Outlander 1.9: The Reckoning

“I’ve always known I’d live a life unlike other men. When I was a lad, I saw no path before me. I simply took a step and then another; never forward, never toward some place I knew not where. And then one day I turned around and looked back, and saw that each step that I had taken was a choice: to go right, to go forward, or even to not go at all…The sum of those choices become your life.”

Reopening the second half of the Outlander‘s first season is an episode about masculinity, ownership, and justice, told from Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) perspective. The opening lines echoed Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe) from the first episode of the series: “Strange the things you remember.” In different ways both monologues meditate on choices, arguing that the moments we remember are the ones where a number of different routes were available, each a very different life. Entitled “The Reckoning,” a series of decisions are made that determine the course of the remaining season: Jamie’s rejection of Laoghaire (Nell Hudson), Colum (Gary Lewis) returning the bag of Jacobite gold to his brother (Graham McTavish) to suture burgeoning clan factionalism (assuming there is no chance in hell the Bonnie Prince would be coming to Scotland any time soon), the resulting summons of the Lord Sandringham to assess the state of Jacobite sympathies, and the reveal to Black Jack (Sam Menzies) that Jamie is back in England. The reckonings—the actions of estimating things to come—at the center of this episode are the choices made to heal rifts, Colum with Dougal, and Jamie with Claire.

Claire (Caitriona Blafe) and Jamie (Sam heughan) struggle over the rhetoric of ownership that dictate the sexual politics of the eighteen century.

The episode includes one of the most controversial moments from the books: the spanking of Claire. (See comments in Salon and Jezebelamong others.) It is a complicated moment of spousal abuse necessitated by the larger militia group: in a place and time where it seems only a bag of gold (if that) can make people obey, Jamie suggests violence—cropped ears, flogging—are the only ways Claire can “know” what she nearly cost “to all the men” and give them “justice” for the risk they took in saving her from Fort William. When we frame the episode in terms of justice, the question becomes clear: why do the men need to be justified in their risk?

Jamie (Sam Heughan) attempts to rationalize Claire’s (Caitriona Balfe’s) spanking to her.

Claire’s spanking is a symptom of a larger political issue with the clans: because they are falling a part and loyalty to their chief becomes increasingly unclear, morality and fealty are no longer virtues enough to justify actions. Jamie demonstrates his loyalty to Claire by saving her and to his clansmen by punishing her. This does not justify the violence, of course, but does put it in a context. The weakness of this structure of justice through spousal “taming” is complicated in two ways. First, Jamie attempts to reason with Claire and rationalize the ethics of her punishment with belt in hand. Second, after a thorough struggle in which Claire kicks him in the face and says “I’ll never forgive you,” the scene concludes with Jamie saying as he spanks, “I said I was going to punish you; I dinna say I wouldn’t enjoy it.” Both moments juxtapose Jamie’s traditions (belt and spanking) with his inherent feminist respect for Claire (rationalizing and playing on their pre-established aggressive sexual relationship).

Dougal (Graham McTavish), Ned Gowan (Bill Paterson), and Jamie (Sam Heughan) are surprised by Colum (Gary Lewis) with their Jacobite earnings.

Of his wife’s discipline he thinks initially “Justice done. Problem solved.” But of course it isn’t so easy, especially once they return to Castle Leoch to the ire of Colum and he’s booted from Claire’s bed. Colum assumes the Jacobite gold given to him by a loyal member of the rent party was skimmed from the rent collection. He is convinced that it was raised honorably eventually, but rages still against Dougal making political decisions for and on behalf of the clan without his consent. Dougal confirms his fealty to his brother on the same dirk from episode four, “The Gathering,” but won’t apologize or back down from his Jacobite sympathies. The scene is followed by a snowy confrontation among the men, both ganging up on the snitch and excising the Fraziers, Jamie and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), from debates of fealty. The question is openly asked: to whom are you loyal—to Dougal, Colum, or Scotland?

Angus (Stephen Walters) suggests the clansmen will eventually need to choose between their Chieftain and War Chief.

At this juncture Jamie is placed in a situation where his next step will have implications for Colum and the clan, for Laoghaire, and for Claire. In his attempts to assuage clan politics, Jamie effectively counsels Colum to “remove the source of the immediate conflict by making a gift of the gold” and allowing Dougal to “play the rebel.” It is his first successful role as a political advisor, perhaps forecasting a major theme for season two if the show continues to follow the general arc of the books. The actual gift-making is less than smooth however, as Colum questions the oath fealty Dougal swore on his dirk but a month earlier, insulting Dougal by implying he buys back his brohter’s loyalty by returning him the Jacobite gold. Having found success with his clansmen, Jamie contemplates how to approach the open wound between he and Claire, only to be interrupted by a near-naked Laoghaire. Jamie is tempted by her last-ditch effort to bed him, but ultimately decides otherwise as a show of loyalty to his marriage.

Dougal (Graham McTavish) restates the terms of his fealty to Colum (Gary Lewis), framing them as also a show of loyalty to Scotland.

And an overt show of loyalty it is. At the gathering of the clans, Jamie did not swear a traditional oath of fealty to his uncle, being a clan leader in his own right (if not for the price on his head). Suggesting that peace has become more important to him than custom (and the power of consent), Jamie apologizes for the spanking by saying to Claire “maybe for you and me it has to go a different way.” Uncertain of his “next step,” he instead takes out his own dirk and, inspired by Colum and Dougal, makes that traditional pledge of fealty to Claire. Claire is unimpressed by the vow, and without a model, Jamie asks if she simply does not want him anymore. In that moment Jamie makes himself an object of ownership rather than continually trying to assert and revise the terms of his ownership over Claire.

Jamie (Sam Heughan) unsuccessfully attempts to heal wounds by mimicking his laird’s vows.

The following negotatiation of this rhetoric of ownership and consent is complex. Claire does acknowledge she wants Jamie, and Jamie confesses that her ring is made from the key to Lallybroch: Claire has the key to his kingdom; in other words, he does not own it without her. Next Jamie says: “I want you so much I can scarcely breathe. Will you have me?” It is then that Claire pins him to the floor, holds him down by the throat, and they begin to have sex. With her other hand she reaches for his dirk again and holds it to his throat, saying “If you ever raise a hand to me again, James Frazier, I’ll cut your heart out and eat it for breakfast. Do you swear?” He swears, then turns her over, saying “I mean to make you call me ‘master.'” As they cuddle on the floor after climaxing together, Jamie says to Claire, “It seems I cannot possess your soul without losing my own.” Bouncing back and forth in this moment is a rhetoric of ownership and loyalty for which the two need their bodies into order to negotiate. As in episode seven, “The Wedding,” these characters revel in the possession of the other, the objectification of their bodies and presence. This episode tests the darkness inherent in that kind of mutual ownership within a military culture at the hands of brutal “English justice” exhibited on Jamie’s back. In the mutual ownership of one another, they seem to agree to consider the other exempt from freighting justice for outsiders—outlanders to their emotional island.

Fealty, justice, and sexuality collapse together when Claire (Caitriona Balfe) holds Jamie (Sam Heughan) to a new oath.

But Scottish justice is no better nor exempt, especially in its violence against women (if we recall episodes one and six). That Jamie has made a promise to keep one-sided violence out of their relationship is one thing. But the larger question at hand in light of the spanking, problems of fealty, and this sliding scale of justice, is to ask where is the role of punishment in this culture? In culture more generally? It seems relevant that Jamie punishes Claire while he himself is an escaped convict; the narrative continually pulls the two of them back to a space of incarceration and discipline. If the show continues to follow the general arc of the books, this season will end again in Fort William. In many overlapping ways the series is turning into a consideration of violent discipline in the shaping of masculine identity as much as it is the subjection of women to the implications of that violent formation.


Outlander 1.4: The Gathering

I give you my obedience as kinsman and as Laird and I hold myself bound to your worth so long as my feet rest on the lands of the clan MacKenzie.

The more I watch Outlander, the more I am made aware of how the show is conditioned by the marketplace of cable fantasy television. This week featured the pageantry of feudal political networks, another attempt by Claire to escape the castle, and a boar hunt. Of the last I want to make a particular point, as it is a plot scenario made much of not only in this episode to evolve the relationship between Claire and her jailor, Dougall, but also a scenario that fundamentally changes the brain chemistry of Henry VIII in The Tudors, fractures a nation into many ‘thrones’ by the death of Robert Baratheon, and provides a cover for the marriage of a king to a widower in The White Queen.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) runs from a wild boar as much as she is running toward the injured during the clan’s hunting festivities.

All three of these deaths are thigh wounds, which in English chivalric literature often connotes infertility or a fundamental displacing of the knight’s moral compass. Ripped from the War of the Roses, this seems pretty clear in the case of Game of Thrones. Having lost his will to rule and the ability to see beyond his own cares, Rob’s proclivity for drink is taken advantage of: a spy cup-bearer supplies him too well and he is killed while on a boar hunt with his ambitious brother. The event is heresay however, both anesthetizing viewers and allowing an interpretation for murder to stand. In the case of The Tudors, the thigh wound is more metaphorical than literal. Overseeing a celebratory joust, Henry can’t help but get involved. Jousts were meant to be displays of military prowess and skill, not a battle to the death as A Knight’s Tale would have you believe. In fact, to kill another jouster was not only seen as depriving the kingdom of a Seal Team 6-grade military asset, but a great personal disgrace by demonstrating the criminal knight not to have the appropriate skill and precision joust participation demanded. And like in true battle, the monarch was expected never to participate at the risk of death and civil war that inevitably follows. Young, impetuous, and in love, Henry wants to play along and of course is injured. Based on real events of 1536, he remained unconscious for more than two hours, suffering what many expect was a certain amount of brain damage that changed his disposition along with a thigh wound that continually festered causing him great pain for the rest of his life.

Where Rob’s material tusk wound is a reaction to his moral decay, Henry’s is as a contributing factor to his increased inability to rule (or love appropriately, faithfully, for that matter) that arises again and again, not in the script but in Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance. In The White Queen, it is under the auspices of a hunting injury that Edward marries Elizabeth Rivers, consummating their love in a hunting lodge. The conditions of their marriage is a bane to his rule, in the first place that her legitimacy as queen is questioned by his court when a blame needs assigning, and in the second causes her to be forever in doubt having heard from his brothers that Edward had married and reneged for lust many times before. The hunting injury is a metaphor that organizes the show, referring to the damages marriage for love rather than alliance could inflict in early modern England (although the show stacks an equal amount of evidence on the opposite side of that scale as well).

The challenge of standing for all of the oaths in light of his disability was clearly intended to make Colum (Gary Lewis) seem even more regal and courageous as ‘laird’ of Clan MacKenzie.

So in early modern fantasy drama, injury produced by a boar hunt has come to signify a moral displacement, especially when political leaders are involved. Moreover, the lasting effects of the injury, a product of uncensored or ill-managed behavior, are unforeseen and widespread. The correlation does not seem so neat, however, in Outlander. Kept from escape by Jamie (only to have his life threatened in return), Claire goes on the hunt at Dougall’s request to tend to the usual injuries. Barely dodging the boar herself, an old friend of Dougall’s named George suffers both a thigh and mortal stomach wound by the pig. Understanding the psychology and fear about to set in on the man, Claire and Dougall silently agree to let the him die quickly by bleeding out of the artery in his leg rather than suffering for days by his gut. As a friend, Dougall holds George but is clearly suffering himself at the immanent loss of his friend. Claire, with experience and presence of mind, knows the right questions to ask—about his home, its beauty—to both preoccupy George with a verbal task and bring to mind scenes of peace to ease his passing.

In the context of its most immediate competitors, what do we make of the use of the boar hunt and the death that Claire helps to ease in this last episode of Outlander? That the sufferer of these injuries is nearly always a man is problematized by Claire as the primary protagonist. Injuring her would simply not have the same biological resonances that a thigh/groin injury to a man does. And unlike its predecessors, Outlander depicts the reality of the gore and risk that early modern boar hunts posed in the immediacy. In this light the show seems to be commenting tangentially on the universality of the effects of war and military life using Claire’s field nurse skills as a bridge through time. (I am beginning to love this show for the fact that the only thing it seems to be choosing to romanticize is romance itself, and nothing else.) However, the near-threat to her life immediately preceding George’s wounding suggests Claire had nearly misstepped her own path, nearly neglected her own moral compass and the needs of others. This is thrown all the more into stark relief if we consider Jamie’s rather constant self-sacrifices, including the complex sacrifice of his clan oath. As nephew to the laird, to take the oath would have doomed himself and his uncles according to Scottish politics. But not to would suggest disloyalty. So Jamie creates a new oath for himself: rather than repeating the oath of the clan, he interprets the stakes of that oath to articulate his loyalty and obedience outside the vow framework.

Series author Diana Galbaldon cameoed in this past week’s episode as a member of Clan MacKenzie.

The smartest bit of script here, then, may be the phrase: “bound to your worth.” The syntax evokes the same chivalric set of codes from whence the thigh injury metaphor derives. Men were not expected to marry for love, but for alliance. A “beloved” was a woman with which no sex was had, but in her chastity, her purity and all that was good in her, did the lover stake his own worth. In the beloved object were knights expected to see a physical embodiment of their own personal ethics, an impossible perfect in which to aspire but in whose perfection never attain. Sexual relations would only bring the ideal of that beloved—Laura, Beatrice, etcetera—back to the imperfect and attainable. Courtly love as a political mode was about inspiring ideal, lawful, and just behavior in male society. But Jamie does not dabble in the unattainable, binding his sense of worth and morality in Colum, his uncle and lord, and not Claire, who as the boar indicated, seems slowly but ever-increasingly attainable.