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 1.8: 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: