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 1.3: The Way Out

FRANK: This is backwards. I’m the one who should be headed to the front lines.
CLAIRE: Welcome to the twentieth century.

This episode seems to take up the real fears one might have if ever stranded back in time. This is part of the psychological interiority Gabaldon’s novels have been lauded for, and that many time-travel shows, from Quantum Leap to Doctor Who, don’t deal with directly because much time isn’t spent in any particular place. Here, Claire is thrust into a time that for all intents and purposes in which it seems like she is meant to stay put until the singing stones of Craig Na Dun decide otherwise.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) attempts to make the best of her new “surgery” in order to win her captors’ trust.

First are the fears related to medicine, and whether Claire (Caitriona Balfe) can successfully “apply twentieth century medicine using only the methods available in the eighteenth” to earn the clan’s trust. The townsfolk either fear her for this particular kind of special knowledge, or embrace it as Colum (Gary Lewis) and Mrs. Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland) do. And yet there are still resistances when it comes to the blurred space between religion and science. When a few boys are accidentally poisoned, the town blames the “cursed” ruins of Black Kirk, an old Prussian monastery, as having seized them “with evil.” Claire, while curing the children, of course makes a quick enemy in the town’s preacher, Reverend Wakfield (James Fleet).

Relatedly is the precariousness childhood. The episode features three boys: the heir to Colum’s lordship, a bread thief nailed to the pillory for his crime, and Mrs. Fitzgibbons’ nephew taken ill by the poisoned plants. The first is taken great care of, especially by his uncle since Colum’s syndrome makes him unable to play and father the boy. The second is treated quite violently, and his hand is nearly taken rather than nailed at Claire’s intervention, to be maimed and impeded in his survival for life. The third in his illness is coddled, and the Fitzgibbon women run the risk of getting on their priest’s bad side in order to save the boy.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) has a bit too much to drink in attempting to assuage her hopelessness at ever getting back home.

As in these two cases, the show oscillates between extreme violence and compassion at the level of the day-to-day. Claire seems especially sensitive to what she deems unnecessary violence, we are led to believe from her time as a WWII nurse. It is also a fundamental disposition towards humanity that she and Jamie (Sam Heughan) share. And the implications were heavy in this episode of what else they might also come to share in the future. Fighting depression and hopelessness, Claire is growing jealous of any attentions Jamie might shed on other women. In a phrase that reminds me much of Othello’s reasoning of Desdemona’s love for him, Jamie remarks to Claire, “you have a knack for making me know you feel sorry for me without pitying me.”

She corrects herself that she is not jealous of him, but “jealous of their intimacy” that she misses in her Frank (Tobias Menzies). That’s the odd thing here: while Claire seems to be operating much on her own two feet in this episode (unlike the last) that she misses her intimacy with Frank seems unlikely. Or at least that desire has not sprung in the last week in the Highlands, but long before while they were separated for years by war. If she recognizes this in herself later in the series, it would prove to offer a lot more options for the evolution of her character than merely missing an emotional context I as a viewer have not been convinced was there to begin with.

Jamie (Sam Heughan) seems ever too willing when it comes to helping Claire (Caitriona Balfe) bend a few rules.

It is striking that the episode opens with flashbacks of Claire and Frank parting for their military duties, the uniforms making them odd equals that deepen their story as much as there shared fear at loosing one another in the war itself. The additions of new flashbacks for which the audience does not have a referent, a technique that was Lost‘s bread-and-butter, is extremely effective in building out the parts of Claire’s life we had not yet seen (as I noted previously). I’m interested to see if we meet a Claire before Frank—aside from the snapshot of the girl in an Egyptian archaeological dig—in these flashbacks, and what they might tell us about this “woman” Hamish believes Jamie needs so desperately in his life.