This is my quest, to follow that star No matter how hopeless, no matter how far To fight for the right, without question or pause To be willing to march into hell for that heavenly cause
– From “The Impossible Dream” by Mitch Leigh
I yam what I yam & dats all what I yam. -Popeye
What an episode. Beards, Lord John, a multi-faceted Mohawk culture and the Fraser womenfolk kicking tail and taking names. I almost lit up a cigarette after, and I don’t smoke. It was that satisfying. When Outlander does emotion best, it’s a tide that sweeps you away into fear and empathy. There is no real room for the brain, for noticing the beats or lulls in the script or a soft accent here or there, it’s all heart, all gasps of recognition and the communion of souls. That last bit lends itself quite easily to religion, which on the surface, is a theme woven throughout this hour. I’d like to push out a bit and say that, more so than Catholicism (or Protestantism), the hour revolved around morality, ethics (encompassed here in the cultural systems of religious practice) and what makes a person ‘good’ versus ‘bad.’
Cultural relativism, also known as descriptive moral relativism, says that morality is culturally defined, excepting a few universally held beliefs (“Thou shalt not kill”) and that these moral truths are based on beliefs and practices unique to that culture. On the other end of the continuum is moral absolutism, which holds that right and wrong are universal and so all can be judged under the same standard. The truth, as with so many things, is likely in the middle. While laws and standards likely need to take into account the cultures in which they are being practiced, there needs to be a commonality to them in order to make the enforcement acceptable to the population, lest the entire thing fall apart and anarchy prevail. Part of our unspoken social contract is that we acknowledge and accept living by these standards, but what do we do when the goalposts move? On the scale from relative to absolute, what makes us good people? In a world that sometimes seems that chaos takes the wheel, is goodness more important than survival?
Were it not for hope, the heart would break. -Scottish proverb
We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers And sitting by desolate streams; World losers and world forsakers, On whom the pale moon gleams; Yet we are the movers and shakers Of the world for ever, it seems. -Arthur O’Shaughnessy, from “Ode“
I once had a psychology professor tell me, upon discussing marital therapy, that it wasn’t lack of love that doomed most relationships as much as a lack of boundaries. In his experience he had found that the single most damaging thing two people could do, was “to not fight fair,” and hurt each other with words that couldn’t be forgotten. I remembered that while watching this episode, which dealt with the fallout of what happens when people don’t fight fair, and the struggle we all face when we’re trying to fly a straight path through the world with one broken wing.
A Whole Man
This was a sweet way to include characters we haven’t seen enough of in some time, especially sassy Marsali. Murtagh is staying with the Wilmington Frasers while he waits for Fergus to bring news of Stephen Bonnet, but he’s also running meetings with the regulators out of their home, even though there is a price on his head. Not only is Marsali worried about harboring a wanted fugitive and the Bonnet situation, but to compound their problems, Fergus is out of work and having a hard time finding anyone who wants to hire a one-handed man. He jokes mildly about being “butchered” and “half a man” to everyone but Jamie, but there is real pain in his eyes. For a long time, Fergus was Jamie’s right-hand man despite his disability. Now he has a family of his own, and he’s struggling. Marsali, noticing this, chooses a completely different approach than would Claire or Brianna. She purposefully wakes Murtagh one night as he sleeps in her kitchen and extracts a promise that he will ask Fergus to join the regulators. Murtagh apologetically points to his hand, signaling Fergus’s disability, but Marsali is undeterred. She knows that Fergus’s pride and sense of self demand it. “I’ll have a whole man, or none at all,” she says determinedly. It’s a loving, unselfish act, and a courageous one, for there is the possibility Fergus might accept and come to harm. Marsali not only understands the value of a subtle tactical maneuver that helps Fergus save face, but she inherently understands and accepts that Fergus’s identity needs to have the opportunity to extend past the role of husband and provider. When Fergus turns Murtagh down, it becomes obvious that Marsali always thought he would, but recognized the importance of him having the ability to choose, rather than feel he was being relegated.
And so today, my world it smiles Your hand in mine, we walk the miles Thanks to you it will be done For you to me are the only one Happiness, no more be sad Happiness, I’m glad –Led Zeppelin, “Thank You”
This one’s a little different. First a general reflection and a bit of a window into my personal life, which I tend to shy away from. I watch TV through a lens of what stories say about people in general. I think it’s a leftover from studying to be an art therapist, looking at the way symbols and gestures represent emotions and the way there are commonalities across ethnicity and gender that speak to the shared emotional ancestry of the human experience. Reading the Outlander novels is so lyrical, I am sometimes drawn into the music of the language, lulled into a rhythm which enables a certain emotional distance. I recognize and process the feelings I read about on a mostly intellectual level more than an emotional one. By causing me to experience those same stories through the actors’ bodies and eyes, their feelings expressed in motion and volume, the series sometimes makes my own emotional reaction harder to process, and I work that out by writing about it. It’s a sort of reciprocal loop, and it gets very, very wordy. Bear with me as I meander. Spoilers ahead for episode 410, “The Deep Heart’s Core” after the jump.
“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
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.
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.
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.
The bulk of my first impressions have to do not with story this week, but the casting and production. This was the end of the three-episode arc that dealt with the Randall marriage and Claire’s early life in Boston, and to get her back to Scotland, Roger, and the search for Jamie (not to mention to get Jamie through his years of hiding and imprisonment) would take some serious editing. Spoilers ahead for episode 303.
Here are my five initial takeaways:
Hats off, Tall Ships. I think this episode more than any other to-date shows the successful complexity of what it can be to adapt a book to a series, hit all the high points and still evoke all the emotion of the longer passages and dialogue that can’t possibly be covered fully when working with limited time and resources. Ardsmuir especially, though drawn very sparingly, communicated both its squalor and the closeness of the men in a very sad, very dear way. The Randall marriage, as well, saw a period of eleven years pass in less than thirty minutes, and it felt very real, even if not 100% faithful to the Voyager novel. The economy in no way detracted from the emotional resonance, and that’s worth applauding.
Okay fine, I get it, LJ fans. I have been through YEARS of people telling me that Lord John is the bee’s knees, and I need to read all his books…and I’ve resisted. I just didn’t see it, and I was holding some of his actions in Echo against him, but David Berry’s portrayal just broadcasts this integrity that I find a really appealing trait in a man who is a well-disguised outsider. Maybe his station in life has afforded him some privilege, but his sexuality has also dealt him very bitter blows, and they have ennobled his character instead of rotting it. He is, in many ways, the anti-BJR. It was incredibly touching to see both he and Jamie find the noble heart of each other, and I look forward to seeing more of him.
Always take a Murtagh. I’m not ashamed to say I leapt out of my seat like a joyous kangaroo when I heard his voice, and I started flailing my arms when I saw his dear beard and brows. I was so, so, touched that the show brought Duncan Lacroix back for another episode, even if it might be some time before he’s seen again. I know that at some point in life Jamie has to grow to become Murtagh-like himself, but in what has been a very dark first few episodes, it was a welcome ray of sunshine to see such a beloved character again. I hear the rumors about what his role might be in season 5, and all I can say to that is BRING IT. Put him in a pig costume and make him the white sow, I don’t care. I need my Murtagh.
Poor Frank. Two paths diverged in a wood, and on one was TV Frank. So many differences between these two characters. There is a lot of dislike of Book Frank, and it has seemed to some that the TV version has been sanctified in a way the “real” Frank does not deserve. If I have come away with anything from the show, however, it’s that reality is uncomfortable, and the fact that Claire fell in love with another man doesn’t automatically make the man she chose first into a villain, nor does it make her actions where he is concerned always heroic. There were a lot of shades of grey in the Randall marriage, and I feel like the writers were very successful at navigating difficult subject matter. That scene where Claire’s tear drops on his face, an echo of the same tear he cried the last time she saw him alive? Gut-wrenching. Real. Poetic. I’ll miss the tremendous Tobias Menzies, but I hope to see him in flashbacks.
Breecyclopedia. There is so much emotional soil being laid down in these first few episodes about Brianna’s upbringing that explains so much about non-Jamie parts of the character. You can count me among the people who never connected with book Brianna, but the show is illustrating so many of the behaviors that I found bratty and why she needed to develop them. Bree is brash and direct because she lived in the shadow of her parents’ false reality. She is emotionally reserved because she saw the unhappiness of unrequited love in not only her father, but also Claire. She is independent because she had a working mother and intellectual father who encouraged her to make her own choices and think for herself, and she is analytical because she has learned to probe situations and people instead of taking what they say at face value. She is in a way not only three people’s greatest hope for the future, but the product of all their past mistakes… and all their enduring virtues.