May Blogroll: Silver Screen Edition

Dear readers,

In the lull between the distribution of final assignments and the deluge of grading, I’ve been indulging in some post-conference season silver screen therapy. Two of my favorite period shows are back on the air, and PBS has a new mini-series.

  • Outlander: This series based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling novels has been my favorite thing on TV this year. In the fall I did a series of individual episode posts. I’m behind at the moment for the second half of the first season, now finally back after a six-month hiatus. It is period drama crossed with time travel, with some sophisticated engagements with violence, medicine, and sexuality. Airing Saturday nights and streaming on Starz Play, where you can see the first episode for free.
  • Game of Thrones: It seems somewhat pointless to mention HBO’s huge hit. A fan of high fantasy, I love the show, and from an academic perspective, enjoy picking out the threads reminiscent of England’s War of the Roses on which George R. R. Martin loosely based the novels. (And there are a number of other historical parallels as well.) Now that the show is diverging sharply from the novels, those echoes are far more piquant for me, especially when it comes to Jon Snow’s and Sansa Stark’s plot lines. Airing Sunday nights and streaming on HBO Go.
  • Wolf Hall: Considering the enormous success of the Hillary Mantell’s novels and critical success of the two stage plays based on those novels, it seems somewhat brazen to also produce a mini-series using the same materials. Until you add Tony-award winning actor and inaugural artistic director of the reconstructed Globe Mark Rylance to the mix. Produced by the BBC and airing on PBS in the US currently, Wolf Hall is a quiet and thoughtful meditation on power and class in Tudor England. Rylance sketches the quiet, complex web of emotions motivating Oliver Cromwell, but so does Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn bring mercurial ruthlessness to their characters. It is an interesting reaction to the hyper-sexualized and emotionally idealized portrayals of these individuals in The Tudors, which I’d like to write about later this summer here hopefully. The last of six episodes airs this coming Sunday night on PBS, where you can stream the episodes online for free.

Relatedly, a couple of my favorite novels trade on allusions to sixteenth and seventeenth century England but not using that setting as a focal point to the narrative include Jeanette Winterson’s rather amazing expression of post-modern narrative, Sexing the Cherry (1990), Josephine Tey’s crime thriller, The Daughter of Time (1980) mentioned in this recent New Yorker article, and Penelope Fitzgerald’s meditation on childhood, acting, and boy actors in At Freddie’s (1982), the newest edition featuring a forward by Simon Callow.

Happy spring!

Outlander 1.11: The Devil’s Mark

“And it wasn’t witchcraft, it was old-fashioned poison!”

This episode could have as easily been titled “The Tell” and much as “The Devil’s Mark.” While Ned Gowan (Bill Paterson)is able to turn any piece of evidence thrown Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Geillis’ (Lotte Verbeek) way to prove them as witches on its head, too many coincidences and irrational crowd behavior make it seem as if there is not escaping the pyre. The episode is a sequence of confessions between Claire and Geillis first, then Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan). Geillis confesses to having poisoned Arthur with white arsenic and to diverting money from his accounts for the Jacobite cause. She shows her hand, however, only after Claire has puzzled it out. It was at this point I started to recognize the intentional slippages in diction that reveal neither Geillis nor Claire are from the eighteenth century. The irony of Claire’s accusation (the epigraph to this post) suggests that witchcraft is a newfangled and absurd thing, while poison is the antiquated and ancient way for a women to kill. She’s not wrong, but to eighteenth-century scots, the chemistry of poison would look like something very much from a frightening future.

Geillis (Lotte Verbeek) flashes her smallpox vaccination to both save Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and give her a crucial piece of information.

Gowan tries to use the law to his advantage, even English law which accounted witch trials illegal, but to no avail. He responds, “In England, an accused with is entitled to a defense lawyer, a benefit not afforded in merry old England,” using political sentiment to get access to Claire. The irony is, that Jacobite sentiment shared by the crowd is the same one fueling Geillis, but she has only decided to move the cause forward by other means. The women are accused by Ginny the malcontent maidservant, the cowardly mother of the fairy changeling, a soldier from the Leoch battlements, but it is the heartbroken Laoghaire (Nell Hudson) and the malevolent Father Bain (Tim McInnerny) that seal Geillis’ fate. Despite Gowan’s attempts to turn the Scottish penchant for hyperbolic storytelling against the witnesses, slander and fear prove too powerful. As Claire “looked around the room at these good people, I wondered what it was that made them want to watch us burn. Regardless of the evidence, they only wanted one outcome.”

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) finally confesses her life story to Jamie (Sam Heughan).

In terms of dialogue, this episode brings several rhetorical threads together. Before realizing that no one is coming to save them, Geillis’ gallows’ humor is in full force. When marched past the pyre-in-preparation, Claire asks, “Is that what I think it is?” to which Geillis’ responds, “It’s not a maypole, Claire.” This postmodern sensibility was the disposition that brought the two of them together in the first place. Later, Claire is again accused of being socially aberrant and unwomanly when the judge attempts to silence her defense of herself: “You are an embarrassment to yourself!” Both of these women make their way in the world semi-independently with the aid of covert knowledge, making them essential to the community but also putting them on the fringes of it. As Geillis storms out, resigned to her fate, she says “I guess I’m going to a fucking barbecue!” Recall that Jamie did not know what the word “fucking” meant in just the last episode, and barbecue, while English slang by the 1670s, sounds altogether outside the Scots’ lexicon. If you started to guess that Geillis might be from the future with this close attention to diction, then you were rewarded when not only does Ned give Geillis a few seconds to tell Claire that she is from Claire’s future, 1968, but also that it is possible to travel back home. (Note that later Claire tells us she was born October 20, 1918—oddly enough, my little brother’s birthday.)

Jamie (Sam Heughan) provides Claire (Caitriona Balfe) the means and opportunity to choose which life she wants.

It seems Claire’s tongue spares her in an odd way, being lashed first for her insolence before being taken to the stake. In that time Jamie breaks in to save her, staving off the crowd with two swords and an appeal to their religious conviction: “I swore an oath to God to protect this woman. If you are telling me that you believe your authority to be greater than that of the almighty, then I must inform you that I am not of that opinion myself.” Since the court is under the auspices of the Church, and Father Bain’s was the most powerful piece of reverse-psychology testimony, it is a brilliant rhetorical ploy on Jamie’s part. It also makes good on his fealty oath of the previous episode. The tragedy is that it is only Jamie here returned, without Dougal, and this is perhaps what inspires Geillis to show her vaccine scar, buy Claire time to run, and give in. What’s more, it buys Claire the opportunity to (finally) tell Jamie everything.

One series-long question has been answered: Claire does eventually get a chance to return to the stones.

It is the last confession of the episode and the one that everyone has wanted: from the townspeople, to Colum, Dougal, Murtagh, and Geillis. Jamie has never put attempted to force her to explain her presence, and so there is something poetic about the fact that she tells him everything regardless of the risks: “I’m not a witch. But after you hear the truth, maybe you’ll think differently.” She is impervious to smallpox, knows the day Black Jack will die, and the failed outcome of the Jacobite cause because she is from the future. Jamie openly believes her despite not understanding, because for him this is what he defines as trust. In this way he uses religious logic—that we must trust in God without evidence—to be compassionate towards Claire in the most challenging of moments. It rattles his cage when he realizes he beat her only for trying to get back to the stones, and to her surprise takes her to Craig na Dun to give Claire what she has “always wanted, to go home.” He can’t tell her he doesn’t love her, but doesn’t say that he does, nor try to convince her to stay: “There is nothing for you on this side, nothing but violence and danger.” It is hard to imagine such a selfless act coming from Frank—and perhaps that is why Claire takes her time in that cosmic circle of stones to debate, and finally choose, a future with Jamie, regardless of the evidence.