It was like landing on an alien planet you’d only seen through a telescope.
I watched the first two episodes of Outlander back-to-back last week, but I seemed to need more time to process the second episode than the pilot. The pilot reveled in the beauty of Scotland itself, as I mentioned at the end of my last post, and I wondered if that landscape as a key character in this narrative might take over if the ensemble as a whole could not keep apace. The underlying assumption I was making here is that the art direction and direction team were out of sync, but after the second episode this seems not to be the case. In fact, the goal seems to highlight history and locale to the extent that we as an audience are estranged from it.
There were a number of shocking moments in this episode whose goal seemed to be to establish this kind of estrangement. Perhaps one of the smarter things the series has done thus far was to portray the dark side of “bodice ripper” romance. Jamie, as we learn, has a soft side for women under the threat of rape, giving himself over to the lash in order to protect his sister’s modesty. To mock Jamie’s attempt at nobility, Captain Jack tears open his sister’s bodice to reveal a beautiful and buxom young women and rubs Jamie’s face in it, so to speak, being inability to act or even look away to give his sister some show of modesty. While there have been a number of beautiful and empowering sex scenes in these two episodes, but the rape of Jamie’s sister makes clear we aren’t in for a trashy romance that happens to include kilts. (I haven’t read the books myself, my some friends who have intimated to me today that at this point the next few episodes won’t be quite so steamy—at least for now.)
Clearly, the medicinal-herbalist identity the Claire inhabits provides a useful venue to work through an estrangement with eighteenth-century Scotland as more than mystical glens. The shock at Colum MacKenzie’s, the castle lord, Toulouse Lautrec Syndrome was especially powerful. I’m am impressed at both the complicated prosthetic that those legs require, and Gary Lewis’s ability to integrate the prosthetic into his gate and performance of power. With that and the scarring on Jamie’s back from whippings, I sense this is a theme of bodily mutilation that will continue throughout the season. As Jamie says, “this is what you get when you fight back against the English.” And in case the point wasn’t clear, the show has decided to invest in a brilliant speech coach and conduct nearly half the script in Gaelic; it goes largely untranslated so we share in Claire’s feelings of foreignness and confusion.
Despite these smart moments of shock-and-awe, the feminist bent of the series remained problematic. Most of Claire’s narration was consumed by worrying over Frank, that he must be feeling abandoned, concerned, “or perhaps worst of all,” that she “had left him for another man.” And yet Claire is already referring to herself as a widow and uses her maiden name. Her knowledge of the castle and the principles of resisting interrogation by Colum “was all secondhand knowledge” from Frank, his profession as an Oxford history professor and previous occupation as a spy handler. This is different than periodized sexism inherent in eighteenth-century life and institutions that Colum voices—”You have secrets, Claire. Perhaps they are the kind all women have, but until I know for certain, you will remain here, as my guest”—or her new friend, Geillis the town witchdoctor and purveyor of contraception, enacts. That, and the fact that all of her flashbacks are of Frank (although smartly done as mirrored or overlaid with the current scene) and not of any part of her life during the war or before Frank, is equally problematic. So far, in the past and the present Claire is entirely defined by her relationships with men.
The feminist angle aside, what the series is doing well thus far that I thought was equally successful in The White Queen is recovering a sense of civility and inner nobility for these “early moderns.” Two scenes come to mind in this case. First, the hall scene is not filled with dogs, muck, and flying food, but is an entirely civil affair of community and group politics, where hierarchy is established and social reciprocity reinforced. The Scottish rebels are not romantically ennobled but nor are they excessively bedraggled. The supposed civility and manners we claim as a hallmark of modernity they execute with a lot more care and intention that still manages not to romanticize an undoubtedly difficult and different way of life. (It was also fun to recognize the accurate glassware and stemware design at the high table from an exhibit at the Ashmolean museum this summer.) In fact, what Claire identifies as “barbarous” is nothing in the physical demeanor of her captors, but the use of violence to address any sexual aberrance in the community.
Second, when Claire must dress, her fashionable French brassiere looks paltry compared to the complicated and beautiful suit of period clothes she is requested to wear instead. We even get a shot of correct period foot ware, which nicely sets up a contrast between her 20th-century health and Colum’s deterioration. I once saw an interview with Martin Scorsese’s costumer, who said she always favored working with him because in every film he made sure to include a shot of a character’s shoes, as if to acknowledge her attention to detail and craftsmanship. It is this kind of accuracy and attention to detail that provides a richness and opportunities for unexpected meaning that I particularly enjoy of well-made period drama.
In this episode it seems the groundwork has been laid for the “fiction” component of the series, that element that The White Queen of last summer didn’t share with Outlander but Game of Thrones does. And by fiction I mean an estrangement from the tropes, commonplaces, and conventions that go with period drama and our love of romanticizing the past in popular culture. Smarter still is the use of civility, nobility, and material accuracy to effect this surprise—one thing I hope the show will carry into next week as Claire meets the challenges of running a pre-germ theory surgery.
- CITATION: “Castle Leoch.” Outlander. Television. Directed by John Dahl. Written by Ronald D. Moore. 16 August 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.
- Check out the promo clip for this episode below: