Outlander 1.7: The Wedding

There it was. Not only was I a bigamist and an adulteress, but I had enjoyed it.

The story goes that when Diana Gabaldon began writing her series, she never planned it to sit on the historical romance shelves of her local Borders or Barnes and Noble. (She probably hadn’t imagined her major market sales would be as ebooks when those chains shuttered their doors.) But her publisher advised her to add a little sex to the mix, at least to the first book, and the exponential increase in sales that branding could guarantee would give her room to do as she liked with the second book. Planned or not, Gabaldon gave us a complex and adult love story with some of the basic markers we ourselves have to negotiate when it comes to love. At what point is a difference in age a deal breaker? What constitutes intimacy? Do some people share an instinctual chemistry that simply can’t be cultivated by time and friendship? What exactly makes a marriage? Our modern adult love stories are messy ones, fixated on divorce, betrayal, and grief. Is there room, at least in the television market, for a complex kind of love that isn’t predicated on destruction? Or do we have to go back in time to find it?

Any undergraduate cinema student will tell you that filming heterosexual physical intimacy is a difficult problem. With the profusion of pornography, it is hard to escape the objectifying conventions of that genre on the silver screen, but you can also  go online to get pornographic content on your computer or phone in in the bellesa porn videos online. The main problem is the medium itself: the lens of the camera. The camera lens, it’s portrayal of the female form, re-enacts the male gaze by co-opting the female body as an object of consumption and subjected to an assumed male authority. The female form is beautiful in and of itself, however, and the high production values of the show, which includes its costumes and general sumptuous attention to detail, are part of what sells here. So how can a show like Outlander split the difference between the objectifying nature of its form and the salability of production values?

While Claire (Caitriona Balfe) gives him room to slack his vows if he loves another, Jamie (Sam Heughan) is determined to make a good faith effort of their marriage.

Rape and male dominance in eighteenth-century Scottish society has been a consistent theme throughout the show. Where does consent end and force begin? The context of an arranged marriage, or marriage of convenience, of this episode gives the show room to finally tackle this problem head on. The episode underscores Dougal’s (Graham McTavish) attraction to Claire (Caitriona Balfe), both pursuing her after the wedding feast and attempting to keep Jamie from his wedding bed out of jealousy. He warns Jamie to never “seem to eager to please a woman. It gives her too much power.” Thus, the prototypical male gaze is established with Dougal. It is in Jamie (Sam Heughan), the romantic and rather gorgeous specimen of a Scotsman, that becomes the object of Claire’s gaze—and fans, too, as in most interviews it is Heughan’s appearance and not Balfe’s that is commented upon. While Jamie’s body has been an object of political identification and manipulation, as I have discussed before, it is also his body we see first fully in the nude when Claire requests he remove his shirt and circles round as is assessing a prize horse. Lucky for us, Heughan is not just a pretty face, but is finally given room to do justice to his 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Most Promising Performer as well.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) try to find some intimacy by sharing the stories of their lives with one another.

I will likely discuss acting in further detail as the series continues, but for now this episode best demonstrates why costumes matter for narrative. In a period drama such as this costumes matter because clothes, I think, said so much more about a person then than they do now. We are chameleons with our wear, but for a clansman, for example, his daily kilt was the tartan of his clan, signposting his position in society and allegiances. Sumptuary laws dictated what kinds of materials and colors a person could wear depending on their station, so all the more they were important markers of identity. (Purple is a rather famous example, only to be worn by royalty.) Therefore, it is the slow peeling away of their clothes throughout the course of this episode that we see these two leaving behind the social norms dictated by time (for Claire) and culture (for Jamie) to expose something more essential to their natures. Laces are erotic for a reason: their untying is an asking of permission, a crossing of a threshold. Throughout the episode while they are fully clothed we see the small holding of hands, touching, the constant asking of permission. It matters that the first time Claire and Jamie have sex it is mostly clothed; it is brief, awkward, and anticlimactic. As Rupert observes, “You can still do it with your clothes on,” but another clansman shouts out “Not on your wedding night.” The second time they are entirely naked, and truly intimate, wherein Claire is entitled to climax as much as Jamie.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) find an unexpected connection when they are able to bear all to one another.

When I watched the episode a second time I was more conscious of the language of intimacy being deployed. Before the first two sex acts Jamie declares that now married he will protect Claire even with his body, that he has given his body to her. His insistence on being truthful to the occasion no matter the circumstances, to make the most of this marriage attempt, marks him as the romantic rather than her. Thus the episode conceives of this arranged marriage in terms of an erotics of hope, of potential. While not glorifying the inherent awkwardness of Jamie’s “first time,” there are some truly beautiful scenes of sexual discovery. Unlike so much print romance, Fifty Shades of Grey included, here the woman is both the sexually experienced partner and the sexually daring one. It is Jamie’s realm to construct a bridge to intimacy through storytelling foreplay. Rough an’ ready men, the Scots are indeed romanticized and even Murtagh, Jamie’s right-hand-man gets a moment for sentimentality, saying “Your mother had the sweetest smile—warm a man to the backbone just to see it. Claire’s smile is just as sweet.” Jamie also describes Claire in terms of basic physiognomy: “mo nighean donn” (“mo duinne” originally in the books), or “my brown-haired lass.” It is back to bodies shared and unconstrained by social norms in which their erotics escape the mediation of the male gaze.

It would seem significant then that the last sex act they perform is one wherein Claire is on top and wraps them both together in Jamie’s Fraser kilt. She reclothes them together, binds them under his family emblem as a gesture that they are truly unified in a way that a marriage ceremony only simulates. Both outsiders of a kind, Jamie as an outlaw and Claire stuck out of time, they seem to find an inner truth shared in their mutual aberrance. In the morning we catch them dressing and teasing, putting the clothes back on, the reminders of the social norms of the reality they re-enter with the morning. I recommend you watch the featurette on Terry Dresbach’s costume designs and the production time and attention that went into the wedding dress and its centrality to the episode. The important touchstones that mark the progress of our lives are shaped by the social costumes we don for those occasions. Outlander is using this historical insight in order to bring us a mature kind of love story that is about just that—not sex, death, divorce, or life’s other additional complications, but the complexity of falling in love on its own terms.

Postscript: The inspiration behind this series of Outlander posts is my mother, a major fan of the book series and keeping me informed on the show’s accuracy as I myself work through the novels. She had two great recommendations offered after I posted this entry. First, costume designer Terry Dresbach has a twitter handle worth following as she notes her inspiration and interesting historical tidbits about her designs for the show: @draiochta14. Also her website, terrydresbach.com, has full-scale images of her discoveries. And speaking of costumes, mom emailed me this great article by Yahoo of all places that has a blow-by-blow accounting of the costume inspiration and creation process for this particular episode: click here. Thanks mom!


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.