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:

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.