Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Returning Shows: Brooklyn 99 (It's Out of Your Control, Jake)

If I have to put my finger on the theme of last night's episode, and what will probably be the general theme of season two, I'm gonna go with control. Or, more accurately, a lack of control. From Jake realizing that no matter how much he wishes something could happen between he and Amy "romantic-styles" it's just not the right time, to Holt opening up about his fears for what might happen to the squad when the new Police Commissioner takes command, to Gina and Boyle and their accidental horizontal mambos, it's clear the the whole precinct is dealing with some serious control issues.

It's great. I missed this show so much. Can you tell?

Look, Brooklyn 99, like its spiritual predecessor, Parks and Recreation (where a lot of the writers and producers got their big break), is a sitcom that thrives on real-world situations. Well, real-world might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but let's go with it for the sake of argument. While the crimes and criminals and general life of the precinct at Brooklyn's finest station are pretty bizarre, they're also grounded in a full emotional reality that makes them relatable, convincing, and totally hilarious.

I should know that, for the record, because just last week I finished rewatching the first season with my roommates, and trust me. It holds up to a second, third, and even fourth viewing. As a bonus, after you've watched the episodes a couple of times, you can stop laughing long enough to realize all of the character work that's going on. 

It's the same in this season premiere. The first time you watch it you're distracted by all the shiny, shiny jokes (which are excellent), but if you go back and watch it again, it's kind of amazing how much emotional feelings stuff they've managed to pack in.

The episode picks up six months after the last episode (which handily aired about six months ago). At the end of that episode, our hero, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), got himself fired from the NYPD so that he could go on an undercover sting infiltrating the Ianucci mob family. Coming back in, we now get to see the very end of Peralta's operation. He's very popular with the mobsters now, gladhanding and giving a toast at some mafioso's wedding. The old men of the family even give him some traditional on-the-mouth kisses to signify that he's "one of us now". Which means it's time for Peralta to give his codeword and for NYPD to bust the wedding.

Jake is dragged off kicking and screaming about how much he hates cops, just so that he can get to the police van and give Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) a giant hug. Which Captain Holt hates, so all is right with the world. Jake's back!

It's almost like nothing happened while he was gone too, aside from Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) and Santiago (Melissa Fumero) accidentally wearing the same outfit to work one day, Gina (Chelsea Peretti) single-handedly got headphones banned from the precinct, and Terry (Terry Crews) chipped a tooth and spent a week interrogating perps with an adorable lisp. In other words, business as ridiculous usual. And, for the viewers just joining the show now, a handy recap of who these characters are and how they relate to each other. I mean, that's some good writing. It's quick, hilarious, and easily communicates the major character dynamics of the show. Right on!

Before Jake can just fall back into the usual routine, though, he has to address the confession he made to Amy Santiago before he left six months ago. At the time he had no idea what was going to happen on that op, so he admitted that he had feelings for Amy and wished something could happen between them, but also acknowledged that she had a boyfriend and he respected that. It's one of the best love confessions I've seen on television, for the record.

That moment, after which Jake pretty much fled for the hills, is putting a teensy awkward tinge on their reunion, so Jake decides to take Santiago aside and tell her that...he didn't mean any of that and she should forget all about it. Right. That's totally not just a last-ditch effort for Peralta to save his dignity. Nope.

But Jake isn't the only one trying to deny something happened in order to save face. See, last season ended on a positively hilarious shot of Gina and Boyle in bed with each other, both screaming in horror. They'd both like to pretend it never happened, but they've run into a big problem. Boyle loves Jake. Boyle tells Jake literally everything, and there is a 100% chance that Boyle will tell Jake he slept with Gina some time in the next two days. 

Gina, her self-worth spiraling as she realizes that people are going to find out she slept with someone below the physical level of a bike messenger (oddly specific, but that's Gina for you), declares that her spirit animal is now a naked molerat, and even goes so far as to try befriending Hitchcock and Scully. It's sad watching her in such a downward spiral.

And on the other side of the bullpen, Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) and Amy are trapped doing situational drills with Terry and Holt. Terry gets to wear a placard that lists him as an "angry prostitute" or "unattended backpack" or "seven year old boy". He then pretends to be said person or thing, using a script written by Holt, and Amy and Rosa have to deal with the situation in a proper, procedural way. It's annoying at first, and then straight up maddening because Holt won't let them stop running drills. They just keep going. 

So clearly everyone in the office is dealing with a situation that they can't control, and they deal with those situations in variably healthy ways. Gina spirals into a very Gina-esque depression. Amy and Rosa decide to use Terry pretending to be a seven year old as an excuse to play in the bouncy castle (though why their precinct has a bouncy castle is left unexplained). 

And Jake decides that the best solution to his mild disappointment at Amy still being with her boyfriend is to sublimate that disappointment into the search for one single mobster who got away.

The three storylines dovetail nicely, and they all come to the same conclusion. Amy, Rosa, and Terry are caught by Holt, but a subsequent conversation reveals that the reason Holt is being so hard on them is because Holt himself is trying to deal with a new commissioner coming in soon and how little he knows about or can control the situation. And Jake pursues the fleeing mobster to the airport - with a little help from the absolutely amazing Jenny Slate as a mob mistress - only to find that the guy's flight left an hour before.

In other words, really nothing works out in a satisfying way in this episode, and strangely, that's satisfying in and of itself. Like I said above, this show really isn't about solving the crimes, it's about watching the characters change and evolve. Sometimes, especially with a character like Jake's, it's actually best if he doesn't get the win. I mean, he still was involved in a RICO case that brought down fifteen high level mobsters. But in this one case he really did have to accept that there are some things you can't change.

Which pays off nicely when Jake meets Amy at the bar later for his surprise party (that Boyle told him about, unprompted) and tells her that, no, he really does have feelings for her but he isn't going to press because he's not that guy. And then they go back to normal. Some things you just can't control. 

Even the freaking tag on this episode plays into that, with Boyle confessing to Gina that he hasn't told Jake about their sex, nor will he, because it would hurt her feelings. Awwww. And immediate cut to Boyle and Gina in bed together again. I hope this is a thing this season. It feels like a thing, and it's such a good thing.

Okay, other little stuff that I like about the show and that I hope will continue to develop this season. Well, in terms of maintaining a diverse, compelling show that finds humor without relying on stereotypes or offensive material, it's still going great! Admittedly, this episode had a lot less emphasis on Rosa, Amy, Terry, Holt, and really everyone other than the white people, which is unusual for this show, but there's some cool setup for season arcs with all of them. 

That is what definitely sets this show apart from most of the other FOX sitcoms: every character on here has an arc and a flaw and a point that the story is carrying them towards. That is weirdly rare in comedy overall, and it's virtually unheard of that a sitcom is so invested in its characters that it demands that they change.

But it's also cool that this show isn't afraid to let them all stew for a while either. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pilot Season: Gotham (A Show With Everything But Yul Brenner)

In news completely unrelated to Gotham, I've been listening to the Chess soundtrack a lot lately, and as you can tell, it's kind of stuck in my head.

But in more related matters, there's a new show about Batman. Or rather, as the promotional materials make eminently clear, that's not about Batman. Indeed, Gotham is very intentionally a show that isn't about Batman, it's about Commissioner Gordon, and how he became the mustachioed badass we all know and love. Except for the part where it is clearly completely about Batman.

The pilot episode starts off with some clever shots of a young Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) skulking down the streets, doing petty crime, when her quiet night is interrupted by the loud and emotionally traumatizing murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Selina sticks around just long enough to definitely know who the murderer is, before bugging off for the rest of the episode. That's when we're introduced to our actual main characters, Detectives James Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue). 

They come in to investigate the crime scene and talk to the witness (young Bruce, of course), and from the start we know what kind of cops they are. Gordon is young and idealistic and tough and exactly the kind of cop you want investigating a murder. Bullock is clearly dirty, rough, rude, and tries to get out of investigating the Wayne case because he knows that it's a one-way ticket to pissing off the Gotham crime scene. Needless to say, they don't get along.

The episode then consists of Gordon trying his gosh-darndest to solve the case by conventional, staid, solid police work, and Bullock using his network of CIs, mob connections, and weirdly sexual relationship with Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), a local crime boss with mafia ties. Bullock's way works better, and finds them attempting to arrest, and then shooting dead as he tried to flee, the Wayne's killer. Yay! All's well that ends well, and now young Master Bruce totally won't have crippling emotional problems, right?


No, it turns out that the Waynes were not killed in a random mugging, as was previously assumed, nor was the man Bullock just shot involved in any way. But at least he's dead now so that his daughter Ivy can grow up with crippling emotional problems like literally everyone else in the Batman universe.

As we learn when Fish Mooney's second in command, Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), goes to two detectives from Major Crimes, the mugging was a setup. Fish Mooney was involved in taking out the Waynes, as was Carmine Falcone in all likelihood. This means that the takedown of that random mugger involved planted evidence, and means that the cops were in on it. We as an audience know the Gordon was innocent, but Bullock? Yeah, he totally did it.

Unfortunately, Major Crimes, which seems to consist entirely of Detective Renee Montoya (Victoria Cartagena) and her partner, think Gordon was in on it, and they decide to make his life hell. Gordon reacts precisely the way we expect and takes this as a personal challenge to solve the case. Because of course he does. He even goes and tells Bruce Wayne that they didn't actually catch the man who killed his parents, and that justice isn't served yet. Good job, Gordon. That's not going to screw the kid up like whoa.

Gordon's attempts to investigate the crime eventually reach Fish Mooney's attention, as well as the attention of Carmine Falcone himself. Mooney realizes that Oswald must have sold her out, and decides that the best way to handle this situation is to kill him. Or rather, since Major Crimes is closing in on her and Falcone is none to pleased at the moment, to have Gordon kill him. This way Gordon is just as dirty as the rest of them, and Oswald is handily out of the way.

Obviously Gordon doesn't kill the guy. Instead he pretends that he did and lets Oswald get away, so he can live to become a supervillain who wreaks horrible havoc on Gotham and totally does not deserve the leniency Gordon just showed him.

All of that happens in literally the first episode of the show, so I hope you understand that I really meant it when I said this show has everything. The plot is positively jam packed, and sheer number of characters introduced was kind of dizzying. 

That's not to say it was a bad first episode. It wasn't. It was pretty fun and watchable and reasonably entertaining. Just that it was a lot. Everything in this show is busy, from the plot to the character arcs and interactions to the freaking set direction. It's all so much to take in, like the executives are afraid they'll offend a fan if they leave anything out.

Overall, I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this. I can understand the executive's desire to make the most of their right to use all of these characters, but it feels false and weird to assume that everyone here is going to be a superhero or supervillain in about twenty years. And while I like the idea of doing origin stories for some of the lesser known characters, there's a flawed premise when it comes to creating an origin story for Commissioner Gordon. I mean, what kind of story is there? Once upon a time there was a really honest cop in a city of not very honest cops. He solved crime and was generally disliked, then one day he met Batman. The end.

I'm just saying, it's not really cinematic.

And the argument that this isn't a Batman show would be a lot more convincing if it weren't a complete and utter lie. Not only is this definitely a Batman show, the first episode revolves around the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce's emotional problems, and whether or not there was a big conspiracy about the whole thing. By the end of the episode it's clear that the search for the Wayne's real killer will be the arc for the rest of this season (at least) and that anyone claiming Gotham isn't about our favorite angsty superhero is just straight up lying.

It's not just that the show is openly obsessed with the Waynes. There's also the minor fact that of all of the characters introduced in the first episode, only one major figure isn't a big player from the Batman comics or cartoons. And that means that while this show is arguably about the rise of James Gordon, it's more about the creation and expansion of the Batman universe. 

If this show were really honestly truly about Gordon, then the pilot would be so bold as to include other characters not explicitly ripped from the pages of the Batman comic, in the idea that probably other people were doing crime in Gotham twenty years before Batman became Batman.

Except they didn't do that. Nearly every single figure from the first episode, from a low level mob lackey like Oswald Cobblepot (The Penguin), to a socially awkward and generally unliked CSI tech like Ed Nygma (The Riddler), to the daughter of a random criminal who's barely even in the episode (Poison Ivy), to the detective on Major Crimes who keeps investigating Gordon (Renee Montoya/The Question)... You get the point. Nearly every character in this episode fits somewhere larger in the Batman mythos. The only original character we meet is Fish Mooney, and she's really there so she can expedite the rise of The Penguin. It's all coming up Batman.

I'm not entirely sure yet if this is a criticism of the show. Because on the one hand, it's pretty cool that they're including so many characters from the DC canon. We've not seen many quality live-action versions of these characters so far, and while it's only been one episode, so far it looks very promising. On the other hand, it's a little bit alarming that the writers of this show seem to have so little regard for their ability to come up with new characters that even the background is populated with familiar figures. It also creates a weird sense that the world of Gotham is incredibly small and claustrophobic. Everyone knows everyone else and by the time Batman starts Batmaning they will have all been at this for twenty years.

That's kind of weird.

There are, however, a lot of positive things I can say about the show. For starters, the actors really are fantastically cast. Ben McKenzie is phenomenal as Gordon, and Donal Logue continues to bring a weird amount of pathos and dimension to a traditional scumbag character. Cartagena is great as the straight laced Renee Montoya, and her interactions with both Gordon and Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) are crackling with tension. 

Jada Pinkett Smith, Robin Lord Taylor, and Cory Michael Smith (who plays Ed Nygma) are all fantastically threatening, each in their own way. Heck, even Sean Pertwee knocks it out of the park playing a much more down-to-earth Alfred than we usually see. So right on.

It's also worth noting that this show seems quite intentionally diverse, like the writers and casting directors paid a lot of attention to including diversity. Yes, the canonically non-white characters are still non-white, but also a lot of new characters invented for this show are also non-white, like Fish Mooney and Captain Sarah Essen (Zabryna Guevara). It even passes the Bechdel Test in its first episode, albeit only by a few lines. This is all very promising.

In general, I think that's where I fall on Gotham. It's all very promising. While the first episode is frenetic at best, and downright hectic at worst, and the show seems determined to cram Batman backstory down my throat, it's doing it all very well. I feel relatively comfortable with the show because at least it seems to have a basic grasp of the premise and the characters and the ideology here. It's not really a show about James Gordon, but it is a show about Gotham itself. And that has the potential to be just as interesting.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pilot Season: Selfie (Terrible Premise, Great Actors)

Well, having now seen the first episode of Selfie, ABC's blatant attempt to reach a Millennial audience by pandering to what they think we like, I can confirm that yes, it is exactly what you think it is. Broadly written, full of comic gags that were obviously written by writers in their forties or so who are only vaguely aware of the inner-workings of Snapchat, and probably first heard about Instagram from one of their younger, cooler friends. It's instantly dated, snidely pandering, and weirdly enjoyable.

I really do mean that last part, as much as it makes me deeply uncomfortable to admit. Because I wouldn't go so far as to say that Selfie is a good show. It's not. But it is strangely fun. I think part of the reason comes down to the fact that, no matter how insultingly the thing is written, the show cast Karen Gillan and John Cho as its leads, and those two are virtually incapable of not being charming. 

The basic plot of the show is simple. Very simple. Insultingly simple, if we're being candid. It's a loose translation of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady, where the crusty, upper crust Henry Higgins teaches poor, uneducated Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady. Despite the obvious problem that Higgins is not actually a lady himself. The two fall in love, because of course they do, and Eliza transforms into a beautiful and convincing member of high society. Hooray!

It's pretty much just been loosely modernized here. Our main character is Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan), a high school loser who compensated for her low self-esteem and social standing by getting super hot and becoming "insta-famous" as a blogger on Instagram. She's the sort of shallow, crudely drawn character who assumed that becoming physically attractive would solve all of her life problems. The thing is, she's right. To an extent.

Being hot has led her to her job, which she's great at, as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. She shamelessly uses her wiles to succeed and climb the corporate ladder, while sublimating all feelings of loneliness and misery by looking at her phone or her reflection in a mirror. Think Gina from Brooklyn 99, but less happy about everything.

All of this works really well, until the day it doesn't. First, Eliza finds out that the man she's dating is actually married and has been lying to her. Then she gets food poisoning. On a plane. Surrounded by her coworkers. And she ruins her dress, as well accidentally spilling multiple bags of vomit all over herself. The whole thing is immediately captured for all time by her heartless colleagues (most of whom hate her because she's kind of a terrible person), and Eliza finds herself both trending on Twitter, and more miserable than she's ever been in her life.

Speaking as someone who has actually had food poisoning on a plane, all of this was uncomfortably real. Yes, it really is that awful. Trust me. The show was weirdly accurate.

Anyway, while lying in a puddle of sadness and food poisoning in her apartment, Eliza comes to an important realization: she doesn't have any friends. I mean, she has lots of Facebook friends, but no actual real life friends who will bring her ginger ale and hold her hand while she cries. She doesn't like this realization. But she also doesn't know what to do about it.

Which is where we bring in Henry (John Cho). Henry is a marketing executive at Eliza's work, and while they know each other tangentially, they've never interacted before. Henry is uptight, intense, and weirdly formal. No one really likes Henry, but he's amazing at his job, so they tolerate him. But even his boss thinks he's weird and lonely and he makes them all feel awkward.

During a meeting where Henry is publicly lauded for saving the firm's reputation when a toxic product was banned by the FDA, Eliza realizes that a marketing specialist might be exactly the person she needs to rehabilitate her image. So she asks Henry for help. Begs, really. Begs completely shamelessly and with more than a couple insults.

At first Henry says no, but when he's reminded that he absolutely must bring a date to his next work event, because the president of the company is uncomfortable with him, he decides to give Eliza a shot. After all, he's an egomaniac, and he was just given permission to dictate every aspect of a woman's life. He's in!

Wacky hijinks obviously ensue, where Henry tries to teach Eliza basic manners and interpersonal relations (like how to have a genuine conversation that's not about her with the receptionist). It doesn't go particularly well, but they make enough progress that Henry feels comfortable asking Eliza to come to the wedding.

And that brings in a new problem. Henry hates all of Eliza's clothes, and refuses to let her wear anything short, tight, or racktastic to the wedding. So Eliza is forced to ask her neighbor, Bryn (Allyn Rachel) for help. Bryn, of course, being Eliza's social media opposite: a Pinteresting, DIY, top-knot wearing hipster. Bryn, surprisingly, says yes, because she's a sucker for a "make-under", and the girls actually get to bond when Bryn and her book club come to Eliza's apartment and turn her into, well, one of them for a day. Eliza's a little weirded out, but she also can't believe what's happening. Real life people are in her apartment, asking about her feelings, helping her get ready, even cleaning her kitchen. Is this what having friends is like?

Henry is genuinely blown away when he picks Eliza up for their wedding date, and we get the first real implication (though who actually doubted it) that they will be the ultimate ship on the show. I mean, obviously, but it's nice to know that the actors can play convincing attraction.

At the wedding, though, everything kind of goes to crap again. Eliza holds it together for a while, but while the bride (their boss' daughter) says her vows in the form of a really weird poem, she starts to fall apart. It might be a deeply cheesy sentiment, but Eliza has the sinking realization that no one is ever going to look at her the way that couple at the altar is looking at each other. And she can't deal with these emotions. They're too much. So she does what she always does, and turns to her phone. 

Which of course immediately makes a ton of noise, disrupts the ceremony, and makes both her and Henry look terrible in front of their boss, Mr. Saperstein (David Harewood). Eliza and Henry have a huge, raging fight after the ceremony, where he calls her immature and self-involved, and she calls him out on being a sanctimonious jerk. It's ugly, and they both leave miserable.

But the next day at work, Eliza finds herself having an honest to goodness real conversation with the receptionist, Charmonique (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). She realizes that whatever Henry was doing worked. She is incrementally a better person. Heck yes she wants to keep going! Being a good person feels great!

So she tracks down his house (somehow, probably creepily) and shows up in the rain to bang on his door and ask him to take her back. There's some hilarity involved where Henry pretends he can't see her, and Eliza points out that he literally lives in a glass house. Anyway, Eliza apologizes and asks Henry to start helping her again. She likes being better. And Henry apologizes too, because he realizes that she was right. He is taking out his dissatisfaction with the world on her. 

Then they fall down in the rain and laugh at each other and it's very cute and romcom. But the point is clear. Both Henry and Eliza need to change, and they need each other's help to do it. That, as far as I can tell, is the series in a nutshell.

So you see what I mean, right? It's pretty insultingly written, at least at first, but as the pilot wears on, you start to realize that these characters are too well-defined and emotionally engaging to be stereotypes. Eliza's shallow and silly, but she doesn't want to be, and that somehow makes her very compelling. Henry might be an uptight egomaniac, but that's a problem and he's called on it. 

In fact, it seems that the whole point of the show is that these two characters deeply need each other, and need each other to call them on their bad behavior. Neither of them is better than the other. And that's pretty great.

Also great? The show's casting, which is both well done and also surprisingly diverse. Three of the main characters are non-white, and only two (maybe three if you stretch it) are white. Plus I don't think I can name another network sitcom starring an Asian-American actor. I really can't. And it's a show where the main couple for which you are meant to root is an interracial couple? Just great.

It does seem a little funny to watch two titans of genre fiction acting in such a mainstream show. Gillan (Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy) and Cho (Star Trek and Sleepy Hollow) are great actors, but it's still strange to see them performing in a show utterly devoid of time travel or phasers. I mean, it's really good to see them getting recognition, but also a little odd. Just like it's kind of funny hearing Gillan doing a very convincing American accent.

The point is this: Selfie is a cynically conceived sitcom from a mainstream network that is clearly trying to draw in more young viewers by pandering to what they think our interests are. But it's also a really sweet show about two broken people trying to fix each other. So even if it is a little insulting and tactless, I think it's worth watching. It has heart.

Also it's fun watching them judge everyone together.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RECAP: Outlander 1x07 - A Consummation Devoutly To Be Avoided

Finally, finally, finally, it's the episode that I, at least, have been waiting for since the show began! I'm really not kidding about that either. The show has really surprised me with how high quality it is and with the masterful job that Ron Moore and company are doing at translating the source material into a compelling and condensed format. It's spectacular.

But the whole reason I started watching in the first place is because I read the book, and it was fine for a while, but once we hit upon the part where Claire has to marry Jamie in order to save both of their lives and they have this arranged marriage, growing to love each other, have to pretend the relationship is more legit than it is in case the English ask thing...Well, that's where the book really hooked me in.

It's also worth noting that the wedding happens relatively early on in the book, but here it's happening in the penultimate episode of the first season of the show. Since we know that this season (consisting of sixteen episodes, eight aired now and eight in the spring) will cover the entire first season, that does make me wonder if the latter half is going to really cut out the chaff. I mean, that's eight episodes, and there are still four major chunks of the book to go. Actually more like six, when I think about it.

Not to say I wouldn't be amenable to the show deciding that they want to save a bit of this for later and not go through the whole book in the first season. From what I can tell, the next book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber, is kind of not as good as the first one, and very different in tone and scope. So I might be okay with us avoiding that for a bit. Still, like I said before, Ron Moore and company have been doing really well by me so far, so I think I'll keep on trusting them.

For now.

Anyway, this week's episode started off with a bit of a time jump. We left off last week with Claire reeling from the information that she would have to marry Jamie in order to save herself from being brought to Fort William under accusation of being a traitor to the English crown. If Claire marries Jamie, she becomes a Scottish citizen, and then Randall can't legally torture her for information. I mean, he can still do it extra-legally, but it's a little better.

While Claire is totally on board with not getting hate-murdered, though, she's less okay with being forced into a marriage. Yes, Jamie is sweet and kind and exceptionally, alarmingly attractive, but Claire's still in love with her husband, Frank. They had a good marriage, and she's still convinced that she can find a way to get through the stones and return to her own time and her own husband. Jamie's cute, but he's not cute enough for Claire to want to give up the entire life she has waiting for her in 1945.

Plus, we can't forget that Claire is being literally forced into this. It's marry Jamie or die. There are no other options. And the fact that they are both being thrown into this doesn't eliminate the fact that it's a horrible situation. Heck, the fact that Claire and Jamie are friends and attracted to each other doesn't make this situation any more okay. It's not okay. It's gross and a little rapey. But the show trusts us enough to let it stay that way, instead of trying to spoon-feed us Claire's emotional journey.

We open on a flashback to Frank and Claire walking through the streets of Westminster, probably. It's almost strange to see Claire in her natural getup, after so long of seeing her in gowns and tartan. The matching suit and hat are super cute, and she and Frank make a lovely couple. Frank pulls Claire to a stop outside of the Westminster Registry Office, and asks her if she's "ready". 

Claire's confused, naturally, since as far as she knows, they're on their way to meet his parents, whom she has never before encountered. Frank, however, is thinking marriage. It's clear from their conversation that the two of them have discussed it before, and Frank is perfectly comfortable suggesting that they get married. Right here, right now. Claire will never meet Frank's family as anything other than his wife, and the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. Awwwww.

Obviously Claire says yes, because she and Frank have discussed marriage and are on the same page. Because this is a show about realistic relationships and people. Claire's not being ambushed by a proposal, it's more of a joyful spontaneous thing. 

And then we cut straight to the exact opposite of that moment. Where Claire's first wedding was a celebration of love and deeply private, her second marriage is literally all for show. A big church wedding, a fancy dress, a husband she barely knows, and a threat hanging over her head. No wonder Claire's not as enthused about this one. The ceremony is over in a blink, and Jamie kisses his bride while Claire wonders how she got here.

With all of that buildup, it seemed logical that we would follow straight through the wedding, right? Instead, the show jumps ahead wildly, landing on Claire and Jamie's wedding night. We get a quick shot of them kissing at the altar, and then it's straight to bed. Literally, in this case, since they are stuck in a room with very little furniture, and the knowledge that they have less than twenty-four hours to consummate their marriage, or else Claire will be tortured. Definitely not a sexy situation.

Jamie's just as uncomfortable as Claire is, to be fair, albeit for completely different reasons. As we've known all along, Jamie is attracted to Claire, strongly, and now he's married to her. Plus, we now know that he's a virgin, and has no idea what his wedding night actually really entails. I mean, he's got a vague and decent idea, but no details.

Given their different emotional states, then it makes sense that the two are on vastly different pages. Jamie starts out by pouring them both some whiskey and toasting to his wonderful wife. Claire drinks the whiskey, and then pours some more. Jamie smiles, thinking that she's going to toast him back, but she just chugs the whiskey, pours another, chugs that, and then gets some more booze ready just in case. Honestly, I'm reminded of a script I once wrote that mentioned drinking so many times that the main note I got on it was "It made me have to go to the bathroom". Claire drinks a lot. I feel like I'm going to start getting sympathy hangovers.

After a minute, Claire stops trying to drown herself, and faces Jamie straight on. "I have questions," she says, and Jamie nods, agreeing that she probably does. He'll answer them, because he knows it's important to her. He even sits down and waits, which is a relatively innocuous action, but in this context it's worth noting that he puts himself in a non-threatening, submissive posture, and let's Claire be the one to call the shots. She's standing, they're approximately equally dressed, and he's given her full access to ask any question she wants.

The first question? "Why did you marry me?" At least that one's got a straight answer, even if the answer he gives is incomplete. We flash back to the day before, and see the moment when Jamie actually decided to go through with it. His reasons? 

Well, simply put, Jamie was protecting Claire. As Ned and Dougal made eminently clear in the flashback, either Jamie marries Claire, or she's done for. We're all very well versed in the stakes by now. Of course, Jamie has conditions of his own. First that all the MacKenzie men stop talking about Claire as a whore, as well as others to be determined later. But mostly, as Jamie tells it, he married Claire because he knows precisely what sort of man Randall is. Better than most.

This answer? Pleases Claire. So does the information that Jamie considers their marriage to be as sacred as any made not under duress. Whatever the circumstances, Claire is now his wife, and he will die to protect her. Knowing this makes Claire a little more at ease - though not much - and she allows Jamie to get closer. Just as he goes in for the kiss, though, she pulls back and says, "Tell me about your family."

What's really interesting here is that Jamie doesn't growl or groan or push forward and just kiss her or any of the other tropes we are accustomed to seeing in this situation. Instead he sort of laughs and then answers her with, "How many generations back?" Rather than this being a scene about a callous woman toying with a man's desire for sex, like it would be on nearly any other show, this scene is really all about consent. Jamie wants to have sex with Claire. He really really does. But he understands that she is not comfortable, is not consenting, and is only there under protest. So he never pushes, he never demands, and he never even complains about her hesitancy.

It would be very easy for this scene to turn and become all about Jamie, but it doesn't. We stay firmly fixed on Claire and her sexual desire or lack of it. Since this is a show firmly rooted in Claire's point of view, as well as in her head, this makes sense. But it also matters from a sociological standpoint, because, again, this is the show demonstrating that it takes the issues of consent and power dynamics seriously. 

By having Jamie cede power to Claire visibly and openly during a scene where he is ostensibly in the more powerful position (by dint of being bigger and stronger and the absolute necessity of sex happening), the show is clearly stating that a good sexual dynamic is one that is safe, sane, and consensual.

It's so awesome.

Anyway, Jamie takes Claire's invitation to talk about his family as the distraction it is, and we go into a very prettily lit montage of his storytelling and Claire's rapt fascination. Because here's the thing: for all that Claire and Jamie have been friendly up to this point, they really don't know anything about each other. Or rather, they know only the deep, heart-level stuff, but absolutely nothing of the basic facts that make up a person. As Claire very shrewdly points out, it might be a distraction, but it also is important. They need to know each other if this marriage is going to work. 

Plus, there's the handy bit where this cuts out like ten pages of straight description that was in the book. I'm not kidding. During the scene of Jamie and Claire's wedding night, Jamie talks about his family for a very long time. It's all interesting to know, but not really that compelling in the moment, and it kills the tension. So good choice to go to montage here. 

Sadly, the moment and the slow growing peace between the two of them is shattered when Rupert and Angus, our favorite drunken Scots (who really have grown on me, weirdly), barge in the door demanding to know if Jamie's still a virgin. Both are absolutely tickled to find the couple still mostly dressed, and proceed to mock the living hell out of Jamie. As he shoves them out the door, it's clear that both he and Claire have been very effectively reminded of the stakes present here. They really need to have sex.

Still, Jamie lets Claire initiate things. And she does. Jamie is all over the awkward, horny virgin who has no idea what he's doing, and Claire is caught somewhere between amusement, arousal, and vague horror at his ineptness. Also we get to enjoy a scene of Jamie trying to get Claire out of her 1743 undergarments, which are delightfully complex and incomprehensible to him. 

Then they have sex. While still mostly clothed. It seems...short? Which makes sense of course, but it's still kind of funny to see. Most shows wouldn't be comfortable making their leading man look bad at anything, especially not sex, but the message here is pretty clear: Jamie has no idea what the hell he's doing. He even collapses on Claire afterwards, and she has to push him off because he's like twice her size and she's suffocating.

Afterwards it is positively adorable, as a sort of shell-shocked Jamie admits that he thought sex would take longer, and also that he thought people did it back to front, like horses. Claire pretty much busts a gut laughing, because, well, that's hilarious. But it mostly just demonstrates the fullness of the show's reality. Jamie's seen animals have sex, but never humans, and no one ever told him how it worked, because he's a boy and he's just supposed to figure it out. Technically at this point, he's never even seen a naked woman up close, because Claire is still in her shift.

At least the marriage is now officially consummated, and Claire is now officially a Scot. It's like that one event has changed the tenor of the evening. It was a duty they had to get over with, and now they have. So what now? It's a very palpable relief to both of them, but they still have a whole night to get through. A lifetime, actually, if their marriage vows are to be believed. What now?

It's apparently time for Claire to have a crisis of conscience, because despite Jamie's inexperience, she really did enjoy the sex. And she's not okay with that about herself. So to sublimate her guilt, she decides to go downstairs and get some food. It's the middle of the night. Clearly no one will still be awake and sitting outside their door in order to embarrass them. That would be weird.

By which I mean that everyone is still downstairs, and they let out a series of shouts and screams and jests at her appearance. Jamie takes one for the team, sending Clair back inside and rounding up some food for them both. He puts up with the comments and threatens them all with violence, but it's a stray comment from Dougal that stops Jamie in his tracks. Dougal wants to be thanked. After all, he's the one who set the two of them up. He also tells Jamie to be a bit slower in getting back, so Claire doesn't think she's got the upper hand in their relationship.

What makes this interesting and not just sexist is that we only hear the second half of what Dougal said as Jamie is relaying it to Claire. He's not trying to hide what Dougal said or take it as advice. He rejects the idea that he should be playing games with Claire. He even tells her that she has him wrapped around her finger, and he's fine with it. Again, Jamie demonstrates clearly that he is giving Claire control of the situation. Which seriously just makes him even more attractive.

Claire clearly thinks so too, but she's not quite over her freakout. She lets Jamie touch her hair, which he does with utter reverence. She's giving him opportunities to woo her, the way he would have if they had married in the normal way and not with less than a day's warning. Just as the moment is about to turn really sexy, she turns away and comments that Jamie wore a new kilt today. It's the Fraser colors. Where did he get that?

Cue another flashback, where we see Murtaugh coming through as Jamie's awesome uncle. He refused to see Jamie wed in anything other than his own tartan, so he scoured the countryside for the plaid. They have a touching conversation about Jamie's mother and what she might have thought of Claire, and it becomes eminently clear that Murtaugh is super in love with Jamie's tragically deceased mother. Huh. Not sure Jamie realizes that.

At any rate, Murtaugh approves of Claire (which we've known since episode three or so), and he thinks Jamie's mother would have liked her too. Claire is both surprised and touched by this information. She's even more touched by the information that Jamie made a few demands of Dougal before they could get married. First, that they be wed properly, in a church, before a priest.

There's not a lot of super important plot stuff in this flashback/flashsideways (since Jamie wasn't actually there and is just relaying what he was told), but it's very funny. Dougal and the young MacKenzie whose name I've forgotten dig up the local priest and demand he perform a wedding. Said priest has a nasty cold, is super cranky, and outright refuses. He finally gives in when Dougal offers to put glass over the windows in the church, thus making the sanctuary a genuinely good place to worship. It's funny, but also a reasonably important point about how money matters, even to a priest.

The second condition is a bit more obscure. Jamie wanted a wedding ring made for Claire, but not just out of anything. He wanted it made from a specific key that he had in his sporran. We don't know why, and Jamie denies having any special reason for it (utter lie). Rupert and Angus were the ones slated with doing that task, and the scene is both hilarious and touching. They might be huge, gross, crude weirdos, but those guys truly love Jamie and Claire. They're just terrible at showing it.

The third condition, my personal favorite, was that Dougal somehow dig up a wedding dress for Claire to wear. The problem with this being that they are in the middle of an impoverished Scottish village, with no dressmakers for miles, and no noble ladies to borrow from either. The solution? Ned Gowan goes to a whorehouse and asks to borrow a wedding dress. It's just so entertaining. Seriously. Eventually the women dig up a dress that was never worn, that they took in payment from a nobleman who'd gambled away his money already. Ned takes the dress, and also gets a date for the wedding. 

There are two noteworthy points about Jamie's conditions. First is that they all, to some extent, are about Claire. He wants their marriage to be legitimate, hence the priest, but he also wants to honor Claire, hence the ring and gown. Second, all of these requirements take time. Sure, Dougal sped it up by outsourcing a lot of the legwork to his men, so most of these things were happening simultaneously, but still. Jamie stalled for time, because he knew that Claire wasn't ready. He gave her as much time as he humanly could.

Claire, of course, used that time in the most Claire way possible: she got super duper drunk.

Jamie's more than a little horrified that Claire remembers almost nothing of her own wedding, but Claire comforts him with the knowledge that by the time they go to the wedding, she wasn't actually drunk, she was just hungover. She remembers most of it. Totally. Probably. Like definitely at least half.

He, of course, remembers everything. And it's through Jamie's adoring eyes that we finally see the whole wedding. The moment he first sees Claire outside the church (wild-eyed and kind of baffled to find herself there). When they walk inside, Claire leading the way and walking herself down the aisle as Jamie follows close behind. Standing before the priest. The vows. The ring. The handfasting. The kiss. 

The only part we see that Jamie doesn't remember is the part that Claire can't forget. Right before they walk into the church, Claire takes a moment, composes herself, and then slips off her wedding ring. Her other wedding ring. Because Claire cannot forget, even for a moment, that she is already married.

And then Jamie and Claire have sex again. This time it's not contractual or obligatory. It's because they want to. As with all other steps in their relationship, Jamie lets Claire set the pace, and obligingly strips for her so that she can see his naked body. We the audience get some gratuitous butt ogling, but the focus of the scene is on their interplay. They're learning how to work as a couple. They're learning what they each like. It's sweet.

Also steamy and sexy, as it is a sex scene that's well shot and involves two very attractive people being very attracted to each other. I'd describe it here, but that would be gratuitous. And I have it on good authority that I can't write a good sex scene anyway. Suffice to say that they have lots of sex, seem to be enjoying it, and Claire is definitely in control. Yay!

After, Claire finally does venture downstairs, and finds herself alone for the first time in a while. The room is mostly deserted now, complete with mangy cat eating the leftovers from the wedding feast. Then the spell is broken as the inn's door opens and Dougal stumbles in, just back from his meeting with Randall. While Randall is extremely displeased to know he can't haul Claire off and torture here, he is going to abide by the law. Claire is happy to know that, like an enormous weight is off of her. It wasn't in vain.

Of course, Dougal spoils the moment by reminding Claire that even if she is married now, she can still "sample other pleasures." Gross. Claire responds, shocked, that she's married to Jamie. His nephew. Isn't this kind of super weird? The whole moment just underlines that while Claire does have some allies in this time, she's not out of the woods yet. It also shows how important Jamie's insistence of Claire initiating their relationship really is. Because Dougal doesn't wait. He kissed Claire without her consent once, and now he's touching her face and caressing her without her consent again. 

The only thing that really saves Claire's dignity in the moment is the arrival of Rupert, who offers her congratulations and best wishes on her wedding day. She thanks him for that, and for the ring. It's like these two characters, who've hated each other for so long, suddenly are seeing each other as people. I like it.

I also like the symbolism of Claire, wrapped up in the Fraser plaid, being faced with intimidation from Dougal, war chief to the MacKenzies. It makes clear that even though she's now legally a Scot, Claire is still an outsider. She does not belong. 

As Claire goes back upstairs, Rupert returns to form and makes a comment about how "well-ridden" Claire looks. Claire basically shrugs it off and keeps walking, because she's heard worse and it's just Rupert, but Dougal is incensed. He smacks the hell out of Rupert while Claire watches, and then banishes him from the room, staying behind to swig at wine and be generally very threatening. Clearly this bit about Dougal being obsessed with Claire is going to come up again.

Back in their room, Claire can't sleep, and her angst wakes up Jamie. He has one more revelation for Claire before the night is through: a wedding present. He gives her a beautiful pearl necklace that his father gave to his mother. Claire's touched, and they have sex again. Claire's still on top. Just saying.

The morning is all sweetness and light until, as Claire is picking up her wedding dress so they can pack and go, she hears a clink. It's her other wedding ring, having fallen out of the bodice where she stuffed it. The ring nearly falls through a crack in the floor, but Claire saves it, only to stare in horror at her hands. She has two wedding rings. With shaky fingers, she slides the loose ring onto her right hand, and then sits there, staring.

She is not okay with this.

End of episode.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Maze Runner Is Still Confusing, But Now It's Boring Too

In general, I don't believe that objective reporting is a thing that can happen. I don't believe it's actually humanly possible to be completely objective about, well, anything. As humans we always have opinions and beliefs that influence who and what we like or dislike. Every opinion we have is subjective, because it's always filtered through our personal experiences of the world.

So, that disclaimer in place, I'd just like to say that I know, I know that I am not objective about The Maze Runner. I have read the books, and I absolutely hated them. Seriously. I wrote a whole big long thing about it. I found the books to be poorly written, sexist, and generally disappointing. They never delivered on the coolness of the premise, and like a lot of shows that I could name, they never managed to sufficiently explain all the weirdness or wrap up the conspiracy theory in a satisfactory way. It just did not work for me.

Obviously, then, I was skeptical going into the movie. On the one hand, this movie contains some of my favorite up and coming actors: Dylan O'Brien (Teen Wolf), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones), and Kaya Scodelario (Skins). Also, the promotional pictures look encouraging: a racially diverse cast that looked realistically dirty and sweat-stained, with a setting that looked convincingly rural and makeshift. Encouraging all around.

On the other hand, though, the source material is a badly written, badly sexist book that has a couple of good moments, but  overall never really works. It's like James Dashner was writing without an outline, and when he got to the end of the book, he realized that he didn't have the answers for any of the important plot questions. So he wrote another book, assuming that he would be able to answer them at the end of that one. But he couldn't. So he wrote another book, and managed to avoid answering them satisfactorily in that one too.

In order to be safe in writing this review, then, I brought a friend with me to the movie. Mostly because she's my friend and I like her, but a little bit so that I could get a non-me opinion on the movie. See it through someone else's eyes. This friend has not read the book, and I was hoping that she would be able to provide a contrasting view. The conclusion?

Yeah, neither of us liked it very much. 

The movie, if you're not aware of the source material, is yet another young adult dystopian narrative. Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) wakes up in an elevator with no memory of anything but his name. He's arrived in a Lord of the Flies-esque land - it's a giant field in the middle of a bunch of massive walls. The inhabitants of this land are all teenage boys, all of whom only remember their names, nothing else. As far as they know, they've been abandoned there, in a field in the middle of an endless maze full of monsters. No idea why.

The boys have formed a sort of society there, dividing duties and trying to keep themselves alive. Every month another boy comes up in the elevator, along with some limited supplies. But mostly they make do on their own. 

Thomas is apparently the first boy to come up who immediately questions the status quo. While the leaders, Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second, Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), are reasonably content to keep the boys alive and safe within the walls while sending runners out to try to map the maze and discover an exit, Thomas immediately assumes that there must be something else they can do. He goes about trying to prove that, breaking every rule they put in front of him, and repeatedly running out into the maze in a hope of finding some way back...to wherever it is they all came from.

Also there's this thing where the monsters in the maze can sting you, and when they do, you go a little crazy and then die. Unfortunately for Thomas, everyone who's been stung by a Griever immediately tries to kill him, for reasons that he does not understand because he cannot remember. And to make matters even more complicated, the day after Thomas arrives, the elevator comes back, but this time with a girl who says Thomas' name and then immediately passes out.

I don't want to get too deep into the plot, because to be honest, there's not a lot of plot to get into. There really isn't. It follows a very predictable formula, with one or two twists, but it's essentially the plot you get from knowing the premise and from understanding that Thomas is the "chosen one" or whatever. 

And for all that I hate the book, I give the filmmakers here a lot of credit: they created a perfectly reasonably okay movie out of it. The film is visually stunning, has excellent effects, and the dialogue is halfway decent if boring as all get out. The actors are clearly very talented and trying their hardest to be interesting. It's just that there isn't a whole lot to work with. In adapting this book to film, the writers very shrewdly cut out a lot of the more cracktastic elements of the plot (bio-engineered surveillance camera bugs, telepathic connections, inexplicable medical mysteries), but the problem is that without the crack, the story is oddly bland.

Dashner has gone on record saying that he wrote The Maze Runner as a reaction to the idea that a group of boys left to their own devices would go feral, as in The Lord of the Flies. I respect the idea of trying to repudiate that, but the problem is that it doesn't work. A group of boys would go feral. When he tried to create a world that's perfect except for the external monsters, Dashner made a world that is fundamentally dull and does not reflect true human nature. It just doesn't work.

Additionally, for all that I greatly appreciate two of the most important characters in the story (Alby and Minho) being played by actors of color, I think it's a little problematic that Thomas is the white-boy savior, one who Minho immediately defers to and Alby is willing to give almost limitless lee-way. It's like because Thomas is white and curious, the other characters know that they need to step back because the protagonist has arrived, and that's just bad writing.

The writers did do a good job in removing most of the terribly sexist elements from Theresa's plotline, getting rid of her obsession with Thomas and her basically being a super-genius macguffin, but like with a lot of this, when they got down to it, there's not much left. Theresa as a character is mostly made up of tropes. If you get rid of them, all you have is a very bland girl-character who does virtually nothing. 

That's not an exaggeration, either. Theresa does almost literally nothing in the entire movie. Her character could have been cut without a single problem. She doesn't even spout off any necessary dialogue. It's nice that she's no longer there as part of a romantic subplot, but now she's barely there at all.

For the most part, I really appreciate the changes made to the story, and most of them are more cosmetic and logical than anything, but there is one shift that really bothers me. In the books, (SPOILER), the character Newt walks with a pronounced limp. We learn that this is because Newt used to be a runner, but got hurt while he was out in the maze, and now he just works back in the glade. It's not a huge deal or anything, but it's an extra bit of character development for one of the leads.

As the books progress, however, we get more detail on that incident, and eventually Newt discloses that he did not break his leg by accident - he broke it when he decided that he had had enough of running, and climbed a wall so he could jump off. He didn't manage to climb high enough before he jumped, and so the fall only broke his leg, not his neck.

It's a pretty grim subplot, but there's something incredibly moving about it. It was one of the only subplots from the book that I liked. Not because it's overly depressing, but because it answered a very important question: What about the people who, unlike Thomas, don't want to fight to survive? In a story about survival no matter the personal cost, it's very important to see characters like Newt, who have struggled with depression and who seriously question the point of their survival at all. Is it worth it?

It bothered me, then, to realize that the movie has completely cut this subplot out. As far as I could tell, Newt didn't walk with any discernible limp in the film, and they certainly never talked about his past like that. So I wonder whether it will come up in the sequels at all.

All that having been said, it's a perfectly competent movie. The problem is that when "perfectly competent" is the best thing you can say about a film, that's a terrible sign. Without the really absurd flourishes that Dashner stuck in the original novel, and without some intense revision of the storyline, the movie just sort of goes through the motions. It's tense in the moments when you feel it ought to be tense, and vaguely emotional in the moments when you think that feelings should be happening. It's fine. But there is absolutely no fire or verve or deeper anything to this movie. 

The real problem comes back to the source material. It's just not a very good book. Worse, it's a beloved book, and so the screenwriters felt beholden to/the studio felt the need to pander to the fans of the original work. And so the writers were not allowed to make any substantial changes, for fear of angering the mighty fan. Unfortunately, this is a story that needed a lot of changes if it was going to be halfway palatable, and it didn't get them.

I think my friend put it best as we were hanging around my apartment after the film. She'd been quiet for a few minutes, and when I asked her what was up, she said, "I'm still thinking about the movie. Or, well, I'm think about how there's nothing to think about." Because, in the end, there wasn't. There was not enough depth in that movie for us to come out of it having any kind of conversation. It just happened, then we forgot all of it.

That's a very bad sign.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

RECAP: Outlander 1x06 - "A Delicate English Rose"

If last week’s episode bothered me with how dull it managed to make the actually pretty interesting source material (Claire’s journey through countryside in the company of a bunch of MacKenzie fighting men), then this week absolutely blew me out of the water with how much story and tension and excitement the show could wring out of an episode that is pretty much Claire sitting at a table for an hour.

Seriously, that’s the majority of what actually happens in this episode. But, obviously, it’s not the sum total of what happens. If you get my meaning. Which was worded badly. 

The episode picks up, as it should, with last week’s cliffhanger. As Dougal and Claire stand by a stream and argue about politics, a gaggle of redcoats ride up, and Foster, the sympathetic redcoat who is worried about Claire, steps forward to ask, once more, if she’s all right. Claire’s long pause signaled the end of the last episode, and now we come back in to hear her answer. Which is, as it turns out, that yes. She’s fine. No real problems here.

And, if you think about it, there really aren’t anymore. While Claire is convinced that the MacKenzies are going to get themselves killed in this Jacobite rebellion, she’s reasonably sympathetic to their cause and reasons. Sure, she’s still attempting to get back to the stones, but at this moment, Dougal isn’t so much a threat to her as he is really irritating.

So no, Claire’s not in need of any real assistance. It’s okay.

Unfortunately for Claire’s decision, Foster isn’t going to let her go with this. He’s still under the impression that she’s being coerced, and so he insists that she (and by extension Dougal, who refuses to leave her side) come with him to the local garrison, under the pretense of meeting with the commander there. After all, it would be so improper if the local commander didn’t take the time to dine with and greet a lovely English lady in this foreign land.

The voiceover tells us that, no matter how much she might disapprove of the English occupation, it is incredibly comforting to once more be surrounded by English accents and behavior. She even takes a minute to gloat internally about how Dougal gets to be the outlander now. He’s the one in a foreign culture, for all that they’re technically still in Scotland.

Looking at the shot of them riding through the town with a company of redcoats, I want to tip my hat to the costuming team on this show. Because here we have Claire with her own people, the English, but her costuming reads very Scottish. In fact, she looks more like Dougal and the Scottish villagers she sees, than she does like any of the English we meet in this entire episode. While we intellectually know that Claire is English, in this moment, with these clothes, Claire is effectively aligning herself with Scotland. She’s even dressed in the MacKenzie plaid, for crying out loud.

This is in stark contrast to last week, when Claire wandered through a Scottish village wearing a starched white shawl around her dress, one that made her stand out as much as humanly possible. There, the emphasis was on how English Claire really is, with her saying “Bottoms up!” when given a drink, and saluting before she peed in that bucket. Here, among real Englishmen, we see all of a sudden how foreign Claire has become to them. Claire has changed. And the costumes reflect that.

It’s also interesting how Foster, easily the nicest redcoat we’ve met so far, is casually dismissive of the Scots who happen to inhabit the village the English have commandeered. These people are ostensibly their subjects (at least as far as the English think), but Foster makes clear that he doesn’t trust them with the garrison’s horses. No matter how nice he is, we can’t forget that Foster is part of an invading and colonizing army.

And continuing on the theme of a colonizing force, Claire enters the garrison to find a group of English officers, in full regalia and wigs, dining at a disgustingly well-laden table. There are wine goblets, massive platters of food, and starched white napkins for all. Note the stark contrast to the local Scots outside (whose house this probably actually is), and remember last week when we met multiple characters who were in danger of starving to death. Food is a political statement, or it can be, and in this moment, the bounty of the Officer’s Mess is a clear sign of how they have pillaged Scotland for its natural resources, without giving any of it back to the people, as would be fair and just.

Incidentally, but not that I’m biased or anything, it’s worth pointing out that the main reasons why England wants Scotland to remain a part of the United Kingdom rather than vote for independence has more to do with their massive natural resources and strategic value (huge stores of fossil fuels off the coast and the location of the British Navy) than it does with any particular love for the Scots themselves. History might be in the past, but humans are humans whenever they are. Which seems to be the message of the show.

The Lord (whose name has not been given by this point) is absolutely delighted to see Claire, and kisses her hand before he insists she sit down and eat with them. He calls her an “English rose” and goggles at her in a way that is both kind of funny and also deeply creepy. While Claire is seated at the end of the table (a place of honor), Dougal is left to stand, and is completely ignored at first. Partly we can put this down to how long it’s been since these men have seen a woman of “appropriate” social standing and nationality, a woman they are comfortable being attracted to, and partly we can assume this is just sheer racism.

I mean, by the political structures of the day, Dougal is a war chief and second in command of the clan whose lands they are currently on. They should probably acknowledge him before they talk to the random woman who just walked in. But they don’t. Some of this is probably because she’s super pretty, but more, I would guess, is because Claire is English, and therefore worth their time. Dougal is a Scot, and therefore a godless heathen who must be treated as a savage.

Sir Oliver Lord Thomas, as we eventually find his name is, finally does acknowledge Dougal, but only to poke at him and insult him. The joke at first is that Dougal’s Scottish brogue is completely unintelligible to English ears, and Claire has a little smile at that. It’s an important note for the audience, though, because like Claire we’ve now been listening to this for weeks. I actually understood everything Dougal said, because his language is no longer foreign to me. Our perspective lies with the Scots, and so to hear someone say that their speech is hard on the ears sounds jarring.

It also brings about a little bit of a debate. Lord Thomas asks Claire how she’s managed to be surrounded by such rough accents all her time in Scotland, and wonders aloud why the world can’t just speak the King’s English. When Claire points out that many parts of England itself are virtually unintelligible to the Londoner, the men chuckle weakly and agree that everyone should indeed speak like Londoners. Which was not Claire’s point at all.

Language, like food and clothes, is being used here to highlight a stark difference between the colonizing force of the English and the Scots that they are trying to subdue. The English view their version of events, their accents, and their food as superior to the local choices, but as an audience we are asked to question whether or not that’s really true. After all, we are in Scotland. Shouldn’t the English be trying to speak like Scots rather than the other way around?

Also it’s important to note that Lord Thomas refers to Dougal as a “creature”, and the men talk around him like he’s not there. Because to them, he isn’t. He’s an animal to them, not a person, and they all make that clear.

Claire, for once, is the one diffusing the situation. Funny, because usually she’s the one inflaming it. But here, because of her status as a “delicate English rose” she can shame the men into acting with regard for her “sensibilities.” Which, of course, she does not have. Hell, she’s a combat nurse. A couple of men talking about what’s under a kilt isn’t likely to rattle her, but Claire does know enough to stop them before the talk turns actively violent. 

Her great strength is in being underestimated - like when she and Jamie helped that young boy by having Claire pretend to swoon. Claire’s got nerves of steel, but she can’t let anyone know that, or else she’s lost her ace trick.

Thing is, she didn’t have to intervene. I mean, it cost her nothing to do so, but still. Dougal has been keeping her prisoner for months now, dogging her steps, and accusing her of pretty much everything he can think of. Now she’s in a room full of English officers who will do pretty much whatever she says. She could just let them go and enact bloody revenge, then swoon and beg them to take her to Inverness and therefore back home. But she doesn’t.

Lord Thomas is so taken with Claire’s ability to stop them all in their tracks, that he idly comments about making her a colonel in the army. “You do know how to order men about.” Dougal’s fond agreement, however, bothers him. Claire’s an Englishwoman. She shouldn’t be so familiar with a Scottish man. It’s not decent, or so Lord Thomas thinks. He insults Dougal again, and Dougal just sort of shrugs and tells Claire he’s going to be downstairs in the tavern. He’s leaving on his terms, not theirs.

The music picks up (a lovely piece of Bach, I think, but I’m no expert) as the room goes hazy and we see a quick montage of Claire entrancing the officers with her story, having a nice meal, and continuing to drink her liver into an early grave. With at least one plot point every episode devoted to Claire’s love of alcohol in all its forms, one could easily assume that the grand love story in Outlander is really that of one woman and booze.

At the end of her story most of the room is half in love with Claire (as they should be), and are completely willing to agree to accompany her to Inverness so that she can “join her family in France.” They all drink to it, and Claire is finally happy when - 

Black Jack Randall storms in the door, covered in dirt, and yelling at Lord Thomas. Claire’s face immediately falls (with good reason, since this is the dude who tried to rape her, flogged Jamie nearly to death, and happens to wear her husband’s face). He’s as disgusted with Lord Thomas’ priorities as we the audience are, but the man is his commanding officer, and he does at least pretend to heed. But then Randall catches sight of Claire, and we all take a big deep breath, because this is not going to be good.

They stare each other down for a long time, while Lord Thomas gets very uncomfortable, until Randall says that he doesn’t know Claire, she just looks familiar, and Claire agrees. But, you know, that’s obviously not true. They both remember precisely how they met, and neither of them is apt to bring it up at the moment. So not good.

The next thing that technically happens is that Randall goes to the doorway and shakes the dirt off himself, but that’s not really what happens. He stands there in the door and kicks against the wall, savagely, making a huge noise, while maintaining stonefaced eye contact with Thomas. As with everything (most everything, rather) that Randall does, his actions have a kind of contained violence to them. Threat just seems to radiate off this man.

Randall’s at odds with Lord Thomas, it’s clear to see. While Thomas values honor and dignity and considers himself above these savage Scots, Randall is a brutal soldier who doesn’t particularly think himself better than anyone else, but is happy to repress the Scots anyway. He despises Thomas, you can just tell, because Thomas is obsessed with class and show and a good claret. Randall doesn’t have time for any of those things.

In other words, they kind of pee all over each other for a while. And Claire is caught right in the middle.

Randall also isn’t okay with how comfortable Claire is with the Scots. She’s an Englishwoman, she should be loyal to her own tribe. He even brings up a recently killed English soldier to make the point. The boy, and he really was just a boy, was found tied to a tree and decapitated for no seeming crime other than being English in Scotland. (And all that colonialism stuff I mentioned before, of course.) Claire’s sympathetic to the loss, because she’s human, but she also points out that the English do far worse, and she’s seen it.

It’s funny, because the men at the table are shamed (Randall isn’t, but that’s Randall for you) at this mention of their brutality, but they refuse to acknowledge the idea that they are in the wrong. Their action are right because they are right. The Scots shouldn’t be rebelling because they are subjects of the British Crown. It doesn’t matter if they wanted to be or not, they are, so if they rebel, they’re traitors. But that’s not super politically relevant today or anything.

The men don’t want to discuss politics with Claire - because it’s unseemly and she’s winning - but Randall has his trump card. He calls Claire a whore, insinuating that she’s sleeping with Dougal. Claire is immediately incensed, and all of her frustration at the way the English have been treating the Scots, and particularly Dougal, this whole time boils over. She sort of rages for a bit about Scottish independence, sits down, and realizes that she’s just effectively committed treason in a room full of British officers.

This is the Claire we know and love.

No amount of butt covering statements she makes after the fact can take back her treasonous statements, and the men are getting ready to roast her over a slow fire when a report comes in of an ambush. A man is injured downstairs, and Claire races off to help. This too shocks the men, who aren’t expecting her to have any value to add. They’ve fetishized her and shipped her off in their minds, her political outburst aside. Her insistence on being taken on merit bothers them.

It also gives her an opportunity to warn Dougal that he’d best make a swift getaway. Things are going south fast. Again, Claire could take this opportunity to slip off, but she doesn’t. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but Claire is the kind of character who can’t not heal someone. She has to help, even when it’s to her own detriment, as it is here. We, the audience, get to enjoy an amputation scene. They use a saw. It’s super gross.

Afterwards, Claire comes back upstairs, hoping to find Lord Thomas and convince him he really should just let her go. Instead, she finds Randall in a weirdly intimate moment: being shaved by a lower-ranking soldier (who is implicitly either Randall’s servant or mentee). This is another moment when the seeming innocuous moment is riddled with violent tension. Claire has a flashback of when she gave her husband a shave during their brief furlough in the war, but she’s rocked back to reality when the soldier nicks Randall’s cheek.

Again, it’s not a scene where much really happens, but there’s this undercurrent of terror, both Claire’s and the soldier’s. They have literally no idea what Randall will do now, and when he has the soldier sit down, and hold the razor to his throat, then proceeds to just shave him, it’s like someone squeezed your lungs.

In other words, this is great writing, and the person in charge of this episode deserves an Emmy. Not that they’re likely to get one, since this is a female-lead genre show, but still. Keep the faith.

Then the soldier is dismissed, and it’s just Randall and Claire, in that same room, eyeing each other. He doesn’t believe her story. She knows enough to understand that she’s trapped in a room with a tiger. It’s very compelling. To recap exactly what happens in this whole sequence would be to do it an injustice, really, since not very much actually technically happens, but all of it is important and character building and amazing. The two characters sit in a room and talk. Sometimes that’s all you need.

The whole scene is quite reminiscent of the opening to Inglorious Basterds, where Christoph Waltz spends fifteen minutes speaking casually to a French farmer, and the entire time you know that there’s a Jewish family under the floorboards, and it’s the most agonizing thing in the world.

Here, the conceit works, the idea of having two characters literally just talking for half the episode, because we know precisely what Randall is capable of. We’ve seen him with Claire, and we know from Jamie that his behavior wasn’t a fluke. So when Randall insists that he’s going to “reveal my true nature” to Claire, we pull back. There’s a danger here, and because the danger is implicit and not paid off for a very long time, the scene holds its tension perfectly.

The little things he does, like pour a bottle of Lord Thomas’ beloved claret out the window, or tell the story of how he felt inside when he whipped Jamie, or sharpening a pencil and drawing a portrait of Claire, have an incredible menace. And when Randall reaches the end of their conversation and looks at Claire like he needs absolution, the audience isn’t sure whether or not to give it, but like Claire, we’re too emotionally exhausted to really think about it.

Which makes his next action all the more horrifying. As Claire stands up to offer her forgiveness, Randall savagely punches her in the stomach, knocking her to the ground and pushing all the air from her lungs. As Claire gasps and sputters on the ground, he drags her head back and insists that she tell him exactly what Dougal has been doing to raise money for the Jacobite rebellion. Then he has his soldier kick her in the ribs as hard as he can, all while waxing poetic about the joys of beating a woman.

The violent threat is finally realized, but not until after we’d started to think it might not be coming. Thus, when it does come, it’s all the more shocking and painful. Like I said, this is great writing. Better than the book scene, even, where the threat was vivid the whole time, and the entire scene had much less emotional turmoil. In that version, Randall just beats Claire senseless, and without the buildup it’s not as scary.

Claire refuses to give Randall any information on the MacKenzies, and it seems for a moment that Randall will kill her. But here comes Dougal, racing to the rescue! He strides in, helps Claire up, and points out that if the British soldiers draw on him there, on MacKenzie land when he’s trying to help a woman, they will very literally start a war. Randall withdraws, but makes it clear that Dougal has only one day to turn Claire over to his custody - wherein she will presumably be taken to Fort William to be tortured for information. If he doesn’t, Randall will be within his rights to raze Clan MacKenzie to the ground.

Claire and Dougal don’t just ride out of the town, they flee.

After a few miles, Dougal has them stop and takes Claire up to a spring. Weird timing, but whatever. He leads her through, pointing out that she could probably use some water and a moment to clear her head. The spring itself is brown, and smells odd, but Claire drinks anyway, ignoring Dougal as he stares at her. Then Dougal, again, asks Claire if she’s a spy. He insists this is the last time he’ll ask. When she says no, he waits a moment, then lets it go. Okay. She’s not a spy.

Apparently this spring is known as the Liar’s Spring, and Dougal insists that if Claire had lied after drinking from it, her throat would have burned out. So that means that whatever secrets Claire is keeping, she’s not a spy, and therefore Dougal’s going to protect her. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many ways for him to do that. The only real way to keep her safe is to take her out of Randall’s realm of influence. In other words, make her a Scot. As an Englishwoman, she’s bound to obey him, but as a Scot who has committed no crime, she isn’t. So it’s time for Claire to change her nationality.

And by that, we mean that Claire has to marry a Scot and be brought in under a 1743 green card, basically. Claire assumes this means she’s got to marry Dougal, which bothers her, but Dougal insists not. Sure, he thinks Claire’s hot, but he’s already married. Instead she’s going to marry…

Jamie. Of course. Obviously. Didn’t we all know this was where the story was heading? As Claire sits at the camp staring at her marriage license, contemplating the weird direction her life has taken, Jamie comes up to give her a drink and toast the marriage. She’s a little disconcerted at how happily Jamie is taking all this, their arranged marriage and her new outlaw status. Jamie assures Claire that he’s really fine. He could probably say no to the idea, but he likes Claire and doesn’t want her to be tortured at Fort William. They’re friends.

He’s not a good marriage prospect, he points out, because for all that he’s very cute, he’s still an outlaw with a price on his head, has very little money, and frankly terrifies the fathers of most eligible daughters. Claire’s an educated woman capable of earning some money to add to the meager family coffers, and she’s pretty too. It’s not unreasonable to think that he might view this as a good match. 

Also there’s that thing where Jamie is clearly head over heels in love with Claire and has been since the very first episode where she sat on him and swore at him for a while as she bound his wounds. That too.

There is one more matter to settle, though. What about the wedding night? Does it bother Jamie that his wife won’t be a virgin? I mean, she was married before, and it was a much consummated one. Claire figures this is the dealbreaker, but she’s not expecting Jamie’s reaction.

“No. As long as it doesna bother you that…I am.”

Claire was not expecting this. Claire has no comfortable way of dealing with this. Claire has not been raised to anticipate having this problem. And she takes a nice long moment to look up and down Jamie’s body as she resets her expectations. Jamie’s explanation is actually priceless. “I reckon one of us should ken what they’re doing…” Man, Claire has had one hell of a rollercoaster of emotions today. 

Her reaction to this news, to the understanding that whether she likes it or not, she’s definitely got to get married, to Jamie, who she will then have to sleep with to consummate it, is par for the course for Claire throughout the show. She stalks up to the group of laughing MacKenzies, grabs a bottle of whiskey, and stalks back off again.

End of episode.

This episode as a whole works as an inverse of last week. There, we saw Claire being the odd woman out as she was surrounded all day every day by Scots. The setting changed rapidly, the emotional stakes were low, and she felt like she was dead on her feet. As the episode progresses, though, she finds herself changing her opinion of the Scots surrounding her, from criminals to revolutionaries. They go from indifferent strangers to good friends. 

This week, Claire is actually with her own kind, only to find that they are not the affable chums she thought they were, but really racist, sexist colonizers, who are happy to resort to violence on her person and unwilling to respect her opinions. Where the MacKenzie men ended last episode fighting an inn for Claire’s honor, the Englishmen end this episode beating Claire herself for no one’s honor at all. Because they can.

In short, the episodes work as mirrors of each other, and each serve to progress Claire’s emotional journey. At first she was an Englishwoman in a world of Scots, completely out of place and without friends. Then she found herself a Scottish sympathizer in a world of Brits, equally out of place and unwelcome. This leads up nicely to next week, when Claire will actually become a Scot, completing the cycle.

I love good arc-writing. It’s so rewarding. And next week is the wedding! Finally!

Tense is an understatement for this scene.