closing of circles and the ability of good to overcome evil as long as good people hold on tight to each other and stand against it.