Outlander 1.6: The Garrison Commander

And for the first time since I passed through the standing stones of Craigh na Dun I found myself surrounded by my own people. They might be called Red Coats instead of Tommys but they were still the British Army I’d been a part of for six long years and somehow it felt liberating to be looked upon with sympathy and respect instead of hostility and suspicion.

A number of dichotomies were gestured toward in this episode. On her way into the English garrisoned town Claire (Caitriona Balfe) contemplates that now among the army—here Red Coats and not Tommys—whether to live under suspicion or sympathy is the safer course. Being amongst her “own people” the notion of “outlander” and who precisely is one is a question. Her interrogation by Randall (Tobias Menzies) troubles also who exactly is the commander in Scotland—where does the military power lie? Aside from her Englishness, the only other thing anchoring Claire to her past/future is her medical skills. We are again reminded in this episode of the limited medical resources in the period, clean clothes available only to the extent of wives’ hankies. Full-length shots of Claire with bloodied hands and her anxiety over the maiming of young men—the WWII soldiers, Jamie, the thief child—are recurrent themes that extend into this episode. Otherwise, the tone and emotional investments of this episode take a decidedly different turn from those of the first third of the season.

“I run in darkness, madame, and in darkness I shall remain,” professes Randal (Tobias Menzes) as he knocks the wind out of Claire (Caitriona Balfe).

While the series has been meticulous and rather brilliant with its attention to period detail in terms of costuming and historical fact, little literary reference has been made to works of the period until now. The 18th century print market catered to an intensive fascination with the travelogue genre, partly as a product of the concomitant rise of journalism and colonialism. Mocking her attempt to fill in her suspicious life story, Claire is given not one but two potential book titles by which she might make a fortune in England: Mrs. Beachamp Among the Savages and The Rehabilitation of Black Jack Randall. Such travel narratives, as often fictitious as they were based on true lives, underscore how little Randall believes Claire’s tale. It is as if Daniel Defoe himself was part of the writers room debates. Scotland is seen as a kind of foreign expedition, wherein the soldiers refer to the locals as “specimen” and “creatures,” disembodying them from their humanity with the belief that “the world would make a lot more sense if everyone spoke like Londoners.” The colonialism and its attendant violence is laid on rather thick in the first half of the episode: note the quip by Commander Thomas, “How are we ever going to make peace with such an ill-mannered people?,” just before Claire is punched and kicked on the ground by her own countrymen.

If the Randall family straight razor could talk…oh the tales it could tell.

While a bit ham-handed in moments, the anti-colonial emphases of the episode pays off in leaving Tobias Menzies room to finally put on display his talents as Black Jack Randall. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Menzies plays as smart a villain as he does a lover, often blurring those categories of characterization to great effect. Here he evolves the character of Jack as an artist, a man with a sensitive soul transmogrified and tortured by war into something cruel and unrecognizable. In his portrayal of a man equally equipped to capture the likeness of a lady as punch her, we are still left with no surety of Jack’s “true nature,” of where his morality or capability for disgust lay. In a smart graphic match of a straight razor shaving Jack to the same, handed down through the generations, wielded by Claire to shave Frank, I was left wondering about Frank’s war wounds. Making it back whole but having led the life of a spy master himself, what kinds of corruption had he suffered at the hands of the war? Is Jack supposed to be the other side of Frank? Is this a potential corruption he had somehow escaped but fallen pray to that remains still unknown to Claire? While the flash forward scenes are heartbreakingly lovely, Jack’s behavior seems to implicitly put Frank on trial for potentially similar deeds in a different yet familiar time and place.

Jamie (Sam Heughan) gets a second set of 100 lashes with a cat o’ nine tails from Randall (Tobias Menzes).

But where there is Frank, there will always also be Jamie. It is on Jamie’s body on which Jack has done his “reddish work” come out of his heart of darkness. If Jack had revealed anything to Claire, it is his inner artist of perversion. He describes Jamie, “a man scourged,” as “an exquisite bloody masterpiece” under his whip, “the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” It is here we get the hint of homoeroticism that is much more prevalent at this point in the novels. Jack echoes an earlier observation made by Claire, that it was through sex that she and her husband were building a bridge back to one another. Contemplating his arm and Jamie’s back, Jack nostalgically remembers “the whip connecting us both.” Bridges, pairings, dichotomies. In war it seems there can only be two sides, and this episode seemed most invested in making clear the complexities of all the sides available. While it remains unclear who is the outlander, who is the commander, the title of savage has clearly been claimed.

Outlander 1.5: Rent

Absence, hear thou my protestation
Against thy strength,
Distance and length:
Do what thou canst for alteration,
For hearts of truest mettle
Absence doth join and Time doth settle.
– John Donne

This week’s episode was one of parts and wholes. As the individual tenants and their rents provide the MacKenzie with resources and power to protect and provide, so are our leads increasingly defined by their constitutive parts. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is the classic example of a synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice versa, such as referring to workers as hired hands. While preconceived notions are construed about Claire through her speech, her English accent, as a Sassenach, her “strong hands,” inquired after over and over again set those presuppositions to rights. In this episode, they are called on to help townswomen set a dark blue dye to a piece of wool by working in warm urine. Once she gets passed her 20th-century conditioned disgust, her isolation, a theme of the episode, is abated by the communion of women.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is invited to help townswomen set dye into a piece of wool with piss, putting to good use her strong hands.

Similarly, the story of Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) whipping has turned out to be much more than an intimate revelation shared between friends. On the road, Dougal (Graham McTavish) is not merely collecting rents, but raising money for a Jacobite rebellion—a rebellion Claire is well aware they will never win. His scars are trotted out by Dougal to enact some complex semiotics of injury that I think Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) explains best. Dougal’s tactic is powerful on two levels. First, when the clansmen see and touch Jamie’s hurt body, it is “juxtaposed to the disembodied idea,” that of Scottish independence, “and having sensorially experienced the reality of the first, believes he or she has experience the reality of the second” (125). Believing that they are a party to that pain, they are easily conscripted to revenge it. Second, “the hurt body’s instability of reference,” as in whether it memorializes a past winner or looser and to what extent it portends injury to come, is simply “unpleasant to contemplate—particularly since it denies the population’s ability to ensure what finally will be confined by its own violent and physically costly display of will” (Scarry 120). His scars, the history of his nation’s brutalization at the hands of the English writ into his very skin, is a source of both engagement and horror. While Claire’s hands help to undo her partitioned identity as an outlander, Jamie’s back disappears his subjectivity into his society altogether.

This partitioning occurs in less material, less overt ways as well. There is an interesting politics to the use of Gaelic in the film, far more expansively so than in the novels. Gaelic both includes and excludes. Claire, “even amongst the vast and beautiful landscape” already feels “trapped,” wondering is she will “have to reconcile [her]self to living a life among strangers two hundred years in the past.” Dialects even more subtly register loyalties and expectations. The disguised redcoat who attempts to save Claire from a brash Dougal ameliorates her alienation and foreignness for a moment with the respite of a shared speech pattern (one that proves a very effective cliff-hanger and smart deviation from the novel at the end of this episode).

Dougal (Graham McTavish) inspires small towns to give up their last pennies to the Jacobite cause.

More importantly, the in/exclusive functions of Gaelic in the show demonstrate the sophisticated cultural strategies of verbal policing and social censure through sexual jokes and sarcasm. The only discernible police force, the Watch, is clearly corrupt, so without an institutionalized troupe for safety and at the whims of a dispersed and unforgiving landscape, the depiction of Scottish culture here is one of intense verbal play and censure, making absolutely clear rather constantly what is accepted behavior as inscribed by the group, and not. But verbal harassment of women has a long history (and a recent one at that), namely as a strategy to both objectify women in public spaces and assert dominance over them and their space by men. While the several half-told jokes by the MacKenzie clan starting “So there I was in bed…” are bothersome to Claire, the same in Gaelic by men at an inn unseats the MacKenzies, causing a riot and destroying the inn. The guys justify the fight to Claire: “You are the guest of the Mackenzie. We can insult ya, but God help any other man that does.”

We can see that the synecdochal strategies used by the MacKenzie clansmen attempt to justify the objectification of Claire and Jamie, slowly removing a sense of individual subjectivity through communal policing and the political needs of the group. Thus, while we cheer for Claire when she turns the sarcasm and censure back on them, that she is accepted for the joke, her own assertion of dominance and objectifying her captors, upon reflection is perhaps the most nefarious moment. Has she been brainwashed? Come to be that which she abhors? Or is the pitch more on of survival than acquiescence? We’ll have to see. Claire understands that she is living in a small moment, just before the second of four Jacobite rebellions in which she is enmeshed and will be the end of the Highland way of life. In a few years the clans will be slaughtered at Culloden (which they pass in the episode), tartans and Gaelic will be banned, clan lands pillaged to starvation. Despite her attempts to sew discord and assuage them otherwise, she is scolded: “It doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re here…You’re not to judge things you don’t understand. Stay out of it Claire.” Jamie may be right here, while they pass crucified Scots on the highway (another variation from the novel) that imply the life of terror the English inflict in the name of a unified Britain.

Dougal (Graham McTavish) and the men joke about marital relations in Gaelic, to the exclusion of Claire (Caitriona Balfe).

However, Claire’s value seems to be precisely in her ability to diagnose things they don’t understand, at least in the body itself. Why not in the larger scheme of things as well? When she tries to intimate the futility of the war, Ned Gowan replies, “history be damned.” A passing statement just before the brawl, it is no less an interesting proposition, for this is a tale of time-travel after all. It is the first time the show suggests that Claire may be there to change history. At no other point is there even the mildest suggestion that the singing stones have plans for her, that there is some kind of intent behind her displacement, and we know our own history books. But, considering the uncanny exigency of the theme here, Scottish independence, perhaps Claire’s xenophobic partitioning, the history written in scars on Jamie’s back, are suggesting to us of something more immediately political than the initial romance billing of the series lead us to believe. In its reading as in its viewing, we the audience are the outlanders, the sassenachs, after all.