Outlander 1.10: By The Pricking Of My Thumbs

“CLAIRE: You don’t really think it had anything to do with that summons of yours, do you?

GEILLIS: I don’t know that it did. I don’t know that it didn’t. And neither do you.

CLAIRE: I know it is a coincidence, and a sad one. Nothing more.”

The title of this episode of course comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It comes from the mouths of the weird sisters, portending something wicked is on its way just before Macbeth enters the room. It begs the question: what is the wicked thing coming this way? It is also a reference to an Agatha Cristie novel (1968) about spouses covering up for mad lovers. The two references encapsulate the major plot points of the episode: Dougal (Graham McTavish) and Geillis’ (Lotte Verbeek) efficient dispatch of their spouses in order to be together, and the series of supernatural elements woven into Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) everyday life.

Laoghaire (Nell Hudson) gets a good slap for calling Claire (Caitriona Balfe) a “witch” and “cold English bitch.”

The episode opens with two inciting incidents: a) Claire gives Laoghaire (Nell Hudson) a good slap across the face for the ill wish planted under her bed, and b) Claire catches Geillis dancing the same dance she saw at Craigh na Dun under the full moon. The rhetoric of ownership from the last episode continues when Claire tries to reason with Laoghaire that Jamie was “never yours to begin with,” of which Laoghaire is still unconvinced despite Jamie’s rejection. Claire realizes that Geillis is pregnant while watching her dance, and Geillis confesses it is Dougal’s child—”he belongs with me.” In asking Mother Nature for “our freedom, Dougal and mine,” Geillis seems to collapse the Jacobite cause for Scottish freedom into with her union to Dougal. While the moment reinforces their freindship, Claire is clearly unsettled by the destructive power of desire to “own” a lover one cannot have evident in both women.

Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek) attempts to ask Mother Nature for “our freedom, Dougal and mine.”

Less overt are the moments of healing and poisoning, both kinds of sciences to which Claire and Geillis have unique access, and for which they are made suspicious. Throughout the episode we see Claire routinely mending (Jamie), soothing (Dougal), and otherwise using her medical knowledge to promote life (Arthur Duncan and the changeling babe). Geillis seems to be primarily using the same knowledge set to curse (Moira McKenzie and Claire) and kill (Arthur). Does this speak to the quality of their characters, or the culture in which they are enmeshed? The changeling debate troubles this question. Hearing a baby squealing in the woods, Geillis explains it is, ostensibly, a sick fairy child the parents have left out in the hopes their real, healthy child will be returned in its place. Geillis warns her not to go to it, but Claire of course does, and is horrified to find the baby had frozen to death moments before she arrived. She rocks it back and forth, whispering “I’m sorry” for who knows how long (suggested by cross-fades) until Jamie arrives. She seems somewhat comforted by the notion that for “the parents it might comfort them a bit to think it was the changeling that died, and their child lives forever with the faeries.” Claire’s access to twentieth-century science provides her with a different moral compass than that of eighteenth-century Scots, who need these kinds of myths to explain the viccisitudes of illness and assuage their grief.

Geillis (Lotte Verbeek) puts on a convincing performance when her husband keels over in the main hall, finally done in by her slow cyanide regime.

Another plausible “wicked thing” (at least according to the rhetoric of the men who become very aware of who has access to their “hindquarters”) is the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow). That he is a homosexual is common knowledge, but his Jacobite sympathies less so. It seems a stroke of luck that Jamie stands his second in a duel in which he is missed at very short range. The duel breaks out into a “common brawl,” whereby saving the Duke Jamie ensures his petition for pardon will make its way to London by his hand. That, and the fact that Claire is with Geillis (tricked by Laoghaire) when guards come to arrest the latter, are both cases wherein more than mere coincidence seems to be at work. No one is left “spotless” after the duel however. Colum (Gary Lewis) figures out that Dougal is with Geillis and suspects that they had a hand in their spouses’ deaths. Dougal spills the beans that she is carrying his child and a ploy for sympathy, but it backfires. He is exiled to his home estate, which Jamie to police his behavior, away from both Geillis and Claire as assurances for their good behavior. So while individual “wicked things” (fairly and unfairly so) populate the episode, we are left with a clear sense that the real “wicked thing” on its way is a witch trial.

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.