Monday, November 3, 2014

RECAP: Outlander 1x08 - So Close, And Yet So Far

Okay. It's going to come as no surprise to you guys that I've been putting off writing this recap ever since the episode aired. Like I've said before, I tend to get a little squirrelly when show's I like end. If I'm not completely caught up, I sometimes (usually) put it off for a while, because the idea of having seen every episode that exists is a little scary. I like the feeling that there's still something left that I could see. That's why I haven't seen the last three episodes of Pushing Daisies, Don't Trust the B*, and Happy Endings, among many others.

In this case, though, my reluctance to catch up fully was partly to do with not wanting the season to be over, and partly because, despite my best efforts and my full on glee at the start of the season, I have to admit that at this point...I'm kind of over it.

Or maybe not. I don't know entirely how I feel. I still appreciate Outlander a lot, and I still really love the way that it reframes a problematic narrative, that of the damsel perpetually in distress, as a strong independent woman constantly proving her worth in a patriarchal society. I like that. So much. What I don't like is how the show seems to perpetually teeter on the brink of full on romance novel melodrama, with Claire poised to become a damsel at any moment. I love Claire for her strength, and to see that chipped away? It makes me very unhappy.

So, without further ado or complaining, here's a recap of the episode that I am not enthused to be watching but know that I have to in order to get the juicy bits airing in April. Enjoy. I know I didn't.

The episode starts with a jolting switch from 1743 and Claire's adventures with the MacKenzie clan to 1945 and Frank's desperate search for his wife. It's now been a few months and the search is getting desperate. Frank wants to believe the best about his wife - he has to. But everyone around him is completely convinced that Claire must have up and left with a lover she met during the war. After all, if she were dead they'd have found a body by now, right?

It's funny, because after seven episodes set two hundred years in the past, the telephone ring that starts the episode sounds jarring and false. Just completely out of place. Hey! Completely out of place like Claire is in 1743 and like Frank is in the police station. Clever how that works.

The phone belongs to a police station in Inverness. It's the day that the detective in charge of Claire's case has decided to finally tell Frank to just give up and leave. Claire must have left of her own free will. There's nothing left that they can do. And Frank? He's really not willing to take this news. He refuses to believe that Claire might have left him. How could he believe that? If he believes that then he has to believe that those last few days with her, the days of their second honeymoon and attempts to reconnect, were a lie.

Back in 1743 Scotland, however, it turns out that Claire really has left Frank for another man. This man being, as I'm sure you recall, Jamie Fraser. After overcoming their shyness and sexual awkwardness last episode with great gusto, this episode finds them sneaking away from the others in their party to act like, well, newlyweds. Picnicking in the scenic Scottish countryside, talking about how their sex life is abnormally amazing and wonderful and special...

A conversation that is abruptly interrupted by reality in the form of Hugh Munroe, an old friend of Jamie's. Munroe comes to say hello to Jamie of course, but also because he's bearing news. Apparently there's a man who saw Jamie's escape from Fort William and knows that he did not kill the man he is accused of killing. 

In other words, there's a man out there who could testify and get the price off Jamie's head. Jamie and Claire could finally go home to Lallybroch, his family land, and he could finally stop hiding who he is.

Also it's an interesting moment because Munroe is a pretty unique character in the story so far. He's functionally mute and communicates mostly with grunts, gestures, and a form of sign language that Jamie speaks fluently. The reason for all of this is that Munroe is another victim of English cruelty. He was captured a while back, and they cut out his tongue, among other tortures. I mention this mostly because this is the first time in a few episodes that we the audience, and Claire the character, have been reminded both of the cruelty of the English occupying Scotland, and of the abysmal state of healthcare in the eighteenth century.

You'd think it would be virtually impossible to forget those two things on a show that's pretty much about them, but characters like Munroe really bring it back to the forefront. After all, Jamie was tortured, but he was tortured by Captain Randall, who we all know is sadistic and insane, and his scars, though horrible, are generally hidden and do not greatly impact his life. Munroe's story, on the other hand, it much more visceral and frightening. 

And, for all that, Munroe himself is a fundamentally happy character. We learn at some point that he actually has a wife and several children, and that he has licenses to beg in over a dozen parishes when he's not hunting or otherwise earning his way. I rather wish we got to see more Munroe's in this story - characters who evidence a world before proper healthcare and a society with desperate conditions, but who refuse to let that get in the way of their being fully actualized human beings. It's something I could do with seeing more of in the media in general, and on this show in particular.

Then we're back in 1943, with Frank and the vicar. Frank is having a moment of crisis as he considers what really might have happened to Claire, while the vicar is still grasping at straws. So much so that even Frank tells him he is, and then storms off for a drink. But while he's out for that drink, something a bit odd happens. A woman sits down next to him, greets him by name, and tells him that she knows something about Claire's disappearance. She won't tell him there, and she wants the reward, but yeah. She knows something.

Obviously it's a trap. She wants to meet Frank at like midnight and show him where the mysterious Scotsman Frank spotted the night before Claire disappeared is? And he has to bring all the reward money? Sure lady. That totally sounds legit.

Cut back to the MacKenzie men sitting around their campfire, telling stories. Tonight it's Rupert's turn, and he tells the story of the waterhorse and his wife (which is a story that I remember hearing as a kid, so it's kind of nice, actually). Claire is off in a corner sort of mulling on how much her life has changed. It's almost Christmas, and she knows it'll be different here. But that's not the main concern right now. The horses are restless and the men all grab for their weapons subtly without stopping the story. They're about to be attacked, and Claire has nothing to do but hide.

They manage to fight off the attackers of course, but afterwards Claire is treated to the uncomfortable feeling of having been completely vulnerable. Even worse, the men just laugh the attack off. You can tell it freaks her out a little.

Frank goes to meet with "Sally" in the absolute pouring rain that you get in Scotland at winter. She leads him into an alley and unshockingly, there are a couple of men there to rough him up and demand the reward. Honestly, I feel a bit like Frank was hoping for this, because he tears into them with the fury and vengeance of a man who needs an outlet rather desperately. Frank leaves them barely alive and we gracefully transition into the vicar talking about good and evil.

Specifically, talking about how easy it is for a good man to become an evil one. The point that he's making is clear, and since he's talking to Frank directly, it's not particularly subtle. Frank stands poised to determine if he will be a good man or not, and it all depends on the choices he makes now. We are intended, I assume, to compare his choices to Captain Randall, his ancestor, and consider how Frank's life stands a solid chance of imitating the nefarious Captain. Stay good, Frank!

By now, even the vicar is convinced that Frank needs to let the hell go. He tells him in no uncertain terms to go back to Oxford and start a new life, like Claire clearly has. The vicar also comes out with that tired Sherlock Holmes quote: "Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth." Fitting words for this situation.

The MacKenzie men have agreed that after last night's upset, Claire needs to learn how to defend herself with a weapon. And since a dirk is too big for her, she'll have to make do with a little dagger hidden in her skirts. The men all work together to teach her how to stab a man properly. While Claire has a good understanding of anatomy, she's never had to use it to kill a man before, and she's a bit unhappy about the prospect. But then, she's also pretty committed to living.

Which leads us right into a scene of Frank mourning his wife as he gently opens up her suitcase and stares at their wedding photo.

And that, in turn, leads us right into a scene of Claire and Jamie having sex in a field because of course they're having sex in a field. It's like this episode is just trying to hit you over the head with the duality of Claire's life and the fact that at some point she's going to have to make a choice.

But that's not going to happen today. Instead, Claire's about to get some unexpected doses of the reality of being a woman in a patriarchal society. As Claire and Jamie bask in the afterglow (and laugh hysterically at Jamie's propensity for grandiose statements mid-sex), they're interrupted. This time it's not Hugh Munroe, either. It's a pair of redcoat deserters staring them down with weapons. The men drag Jamie away at gunpoint while Claire tries to gather herself, then argue about which one of them gets to rape her first.

It's unclear exactly what happens, as the camera switches to a shaky slow motion video of Claire's face as her rapist tries to, well, rape her. We're completely there with her, feeling her terror and pain and anguish. And then we're with her as she pulls out her dagger and uses her new lessons on murder to stab the man in the kidney, killing him. The dead body flops down on top of Claire and Jamie uses the distraction to fight his way free. The two of them are left, shaking, in the field where they just "made love".

At the vicar's, the vicar and his housekeeper, Mrs. Graham. She would like to tell Frank the truth, or at least the truth as she knows it: Claire fell through the stones into another time. She's a druid or a witch or whatever, and she knows that it's possible. Frank, however, doesn't believe it, and it's almost like hearing the ridiculous theory (that happens to be the truth) makes it easier for him to believe the most obvious explanation: that Claire just ran away with her lover.

Claire is going into shock. She just killed a man. She's never killed a man before. In fact, up until this point, she could take pride in how many men she has kept from being killed. It's rather a lot. But now she has killed one herself, and she is shaking with how much it bothers her. How cold she feels. How much Jamie is freaking out just as much as she is. She was raped, and then she killed a man. She's numb.

As she's pulling herself together and struggling to keep everything inside - she's afraid that if she tells Jamie how she's feeling, a lot of more impossible things will spill out too - the men discuss the situation. Because the redcoat deserters had broken their oath to the English king, no one will be punished very strongly for their deaths. But it raises another problem: the man Jamie is going to meet, who could exonerate him, is also a redcoat deserter. Is he an honorless rogue like these men? If so, how will his testimony help Jamie?

And Claire? She's still in shock, but she's also becoming angry. Fruitlessly, helplessly angry. The real source of her rage is dead, so she finds herself angry with Jamie for no real reason. She can't help it, she's just...mad. And who could blame her? Worse, Jamie's leaving her in the woods with a single guard while he goes to meet this witness. He doesn't want her anywhere near the action, while she refuses to be left behind. Unfortunately, she has no real choice in the matter. As she watches Jamie and the men ride away, Claire realizes why she's so angry. She's mad that she forgot what her real purpose was. She forgot to keep looking for the stones, and to keep trying to find a way home. To Frank.

Frank who is driving away. He's done waiting, he's done looking. He's going back to Oxford. But before he goes, he makes a last stop at the stones. Not sure why, just going to see them. Retrace Claire's steps. See if maybe he can imagine Mrs. Graham is right and something mysterious did happen.

As Claire waits in the clearing, something strange happens. Her guard walks away for a moment. She steps through the woods and all of a sudden she realizes she's there. She's where she wanted to be. She's back at the stones. They're just a short walk away. She can see them. So does she go through?

Hell yes she does! We intrercut with Frank walking up to the stones, and with Claire running madcap up the hill, desperate to make it in time. I can't really describe this scene, but it's really well done. They even scream each others names through the centuries, and they can hear each other. And then - it all goes black.

Claire has been caught. She isn't going to get through. Just as she reaches for the main stone, the one that could take her home, she's grabbed by redcoats. She won't get to go home, she won't get to go back to Frank. She's trapped, more than she ever was. Worse, she's now been captured by people who want her dead.

Frank walks away from the stones, convinced that the voice he just heard, that sounded so much like Claire calling his name, was a hallucination of grief. He walks back to the car. He leaves. Probably for good.

She's being taken to Fort William, of course, and the only defense she has, knowing that Captain Randall is about to torture her, is the knowledge that she has the element of surprise. But it's not apt to do her much good. Randall is bemused by the news of her marriage, the one conducted purely to save her from him, but he really doesn't care much in the end. He has her now, and he will make her pay. For everything, I guess. He's a psychopath, so I'm not sure even he has a clear idea why he hates her so much.

Randall has a lot of questions about Claire. Why was she so important to the MacKenzies that they would rather adopt her as a Scot than let him question her? Which of the MacKenzies are fomenting rebellion against the crown? (All of them, basically.) And what the heckity heck is up with Claire herself? Who is she? Where did she come from? What is she doing there?

Rather than answer any of those questions, though, Claire pulls out the ace she managed to slip up her sleeve during her journey to Fort William, when she was able to plan this conversation. She mentions the Duke of Sandringham. If you don't remember who that is, and who could blame you, he's Captain Randall's wealthy patron, the man that pays him to be brutal to the Scots. Claire knows about him because of Frank's incessant history lessons, and she remembers the name just well enough to cause Randall to spit out his drink. He was not anticipating that. She has the upper hand, for now.

While Randall balks at Claire's knowledge of something that should by all rights be a complete secret, she strikes. She outright states that she is also working for Sandringham, and that the only reason Randall doesn't know that is because he's obtuse. Or, worse, because Sandringham doesn't think he's important enough to tell about it. He's just the guy's attack dog, but not involved in the real decisions. Ouch.

But she's not out of the woods yet. Randall pulls a fast one and asks if Claire really means the Duchess of Sandringham. And she doesn't know what to do. She flails and bluffs and pretends she knows what he's talking about, but it's too late. Randall has smelled the blood in the water. There is no Duchess of Sandringham, the Duke has never been married. Claire is screwed.

Randall steps over and tells the guard by the door to take a walk. She tries to scream for help while he finishes his drink and gets ready for some torture, but no one comes. 

No one is there to save her this time as a rapist with a knife cuts her dress off her, exposes her breasts, slams her into a table, throws her skirt up, and then proceeds to threaten her nipple with her own knife. Claire is left crying on the table with a dagger to her throat as - 

The window shutters swing open to reveal Jamie. Pointing a gun at Randall. Who has a knife to Claire's throat. Who is helpless. End of episode.

So yeah. That second rape scene is most of the reason why I was not eager to recap this episode. While the first rape scene, and let's be perfectly clear that having two rape scenes in a single episode is really testing my endurance here, the first rape scene is told from Claire's perspective. It's shot close on her face. The focus is not on the rape or the rapist, it's on Claire and how she's dealing with the situation. It's not sexy or fun or even thrilling. It's just horrific.

The second rape scene, however, is shot very differently. It's dangerous and meant to be a little exciting. It's not about Claire, it's about Randall. In a lot of ways, Claire is incidental to the scene. In fact, it does everything I hate, by making a scene of rape about the rapist and not the victim. The real point of the scene is just to hammer home how bad of a guy Randall is, not add any illustration to who Claire is. She could be a blowup doll for all the scene does with her.

And, furthermore, taking our fearless heroine, who has been so strong and so amazing and so real so far and reducing her to a woman crying on a desk while her husband whisks in and saves her just feels really insulting. Like all those other episodes were wasted. Like my feelings of joy and pride in Claire and how she deals with the world were wasted. I don't like her in this scene. I don't like the show in this scene.

This article actually sums it up a lot better than I could, but I guess I want to stress, again, the importance of point of view in a story like this. I'm not against the media depicting rape. Rape is a thing that, unfortunately, does happen and has happened throughout human history. So I'm not against it being portrayed in movies and television and other forms of media. I am, however, saying that I very much object to the way it is usually portrayed, and I object to the way it's shown here. 

When Randall assaults Claire, the focus is on him and his power. The focus is not on her. In fact, the episode ends before we ever see the real ramifications of this new trauma in Claire's life. We are given no emotional cues about how she will deal with this. In fact, when Jamie appears to save her, Claire says nothing. It's Randall that responds because, of course, this whole scene is about him.

And that strikes me as not just fundamentally screwed up, but actually morally wrong. This scene should not be about Randall. He is not the main character of this story. More than that, his point of view does not matter. I do not need to see another scene about how a male character is so screwed up he's capable of rape. I don't care. And by showing me this scene from Randall's perspective, the show implicitly states that Claire's perspective, that the victim's place in this, does not matter.

No. Just no, to all of that.

It's a bad note to end on for the next six months. This episode fundamentally disappointed me. There were parts of it I really loved, but I can't love that ending. I have trouble loving the show at all after this. Sure, I'll almost definitely keep watching when it comes back on the spring, but that is one hell of a bad taste to leave in my mouth. Outlander, I expected a hell of a lot more from you.


  1. And, furthermore, taking our fearless heroine, who has been so strong and so amazing and so real so far and reducing her to a woman crying on a desk while her husband whisks in and saves her just feels really insulting.

    It also means the scene isn't even *secondarily* about Claire, but about Jamie. Claire becoming the latest phase in the pre-existing conflict between the two men.

    They manage to fight off the attackers of course, but afterwards Claire is treated to the uncomfortable feeling of having been completely vulnerable. Even worse, the men just laugh the attack off. You can tell it freaks her out a little.

    Also, this part does seem to undermine one of the most interesting parts of the series, that it's Claire who has seen war and violence on a level the people of 1743 couldn't imagine. True, she won't often have been in personal danger - medics were usually respected by both sides - but it's still hard to see an attack like this as set to shake her world.

    1. Oh man, you're right. Claire's feelings and intentions are barely even present in the scene, which is terrible. I liked in the book how the conflict between Jamie and Randall was recontextualized by Claire's presence, because she *refused* to let them exclude her. But that's not happening here.

      I'm not sure how I feel about this scene. Because I can see that experience being frightening for her for a very simple reason: she has no gun or access to one. I can see that freaking her out. But I wish they had emphasized her analyzing the men's wounds or something. Something to remind us of how capable she really is.