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:

Outlander 1.7: The Wedding

There it was. Not only was I a bigamist and an adulteress, but I had enjoyed it.

The story goes that when Diana Gabaldon began writing her series, she never planned it to sit on the historical romance shelves of her local Borders or Barnes and Noble. (She probably hadn’t imagined her major market sales would be as ebooks when those chains shuttered their doors.) But her publisher advised her to add a little sex to the mix, at least to the first book, and the exponential increase in sales that branding could guarantee would give her room to do as she liked with the second book. Planned or not, Gabaldon gave us a complex and adult love story with some of the basic markers we ourselves have to negotiate when it comes to love. At what point is a difference in age a deal breaker? What constitutes intimacy? Do some people share an instinctual chemistry that simply can’t be cultivated by time and friendship? What exactly makes a marriage? Our modern adult love stories are messy ones, fixated on divorce, betrayal, and grief. Is there room, at least in the television market, for a complex kind of love that isn’t predicated on destruction? Or do we have to go back in time to find it?

Any undergraduate cinema student will tell you that filming heterosexual physical intimacy is a difficult problem. With the profusion of pornography, it is hard to escape the objectifying conventions of that genre on the silver screen, but you can also  go online to get pornographic content on your computer or phone in in the bellesa porn videos online. The main problem is the medium itself: the lens of the camera. The camera lens, it’s portrayal of the female form, re-enacts the male gaze by co-opting the female body as an object of consumption and subjected to an assumed male authority. The female form is beautiful in and of itself, however, and the high production values of the show, which includes its costumes and general sumptuous attention to detail, are part of what sells here. So how can a show like Outlander split the difference between the objectifying nature of its form and the salability of production values?

While Claire (Caitriona Balfe) gives him room to slack his vows if he loves another, Jamie (Sam Heughan) is determined to make a good faith effort of their marriage.

Rape and male dominance in eighteenth-century Scottish society has been a consistent theme throughout the show. Where does consent end and force begin? The context of an arranged marriage, or marriage of convenience, of this episode gives the show room to finally tackle this problem head on. The episode underscores Dougal’s (Graham McTavish) attraction to Claire (Caitriona Balfe), both pursuing her after the wedding feast and attempting to keep Jamie from his wedding bed out of jealousy. He warns Jamie to never “seem to eager to please a woman. It gives her too much power.” Thus, the prototypical male gaze is established with Dougal. It is in Jamie (Sam Heughan), the romantic and rather gorgeous specimen of a Scotsman, that becomes the object of Claire’s gaze—and fans, too, as in most interviews it is Heughan’s appearance and not Balfe’s that is commented upon. While Jamie’s body has been an object of political identification and manipulation, as I have discussed before, it is also his body we see first fully in the nude when Claire requests he remove his shirt and circles round as is assessing a prize horse. Lucky for us, Heughan is not just a pretty face, but is finally given room to do justice to his 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Most Promising Performer as well.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) try to find some intimacy by sharing the stories of their lives with one another.

I will likely discuss acting in further detail as the series continues, but for now this episode best demonstrates why costumes matter for narrative. In a period drama such as this costumes matter because clothes, I think, said so much more about a person then than they do now. We are chameleons with our wear, but for a clansman, for example, his daily kilt was the tartan of his clan, signposting his position in society and allegiances. Sumptuary laws dictated what kinds of materials and colors a person could wear depending on their station, so all the more they were important markers of identity. (Purple is a rather famous example, only to be worn by royalty.) Therefore, it is the slow peeling away of their clothes throughout the course of this episode that we see these two leaving behind the social norms dictated by time (for Claire) and culture (for Jamie) to expose something more essential to their natures. Laces are erotic for a reason: their untying is an asking of permission, a crossing of a threshold. Throughout the episode while they are fully clothed we see the small holding of hands, touching, the constant asking of permission. It matters that the first time Claire and Jamie have sex it is mostly clothed; it is brief, awkward, and anticlimactic. As Rupert observes, “You can still do it with your clothes on,” but another clansman shouts out “Not on your wedding night.” The second time they are entirely naked, and truly intimate, wherein Claire is entitled to climax as much as Jamie.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) find an unexpected connection when they are able to bear all to one another.

When I watched the episode a second time I was more conscious of the language of intimacy being deployed. Before the first two sex acts Jamie declares that now married he will protect Claire even with his body, that he has given his body to her. His insistence on being truthful to the occasion no matter the circumstances, to make the most of this marriage attempt, marks him as the romantic rather than her. Thus the episode conceives of this arranged marriage in terms of an erotics of hope, of potential. While not glorifying the inherent awkwardness of Jamie’s “first time,” there are some truly beautiful scenes of sexual discovery. Unlike so much print romance, Fifty Shades of Grey included, here the woman is both the sexually experienced partner and the sexually daring one. It is Jamie’s realm to construct a bridge to intimacy through storytelling foreplay. Rough an’ ready men, the Scots are indeed romanticized and even Murtagh, Jamie’s right-hand-man gets a moment for sentimentality, saying “Your mother had the sweetest smile—warm a man to the backbone just to see it. Claire’s smile is just as sweet.” Jamie also describes Claire in terms of basic physiognomy: “mo nighean donn” (“mo duinne” originally in the books), or “my brown-haired lass.” It is back to bodies shared and unconstrained by social norms in which their erotics escape the mediation of the male gaze.

It would seem significant then that the last sex act they perform is one wherein Claire is on top and wraps them both together in Jamie’s Fraser kilt. She reclothes them together, binds them under his family emblem as a gesture that they are truly unified in a way that a marriage ceremony only simulates. Both outsiders of a kind, Jamie as an outlaw and Claire stuck out of time, they seem to find an inner truth shared in their mutual aberrance. In the morning we catch them dressing and teasing, putting the clothes back on, the reminders of the social norms of the reality they re-enter with the morning. I recommend you watch the featurette on Terry Dresbach’s costume designs and the production time and attention that went into the wedding dress and its centrality to the episode. The important touchstones that mark the progress of our lives are shaped by the social costumes we don for those occasions. Outlander is using this historical insight in order to bring us a mature kind of love story that is about just that—not sex, death, divorce, or life’s other additional complications, but the complexity of falling in love on its own terms.

Postscript: The inspiration behind this series of Outlander posts is my mother, a major fan of the book series and keeping me informed on the show’s accuracy as I myself work through the novels. She had two great recommendations offered after I posted this entry. First, costume designer Terry Dresbach has a twitter handle worth following as she notes her inspiration and interesting historical tidbits about her designs for the show: @draiochta14. Also her website, terrydresbach.com, has full-scale images of her discoveries. And speaking of costumes, mom emailed me this great article by Yahoo of all places that has a blow-by-blow accounting of the costume inspiration and creation process for this particular episode: click here. Thanks mom!