Wednesday, August 12, 2015

RECAP: Outlander 1x09 - Jamie vs. Twentieth Century Marriage

Yeesh. Okay, I realize this article is coming a little late to the party. I wanted to get back into recapping the second half of Outlander's first season a while ago, but I kept butting up against a frustrating problem. Namely, I kept trying to recap this episode, then remembering what happens in this episode, and then chickening out.

The problem is that for all that Outlander has a genuinely impressive track record with how it portrays sex and sexuality, and for all that it tackles incredibly complex issues in the book and in the show, there are still some storylines that are hard to talk about. And this episode contains one of the main ones. So, you know, heads up! This episode deals pretty explicitly with differing interpretations of domestic abuse based in very different time periods and cultural contexts. A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend.

For those of you coming late to the party, Outlander is a new-ish TV show adaptation of the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. It follows WWII nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) as she accidentally travels through time from her second honeymoon in 1945 to the wilds of colonial Scotland in 1743. Trapped in the past with an incredibly hostile group of Scots who hate the English and a very suspicious English government that has no idea where she came from, Claire has to use all of her wits and memory of history to survive. And, hopefully, she can manage to get herself back to the place where she traveled through time. Maybe if she does, she'll be able to get back home.

The first half of the season, which aired in the fall*, Claire was still trying to find her footing in 1743. She fell in with the MacKenzie clan who offered her some level of protection but remained incredibly suspicious of her. She also managed to make a dangerous enemy in Captain Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies), the English soldier making hell for the Scottish in their home country. In order to keep her safe, Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) decides to make Claire an honorary Scottish citizen.

The only way to do that, though, is for Claire to marry a Scot. And the only Scot available just happens to be the sweet, sensitive, brash, and prone to flinging himself into the face of danger Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). So Jamie and Claire get married. At first Claire is horribly conflicted because she is actually already married in her own time period. Her husband, Frank (also Tobias Menzies), is a good man and she misses him a lot. But this is a matter of survival, so she goes with it.

And then, in the final episode of the first half of the first season, where we left off, Claire has her first opportunity to slip away from the MacKenzies and make for the hill where she traveled back through time. She finds and opening and runs for it and just when she's almost there....she's grabbed by some English soldiers and taken back to Fort William so that Captain Jack Randall can threaten her with rape. The season ends on a shot of Randall holding Claire down and Jamie coming in through the window to try to rescue his wife.

So! How does the season pick back up?

We open up on Jamie's side of the events from last episode. See, he was off doing his own thing while Claire ran away. He was meeting with an informant who might be able to prove that he didn't commit the murder he's accused of. So we come back in on Jamie's meeting with this informant, only for it to be interrupted by news of Claire's capture.

Jamie is a good man. We already know this, but it's laid out very clearly here. He's a good man who loves his wife, for all that he does not understand her. When he hears that she's been captured he quickly abandons his meeting, even if it could set him free from his dangling sentence, and goes to rescue her.

The problem comes when he actually finds Claire and saves her and gets her out. He's now done even more things to make the English hate him while losing the only lead he had on getting a pardon, all for the sake of a wife who doesn't seem overly happy to be found. What the hell?

It's nice to give us Jamie's perspective on all of this, but it makes what happens next a bit hard to swallow. I mean, obviously, once Jamie and Claire reach an open space they're going to have a fight. He told her to stay put, so obviously she should have, right? It's 1743. Women are to do as they are told by their husbands.

But from Claire's perspective, Jamie is mildly psychotic and unreasonable. She went for a walk in the woods. She didn't ask for those British soldiers to find her. In fact that's really the opposite of what she wanted. And she hates the idea that Jamie can just tell her what to do because he's her husband. Hell no. Claire doesn't need anyone telling her what to do or who to be. She's her own damn person, thank you very much.

This doesn't go over great with Jamie.

The whole episode, as it turns out, is really an examination of this idea. How can Jamie and Claire, who really do love each other, reconcile their very complex and completely different ideas of what a marriage should be? Claire comes into this with her understanding of twentieth century advances in women's rights and the legal protections for women in marriage, but Jamie is the one whose time they are in. So should Claire's beliefs prevail or should she bow to Jamie's understanding because his fits the cultural paradigm?

The show doesn't have a good answer. The book, interestingly enough, does. The book suggests that it's Claire who should change and accept her husband for who he is. She should just let go and admit that it's a very different time than she's used to and go with it. But the show doesn't agree. It just leaves it all a mess and lets you the audience figure it out.

This is an important topic and worth discussing largely because it's one that we still face. When people marry across cultures, they have to figure out how to reconcile disparate interpretations of what marriage is and should be. Who is right? Who should win that argument? Should there be a clear winner?

This whole episode focuses very much on that issue. Once Jamie and Claire have finished hashing out the main argument between them - that she abandoned him and got him into trouble, or, alternately, that he's overreacting to a freaking accident and that he doesn't get to order her around - they still have to deal with their relationships with all of the men around them. Claire and Jamie, after all, are on a trip with a bunch of MacKenzie men. Those men risked their lives to go save her, and now they're genuinely pissed with her. She's lost all of the goodwill she'd earned from them. And so Jamie seeks to make that right.

Unfortunately, this is where the episode gets into really problematic territory. See, from Claire's perspective, she and Jamie are good. They talked through their differences, they communicated, they apologized, they fought, and now there's no problem. But from Jamie's point of view, she still needs to be punished. That's how this works, to his mind. You do something wrong, and then your superior punishes you. In Claire's case and in Jamie's mind, that means him. He's her husband. He's responsible for her. And that means he needs to punish her for getting them all in trouble.

Claire is not okay with this.

It's hardly the most brutal scene of domestic violence you'll see on television this year - that award pretty much always goes to Game of Thrones - but it's arguably more intense for how much it feels off tone for this show. Up until this point Jamie and Claire have been getting along quite amiably. They're nice people and they like each other and they have a lot of very good sex. But now Jamie finds it necessary to beat Claire with his belt, and she considers this abuse. She fights back, hard.

Again, it's the problem of dealing with issues across cultures. From Jamie's perspective, this is exactly what he should be doing. His wife disobeyed, she must be punished. From Claire's point of view, though, this is a betrayal of violence from someone she genuinely trusted. And it's hard to get past that.

Now, granted, Claire's punishment does have some immediate effects in her relationship with everyone in the group. The men are perfectly happy to accept her again now that she's been punished. They lightly rib her about it for a while, but it's clear they're cool with her now. But Claire? She's pissed. She's roiling with anger. Her husband hit her. She is going to end him.

So, in the name of all convenient timing, they come back to Castle Leoch to find all the castle's residents there to cheer for them and have a party to celebrate their marriage. Claire is not in the mood. But she's also not about to offend all these nice people. So she plays along.

There are some other plotlines that intervene her for a moment: Colum MacKenzie, Dougal's older brother and leader of the MacKenzie clan, interrogates them all about how their tour of MacKenzie lands went; Laoghaire, a girl who was definitely into Jamie, confronts him about going off and getting married to some random Englishwoman; Colum finds out that Dougal collected money for a Jacobite rebellion and is pissed; the men punish the guy they think tattled on them; and so on.

But the main bulk of feeling and plot stays with Claire and Jamie and their currently incredibly tenuous marriage. That night, when Jamie tries to get into bed with Claire, she's definitely not in the mood and banishes him to the floor. Jamie really can't understand why she's still pissed at him. Ugh.

The problem with all of this is that Jamie is a genuinely likable and kind man. He is really trying to be the best husband to Claire that he knows how to be. But he doesn't really know how to do that outside of his cultural context. It's a very limited framework and Jamie is doing the best he can. That's just not good enough.

What's brilliant, then, is how Claire comes back at him for his betrayal. When Jamie has finally come to an understanding that his marriage with Claire doesn't have to be like his parents' marriage, he comes to her and swears he'll give Claire his fealty. He swears never to raise his hand against her again. So, she tests him.

They have reconciliation sex and she's accepting of his offer to swear fealty to her. But then in the very middle of sex, when Jamie is at his most vulnerable, she grabs his knife and holds it up to his throat. Will he swear, absolutely swear, not to raise a hand to her again? Will he?!

Fortunately for Jamie he does swear.

I was hesitant to recap this episode because domestic abuse is such a hard and unpleasant topic. And the way it's dealt with here makes it even more complicated than usual. There's no obvious bad guy. Jamie might have outdated morals but he's not a terrible person. And while Claire is very understandably pissed off, we the audience can see how her actions look from the outside. How is Jamie supposed to know that Claire comes from a completely different cultural paradigm if she hasn't told him?

The episode ends well, with Claire and Jamie having finally settled all of the problems between them, but it's hard to get there. I like that it ends on Jamie coming to understand without Claire having to tell him that a marriage where the husband beats the wife when she does something wrong is bad. It's really good that he figures that out without having to be told. But that doesn't make this an easy episode to watch. It's still a story about likable, lovable Jamie becoming a monster in his marriage.

And while Claire does get her own back at the end and we finish the episode with their marriage stronger than ever before, it's still clearly going to be a problem going forward. They live in an unjust time when women do not have rights. Claire refuses to take that lying down and now she has Jamie on her side. But that doesn't make the time more just.

I don't know. This was a hard episode to come back on. I really do like that the show is confident enough in its writing and actors to leave so much feeling unresolved, but that means it all feels unresolved. Hmmph.

At any rate, we're back recapping Outlander again, for better or worse! Hopefully next week will be easier.

*And you can read the recaps starting here!

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