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 1.3: 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.