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.


Outlander 1.5: Rent

Absence, hear thou my protestation
Against thy strength,
Distance and length:
Do what thou canst for alteration,
For hearts of truest mettle
Absence doth join and Time doth settle.
– John Donne

This week’s episode was one of parts and wholes. As the individual tenants and their rents provide the MacKenzie with resources and power to protect and provide, so are our leads increasingly defined by their constitutive parts. Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is the classic example of a synecdoche: a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice versa, such as referring to workers as hired hands. While preconceived notions are construed about Claire through her speech, her English accent, as a Sassenach, her “strong hands,” inquired after over and over again set those presuppositions to rights. In this episode, they are called on to help townswomen set a dark blue dye to a piece of wool by working in warm urine. Once she gets passed her 20th-century conditioned disgust, her isolation, a theme of the episode, is abated by the communion of women.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) is invited to help townswomen set dye into a piece of wool with piss, putting to good use her strong hands.

Similarly, the story of Jamie’s (Sam Heughan) whipping has turned out to be much more than an intimate revelation shared between friends. On the road, Dougal (Graham McTavish) is not merely collecting rents, but raising money for a Jacobite rebellion—a rebellion Claire is well aware they will never win. His scars are trotted out by Dougal to enact some complex semiotics of injury that I think Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) explains best. Dougal’s tactic is powerful on two levels. First, when the clansmen see and touch Jamie’s hurt body, it is “juxtaposed to the disembodied idea,” that of Scottish independence, “and having sensorially experienced the reality of the first, believes he or she has experience the reality of the second” (125). Believing that they are a party to that pain, they are easily conscripted to revenge it. Second, “the hurt body’s instability of reference,” as in whether it memorializes a past winner or looser and to what extent it portends injury to come, is simply “unpleasant to contemplate—particularly since it denies the population’s ability to ensure what finally will be confined by its own violent and physically costly display of will” (Scarry 120). His scars, the history of his nation’s brutalization at the hands of the English writ into his very skin, is a source of both engagement and horror. While Claire’s hands help to undo her partitioned identity as an outlander, Jamie’s back disappears his subjectivity into his society altogether.

This partitioning occurs in less material, less overt ways as well. There is an interesting politics to the use of Gaelic in the film, far more expansively so than in the novels. Gaelic both includes and excludes. Claire, “even amongst the vast and beautiful landscape” already feels “trapped,” wondering is she will “have to reconcile [her]self to living a life among strangers two hundred years in the past.” Dialects even more subtly register loyalties and expectations. The disguised redcoat who attempts to save Claire from a brash Dougal ameliorates her alienation and foreignness for a moment with the respite of a shared speech pattern (one that proves a very effective cliff-hanger and smart deviation from the novel at the end of this episode).

Dougal (Graham McTavish) inspires small towns to give up their last pennies to the Jacobite cause.

More importantly, the in/exclusive functions of Gaelic in the show demonstrate the sophisticated cultural strategies of verbal policing and social censure through sexual jokes and sarcasm. The only discernible police force, the Watch, is clearly corrupt, so without an institutionalized troupe for safety and at the whims of a dispersed and unforgiving landscape, the depiction of Scottish culture here is one of intense verbal play and censure, making absolutely clear rather constantly what is accepted behavior as inscribed by the group, and not. But verbal harassment of women has a long history (and a recent one at that), namely as a strategy to both objectify women in public spaces and assert dominance over them and their space by men. While the several half-told jokes by the MacKenzie clan starting “So there I was in bed…” are bothersome to Claire, the same in Gaelic by men at an inn unseats the MacKenzies, causing a riot and destroying the inn. The guys justify the fight to Claire: “You are the guest of the Mackenzie. We can insult ya, but God help any other man that does.”

We can see that the synecdochal strategies used by the MacKenzie clansmen attempt to justify the objectification of Claire and Jamie, slowly removing a sense of individual subjectivity through communal policing and the political needs of the group. Thus, while we cheer for Claire when she turns the sarcasm and censure back on them, that she is accepted for the joke, her own assertion of dominance and objectifying her captors, upon reflection is perhaps the most nefarious moment. Has she been brainwashed? Come to be that which she abhors? Or is the pitch more on of survival than acquiescence? We’ll have to see. Claire understands that she is living in a small moment, just before the second of four Jacobite rebellions in which she is enmeshed and will be the end of the Highland way of life. In a few years the clans will be slaughtered at Culloden (which they pass in the episode), tartans and Gaelic will be banned, clan lands pillaged to starvation. Despite her attempts to sew discord and assuage them otherwise, she is scolded: “It doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re here…You’re not to judge things you don’t understand. Stay out of it Claire.” Jamie may be right here, while they pass crucified Scots on the highway (another variation from the novel) that imply the life of terror the English inflict in the name of a unified Britain.

Dougal (Graham McTavish) and the men joke about marital relations in Gaelic, to the exclusion of Claire (Caitriona Balfe).

However, Claire’s value seems to be precisely in her ability to diagnose things they don’t understand, at least in the body itself. Why not in the larger scheme of things as well? When she tries to intimate the futility of the war, Ned Gowan replies, “history be damned.” A passing statement just before the brawl, it is no less an interesting proposition, for this is a tale of time-travel after all. It is the first time the show suggests that Claire may be there to change history. At no other point is there even the mildest suggestion that the singing stones have plans for her, that there is some kind of intent behind her displacement, and we know our own history books. But, considering the uncanny exigency of the theme here, Scottish independence, perhaps Claire’s xenophobic partitioning, the history written in scars on Jamie’s back, are suggesting to us of something more immediately political than the initial romance billing of the series lead us to believe. In its reading as in its viewing, we the audience are the outlanders, the sassenachs, after all.