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 1.8: 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: