Outlander 1.8: Both Sides Now

“The last time I was here, I was Claire Randall. Then Claire Beauchamp. Then Claire Fraser. The question was, who did I want to be?”

Rather than bemoaning the six-month hiatus STARz is calling a mid-season “break,” I’ve decided to focus instead on the use of match cuts in Outlander as an essential formal technique that helps the show tell it’s story. Interchangeably called a “graphic match” or “raccord,” a match cut is a cut in a sequence between either two different objects, spaces, or compositions in which objects in the two shots mirror or mimic one another aesthetically. Any undergraduate film student would point to the flying bone-to-space station graphic match in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as the quintessential example of the device and the work it does to establish continuity of action and/or imply thematic continuity over time. “Time” is the key term here. In filmmaking, the graphic match is used most often to move the viewer forward in time, to signal the years passing while some things remaining the same. In television, matches tend to move the viewer horizontally in time, often to juxtapose two characters who ought to be in sync rather than establish synchronicity. (Breaking Bad did this frequently with Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Skyler (Anna Gunn), as you can see in this YouTube compilation of match cuts from that show.)

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) receives a weding gift of a fossilized firefly from Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) friend, the mute Hugh Munro (Simon Meacock).

Outlander uses both flashbacks/forwards and match cuts to convey the time-travel element of the show’s conceit. The flashbacks/forwards do just that, move us forward and backward along Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) timeline. The match cuts, used compellingly in this episode, does the horizontal narrative work of simultaneously placing the two months Claire has spent in the 18th-century Highlands next to Frank’s (Tobias Menzies) search for her over that same period in 20th-century Inverness. In doing so, the show wraps up the first half of the season by stressing Claire’s subjectivity—that time contributes to our identity formation as well as is a subjective experience, not universal but conditioned by the individual “traveller” as Mrs. Graham (Tracey Wilkinson) suggests—and the centrality of love that binds and pulls apart in that personal narrative, as Claire says, “like pearls on a string.” Together, this device and its stress on these two narrative elements give us a Claire in deep conflict, literally torn between two loves, two worlds, as the title suggests.

Two major moments in this episode that capitalized on the match cut technique illustrate this point. The first is early on: having received hopeful news from Hugh Munro (Simon Meacock), Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan) embrace. Claire looks over Jamie’s shoulder as they hug, seeing both her wedding bands. She lets one drop, which cuts to Frank’s hand with his wedding band dropping to a table as he debates theories with the Rev. Wakefield (James Fleet) of where Claire could have gone. His greatest fear, as Claire predicted, is that she is with another man. And she is, but not out of malice nor rejection of Frank. This is a classic graphic match, in which the wedding bands and motions of their hands are mirrored across time. The mirroring implies the deep bonds of love Claire and Frank still share, no matter how dreamy Jamie may be. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, the focus on the hands (when Claire is involved especially) is synecdochical: Claire and Frank have been defined by WWII and their marriage to one another. Perhaps the stones have pulled them apart to become the individuals that social institution and war have kept them from?

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) gets a lesson in knife fighting from Angus (Stephen Walters).

Speaking of those crafty rocks, the second example comprises the stirring climax of the episode and of the first half of the season: Claire’s return to Craigh na Dun. Still in shock after her near-rape and angry at the lack of agency she seems to have over her life, Claire is left sparsely guarded while the men go in search of the contact that might absolve Jamie of the price on his head (a price that cleverly exists in two time periods, Frank having posted a reward for the Highlander soldier he believes Claire has taken off with). While waiting, Claire realizes they are very close to the stones, and takes off without a second thought. It is at this point that Frank has been told the tale of travelers going through and returning by the stones from Mrs. Graham. Leaving for Oxford, he too makes one last stop at the craigh. As he walks up the hill, crying out Claire’s name, so does she race up the hill: they hear each other’s cries for one another across time. A difficult and detailed scene technically, you might say it is a Point-of-View (POV) match, consisting of a series of shot-reverse-shot sequences that oscillate between Claire and Frank as if they are looking at one another across time. It’s heart-renching and Claire nearly makes it but for the Redcoats that capture her before she can make contact with the stone.

The episode started with Claire and Jamie confessing to one another that they share a love that is something altogether “not usual.” But her attempt to return to Frank, their ability to hear each other through the stones, suggests that Claire and Frank share a similarly special bond. It is in this moment that the show has made its greatest departure from the books: Claire does return to the stones, but with Jamie, and together they hear and feel its power, but ultimately she decides, of her own volition, to stay. Claire is given a choice as well as a pretext to reveal to Jamie she is not of his world. Frank is very minor in the first book. The show, I think compellingly, sacrifices some of Claire’s relationship with Jamie to give Frank more space in the narrative (and thank goodness, too, or what a waste of Tobias Menzies’ talents that would be). This is all besides the fact that Menzies is a living graphic match throughout the show, playing both Frank and Jack, highlighting their generational differences as well as here, their predispositions that make them extremely effective spy masters but also susceptible to the corrupting power of violence. In this episode, in his violence Frank takes “but a sip” of the “same cup” of evil from which Jack “drinks deeply,” to use the Reverend’s words. While I like it, I am not sure yet what to make of the Frank/Jack dichotomy beyond the emotional torment it produces for Claire. It seems to do the most work when we triangulate Claire, Jamie, and Frank, or Jamie, Frank, and Jack.

Still in shock but seeing her chance, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) makes a run for Craigh na Dun.

In Outlander, the element of time travel and its concomitant emphasis on histories personal and universal are allowed to dictate not only dialogue choices, but also aesthetic ones related to cinematic craft. Continuity and discontinuity, friction and cohesion, tension and resolution are established through a variety of match cut techniques simple and sophisticated. A smart director and producer, my guess would be that Ronald D. Moore (of Battlestar Gallatica fame) is putting so much emphasis on the friction between equal loves here because he has a clear audience to whom he wants to cater: the pre-existing fan base. In a brief interview that aired immediately after the episode, Moore said he wanted to “scare the fans in a good way…to keep the audience on the edge of their chairs even if they think they know where the story is going.” Unlike HBO’s Game of Thrones, whose campaign capitalized on the initial book fan base as a spring board to rope in new fans for the show, STARz is instead trying to cater to the books’ fans explicitly, getting them to purchase subscriptions to the channel and keep that subscription. When you consider the viewing numbers (about 5 million per episode), record number channel subscriptions, the positive reviews across the board, and that the show has been renewed for a second season, this business model seems to be working. Now if only we could travel forward in time about six months to see what Jamie does next now that he is in Jack’s window with a loaded pistol.

  • CITATION: “Both Sides Now.” Outlander. Television. Directed by Anna Foerster. Written by Ronald D. Moore. 27 September 2014. UK: Tall Ship Productions, 2014. STARz cable channel.
  • Like my writing about television and/or Outlander? Check out my essay, “Claire Kens Well,” in the the collection, Outlander’s Sassenachs: Essays on Gender, Race, Orientation and the Other in the Novels and Television Series, available now from McFarland.
  • Seems like after this week the series will be on hiatus until 4 April 2015 (noooooooo). Hence the mid-series finale that promos this episode, below:

“All Our Tragic” envisions epic theatre for the 21st century

If epic theatre was a format successful in the twenty-first century, what would it look like? This is the problem Hypocrites founder and director Sean Graney took as his challenge while on fellowship with Harvard University last year. An effective director deeply invested in the political affordances of adaptation as a compositional mode, All Our Tragic is Graney’s most ambitious project to date. Running from August 2nd until October 5th at the Den Theatre in Chicago, the production runs 12 hours long, nine of which spent in actual performance. Epic on the page is an intensely formal genre; the play retains this characteristic to shape the attenuated narrative arc of such a duration. The sequential deaths of the Seven Sisters structure the pace of the eight acts, each no more than eighty minutes in length and divided by fifteen minute, half hour, and full hour intermissions. These dramatic cycles roughly echo the festival format of ancient Greece for which theses plays were originally written. Here, rather than in competition, the plays are knit together in a four part structure of major themes: Physic, Poetics, Politics, and Patriotism. In terms of this attention to construction All Our Tragic‘s true achievement is its formal ability to pace you evenly through the experience in which I was certainly never left feeling bored.

Herakles (Walter Briggs) gives the Seven Sisters umbrellas to battle their cannabilistic, cycloptic, would-be husbands.

The “epic” quality of this theatrical experience was primarily contained to the duration and the text’s organization, but not necessarily in the material scale of the production and the number of actors. Graney’s mark is in the production’s bricolage strategy, smartly cobbling together immediately available pop culture references (the ice-bucket challenge was mocked a time or two) and Greek tragedy formulas to craft something altogether new, something altogether pleasurable in the knowing references as much as in the surprising variations. It is that successful cultivation of the “piquancy of surprise” Linda Hutcheon identifies in A Theory of Adaptation (Routledge, 2012) as at the affective center of adaptation as both a process and a product. But this doesn’t capture the camp and black comedy at the tonal center. Perhaps the play gets closer to capturing the mix of ridiculous and sublime indicative of the Hypocrites house style; the production is more of a chimera as Dejanira (Tien Doman) defines it: part chipmunk, part meerkat, part llama.

While the camp was compelling, for me it was the relationships between characters and their increased complexity that the epic format allowed that caught my attention. No one actor played fewer than three characters, many managing four or five parts with barely a line flubbed. With so much doubling, you could see the effect of character “ghosting” (a la Marvin Carlson) working within a single play rather than across several. Christine Stulik—who commands an excellent sense of comedic timing—as Phedre opens the play as a mother destroyed by incest with her half-bull son to protect the innocent maidens of Greece. She ends the play as Kassandra, carrying a child of rape whose revelation is her own undoing. Walter Briggs opens the play as Herakles, an unsuccessful hero with a heart of gold. He ends it as Agamemnon, ultimately the victor of the war on Troy but murderer of his own daughter—a crime Herakles, too, is guilty of. The challenge to the actor lay in being able to allow the audience to identify these micro-themes but also see each incarnation as distinct, coming up with different answers to similar problems.

Is it the real Helen (Emily Casey) or the disguised witch pretender-Helen whose beauty sunk a thousand ships in the Trojan War?

The “ghosting” created by this excess of doubling also worked to tug on heart strings when activated between actors. For example, Philoktetes (Danny Goodman) is best friend to Herakles (Walter Briggs) and survives several generations of the play that others do not. After Herakles’ death he goes to serve Agamemnon, also played by Briggs but consistently at odds with Philoktetes, moving from the position of friend to foe. Their friction helps to underscore the separate but related tragic flaws in Agamemnon and Herakles. Ryan Bourque crafts a sympathetic Theseus who transforms from sidekick of Jason, to a successful classical hero in his own right who unwittingly causes the death of his love, to a successful leader of the Democratic State of Athens. We experience his entire life arc by the mid-point of the play. Bourque returns to the stage as a tea-obsessed and rather hapless Menelaus, also the cause of a disappeared wife. But where Menelaus leans heavily on a fantasy of happy reunion with Helen, Theseus had been made a realist by his loss of a wife. The transition is marked movingly when it is reported to Agamemnon and Menelaus at the start of their campaign for Troy by Philoctetes that Theseus has died, falling off a cliff while wrestling with Jason.

These ghosting effects, giving the audience opportunities to bring there knowledge of a previous character played by a particular actor to the new role, work to underscore the plays interest in cycles of war and violence as inevitable byproducts of civilization. Each generation posits different answers to patterns that seem to repeat; as one critic identifies those major themes: “Insecurity is ubiquitous. Love struggles. Peace is elusive.” Thus, in its serious second half the play slowly builds an interrogation of the politics of citizenry. Where do we fit in the long narrative of civilization’s evolution? Is one generation really more “progressed” that the previous, or are we still coming up with wrong answers to all the basic questions? Such a proposition would ache after several hours, basking in its own impotency, but for the camp of the presentational style.

Kassandra (Christine Stulik) meets the death she foresaw in the knitting needles.

Of the cast Lindsey Gavel, Erin Barlow, and Ezekiel Sulkes do much of the work of creating tonal discontinuity, turing All Our Tragic into a tragicomedy of which Plautus may have approved. Singing sheep and a Scottish bat-lady Greek-killer are but a few of the more absurdist elements that made me and my companion wish we had been more drunk by the final act (not that we hadn’t tried, making regular stops at the in-house bar for mimosas, wine, and Irish coffees). All told, however, the play did make me think of Plautus and his rationale for why we need tragicomedy: “I don’t think it would be appropriate to make [a play] consistently a comedy, when there are kings and gods in it. What do you think? Since a slave also has a part in the play, I’ll make it a tragicomedy.” Tragicomedy is about bringing the everyman into the arc of epic love and loss, precisely because those emotions are in fact part of the everyday—and in that, I would think All Our Tragic a success.

  • CITATION: All Our Tragic. Adapted and directed by Sean Graney. The Den Theatre, Chicago. 13 September 2014. Performance.
  • Check out Chris Jones’ video review of All Our Tragic for CBS’s “On The Town” program.
  • Check out the following interview with director Sean Graney and cast members: