Outlander 1.4: The Gathering

I give you my obedience as kinsman and as Laird and I hold myself bound to your worth so long as my feet rest on the lands of the clan MacKenzie.

The more I watch Outlander, the more I am made aware of how the show is conditioned by the marketplace of cable fantasy television. This week featured the pageantry of feudal political networks, another attempt by Claire to escape the castle, and a boar hunt. Of the last I want to make a particular point, as it is a plot scenario made much of not only in this episode to evolve the relationship between Claire and her jailor, Dougall, but also a scenario that fundamentally changes the brain chemistry of Henry VIII in The Tudors, fractures a nation into many ‘thrones’ by the death of Robert Baratheon, and provides a cover for the marriage of a king to a widower in The White Queen.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) runs from a wild boar as much as she is running toward the injured during the clan’s hunting festivities.

All three of these deaths are thigh wounds, which in English chivalric literature often connotes infertility or a fundamental displacing of the knight’s moral compass. Ripped from the War of the Roses, this seems pretty clear in the case of Game of Thrones. Having lost his will to rule and the ability to see beyond his own cares, Rob’s proclivity for drink is taken advantage of: a spy cup-bearer supplies him too well and he is killed while on a boar hunt with his ambitious brother. The event is heresay however, both anesthetizing viewers and allowing an interpretation for murder to stand. In the case of The Tudors, the thigh wound is more metaphorical than literal. Overseeing a celebratory joust, Henry can’t help but get involved. Jousts were meant to be displays of military prowess and skill, not a battle to the death as A Knight’s Tale would have you believe. In fact, to kill another jouster was not only seen as depriving the kingdom of a Seal Team 6-grade military asset, but a great personal disgrace by demonstrating the criminal knight not to have the appropriate skill and precision joust participation demanded. And like in true battle, the monarch was expected never to participate at the risk of death and civil war that inevitably follows. Young, impetuous, and in love, Henry wants to play along and of course is injured. Based on real events of 1536, he remained unconscious for more than two hours, suffering what many expect was a certain amount of brain damage that changed his disposition along with a thigh wound that continually festered causing him great pain for the rest of his life.

Where Rob’s material tusk wound is a reaction to his moral decay, Henry’s is as a contributing factor to his increased inability to rule (or love appropriately, faithfully, for that matter) that arises again and again, not in the script but in Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance. In The White Queen, it is under the auspices of a hunting injury that Edward marries Elizabeth Rivers, consummating their love in a hunting lodge. The conditions of their marriage is a bane to his rule, in the first place that her legitimacy as queen is questioned by his court when a blame needs assigning, and in the second causes her to be forever in doubt having heard from his brothers that Edward had married and reneged for lust many times before. The hunting injury is a metaphor that organizes the show, referring to the damages marriage for love rather than alliance could inflict in early modern England (although the show stacks an equal amount of evidence on the opposite side of that scale as well).

The challenge of standing for all of the oaths in light of his disability was clearly intended to make Colum (Gary Lewis) seem even more regal and courageous as ‘laird’ of Clan MacKenzie.

So in early modern fantasy drama, injury produced by a boar hunt has come to signify a moral displacement, especially when political leaders are involved. Moreover, the lasting effects of the injury, a product of uncensored or ill-managed behavior, are unforeseen and widespread. The correlation does not seem so neat, however, in Outlander. Kept from escape by Jamie (only to have his life threatened in return), Claire goes on the hunt at Dougall’s request to tend to the usual injuries. Barely dodging the boar herself, an old friend of Dougall’s named George suffers both a thigh and mortal stomach wound by the pig. Understanding the psychology and fear about to set in on the man, Claire and Dougall silently agree to let the him die quickly by bleeding out of the artery in his leg rather than suffering for days by his gut. As a friend, Dougall holds George but is clearly suffering himself at the immanent loss of his friend. Claire, with experience and presence of mind, knows the right questions to ask—about his home, its beauty—to both preoccupy George with a verbal task and bring to mind scenes of peace to ease his passing.

In the context of its most immediate competitors, what do we make of the use of the boar hunt and the death that Claire helps to ease in this last episode of Outlander? That the sufferer of these injuries is nearly always a man is problematized by Claire as the primary protagonist. Injuring her would simply not have the same biological resonances that a thigh/groin injury to a man does. And unlike its predecessors, Outlander depicts the reality of the gore and risk that early modern boar hunts posed in the immediacy. In this light the show seems to be commenting tangentially on the universality of the effects of war and military life using Claire’s field nurse skills as a bridge through time. (I am beginning to love this show for the fact that the only thing it seems to be choosing to romanticize is romance itself, and nothing else.) However, the near-threat to her life immediately preceding George’s wounding suggests Claire had nearly misstepped her own path, nearly neglected her own moral compass and the needs of others. This is thrown all the more into stark relief if we consider Jamie’s rather constant self-sacrifices, including the complex sacrifice of his clan oath. As nephew to the laird, to take the oath would have doomed himself and his uncles according to Scottish politics. But not to would suggest disloyalty. So Jamie creates a new oath for himself: rather than repeating the oath of the clan, he interprets the stakes of that oath to articulate his loyalty and obedience outside the vow framework.

Series author Diana Galbaldon cameoed in this past week’s episode as a member of Clan MacKenzie.

The smartest bit of script here, then, may be the phrase: “bound to your worth.” The syntax evokes the same chivalric set of codes from whence the thigh injury metaphor derives. Men were not expected to marry for love, but for alliance. A “beloved” was a woman with which no sex was had, but in her chastity, her purity and all that was good in her, did the lover stake his own worth. In the beloved object were knights expected to see a physical embodiment of their own personal ethics, an impossible perfect in which to aspire but in whose perfection never attain. Sexual relations would only bring the ideal of that beloved—Laura, Beatrice, etcetera—back to the imperfect and attainable. Courtly love as a political mode was about inspiring ideal, lawful, and just behavior in male society. But Jamie does not dabble in the unattainable, binding his sense of worth and morality in Colum, his uncle and lord, and not Claire, who as the boar indicated, seems slowly but ever-increasingly attainable.

Outlander 1.2: Castle Leoch

It was like landing on an alien planet you’d only seen through a telescope.

I watched the first two episodes of Outlander back-to-back last week, but I seemed to need more time to process the second episode than the pilot. The pilot reveled in the beauty of Scotland itself, as I mentioned at the end of my last post, and I wondered if that landscape as a key character in this narrative might take over if the ensemble as a whole could not keep apace. The underlying assumption I was making here is that the art direction and direction team were out of sync, but after the second episode this seems not to be the case. In fact, the goal seems to highlight history and locale to the extent that we as an audience are estranged from it.

Jamie (Sam Heughan) has a penchant for saving women from shame and rape—a seemingly rare disposition if his flogging by Frank-lookalike Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) is any indication.

There were a number of shocking moments in this episode whose goal seemed to be to establish this kind of estrangement. Perhaps one of the smarter things the series has done thus far was to portray the dark side of “bodice ripper” romance. Jamie, as we learn, has a soft side for women under the threat of rape, giving himself over to the lash in order to protect his sister’s modesty. To mock Jamie’s attempt at nobility, Captain Jack tears open his sister’s bodice to reveal a beautiful and buxom young women and rubs Jamie’s face in it, so to speak, being inability to act or even look away to give his sister some show of modesty. While there have been a number of beautiful and empowering sex scenes in these two episodes, but the rape of Jamie’s sister makes clear we aren’t in for a trashy romance that happens to include kilts. (I haven’t read the books myself, my some friends who have intimated to me today that at this point the next few episodes won’t be quite so steamy—at least for now.)

Clearly, the medicinal-herbalist identity the Claire inhabits provides a useful venue to work through an estrangement with eighteenth-century Scotland as more than mystical glens. The shock at Colum MacKenzie’s, the castle lord, Toulouse Lautrec Syndrome was especially powerful. I’m am impressed at both the complicated prosthetic that those legs require, and Gary Lewis’s ability to integrate the prosthetic into his gate and performance of power. With that and the scarring on Jamie’s back from whippings, I sense this is a theme of bodily mutilation that will continue throughout the season. As Jamie says, “this is what you get when you fight back against the English.” And in case the point wasn’t clear, the show has decided to invest in a brilliant speech coach and conduct nearly half the script in Gaelic; it goes largely untranslated so we share in Claire’s feelings of foreignness and confusion.

Despite these smart moments of shock-and-awe, the feminist bent of the series remained problematic. Most of Claire’s narration was consumed by worrying over Frank, that he must be feeling abandoned, concerned, “or perhaps worst of all,” that she “had left him for another man.” And yet Claire is already referring to herself as a widow and uses her maiden name. Her knowledge of the castle and the principles of resisting interrogation by Colum “was all secondhand knowledge” from Frank, his profession as an Oxford history professor and previous occupation as a spy handler. This is different than periodized sexism inherent in eighteenth-century life and institutions that Colum voices—”You have secrets, Claire. Perhaps they are the kind all women have, but until I know for certain, you will remain here, as my guest”—or her new friend, Geillis the town witchdoctor and purveyor of contraception, enacts. That, and the fact that all of her flashbacks are of Frank (although smartly done as mirrored or overlaid with the current scene) and not of any part of her life during the war or before Frank, is equally problematic. So far, in the past and the present Claire is entirely defined by her relationships with men.

The feminist angle aside, what the series is doing well thus far that I thought was equally successful in The White Queen is recovering a sense of civility and inner nobility for these “early moderns.” Two scenes come to mind in this case. First, the hall scene is not filled with dogs, muck, and flying food, but is an entirely civil affair of community and group politics, where hierarchy is established and social reciprocity reinforced. The Scottish rebels are not romantically ennobled but nor are they excessively bedraggled. The supposed civility and manners we claim as a hallmark of modernity they execute with a lot more care and intention that still manages not to romanticize an undoubtedly difficult and different way of life. (It was also fun to recognize the accurate glassware and stemware design at the high table from an exhibit at the Ashmolean museum this summer.) In fact, what Claire identifies as “barbarous” is nothing in the physical demeanor of her captors, but the use of violence to address any sexual aberrance in the community.

Claire makes a new friend in the village healer, Gellis (Lotte Verbeek).

Second, when Claire must dress, her fashionable French brassiere looks paltry compared to the complicated and beautiful suit of period clothes she is requested to wear instead. We even get a shot of correct period foot ware, which nicely sets up a contrast between her 20th-century health and Colum’s deterioration. I once saw an interview with Martin Scorsese’s costumer, who said she always favored working with him because in every film he made sure to include a shot of a character’s shoes, as if to acknowledge her attention to detail and craftsmanship. It is this kind of accuracy and attention to detail that provides a richness and opportunities for unexpected meaning that I particularly enjoy of well-made period drama.

In this episode it seems the groundwork has been laid for the “fiction” component of the series, that element that The White Queen of last summer didn’t share with Outlander but Game of Thrones does. And by fiction I mean an estrangement from the tropes, commonplaces, and conventions that go with period drama and our love of romanticizing the past in popular culture. Smarter still is the use of civility, nobility, and material accuracy to effect this surprise—one thing I hope the show will carry into next week as Claire meets the challenges of running a pre-germ theory surgery.