Writing these reviews months after the episodes’ premier dates gives me a certain latitude, but it’s not without its challenges. Sure, I have hundreds of blogs, podcasts, “behind the scenes” clips and deleted scenes at my disposal. I’ve also had this time to mull the show over in my mind, and I also have the benefit of having seen the episodes that follow this one. I know how they function in concert with one another.
On the other hand, having all of this at my disposal raises the stakes a bit. If all I do is talk about the “literal gut punch,” “getting kicked when you’re down,” or the stereotypically foppish snobbery of the garrison officers, then I’m wasting your reading time and my writing time. Nearly every blog I’ve read about The Garrison Commander has included a phrase to the effect of “this was the hardest episode to review.” I agree with that sentiment, but my reasons go beyond how hard it was to tolerate watching the mental and physical anguish play out.
For one thing, little of what appears on the screen, save the last scenes with Dougal and Claire at the spring and the marriage contract review, occur in the novel near-verbatim. The dinner scene and ensuing amputation are entirely new, and the conversation between Jack and Claire is largely expanded and somewhat reappropriated. Within the parameters of this blog’s stated intent—comparing and contrasting book vs. television—it’d be a easier, shorter list to bulletpoint what’s the same rather than what’s different. Easier’s not why I’m writing, however, and I don’t think it’s what you’re here to read, either. I’m not here to nit-pick; I’m studying the art of storytelling in its various forms, using Outlander as my laboratory.
I think about the vested interest people have when they choose to read a book, as opposed to choosing to watch a television show. To pick out a book, pay the price, and invest hours of leisure time devouring it, you have to be pretty dedicated. On the other hand, television is practically free, immediately available at any time, and anonymous. To hook a television viewer, you not only have to produce compelling content, but you also have to deliver it in a more accessible, digestible manner. Outlander readers are far more likely to have some affinity, if not familiarity with Scottish and British history, for instance, so the amount of background information required is not quite as great as that needed by the viewer. Readers are willing to roll with it because we’re invested. Television viewers may need a little more assistance.
My assertion is that The Garrison Commander is a treat for the viewer who’s read the books. It deepens the Gabaldon world, and it foreshadows what we know is coming without spoiling the experience for those who haven’t read the story. For the viewer with fresh eyes, the episode is foundational, conveying what this audience needs in terms of context in order to process the events that are to come. By not pulling punches (pun only slightly intended) in the depiction of Jamie’s flogging, Jack’s intellectual perversions, and even Dougal’s respect for the interplay of mysticism and practical sensibilities, writer Ira Steven Behr sends the message: if you’re squeamish or skeptical now, best be changing the channel; I’m sure there’s a rerun of Home Improvement somewhere on the dial.
Behr’s pedigree is solidly sci-fi, with Twilight Zone, Star Trek (DS9 & TNG), Dark Angel, and The 4400 among his credits. The science fiction genre, in books as well as on any screen, demands that you invest yourself in understanding the world as presented on its own terms, which is why devotees are so passionate and loyal. Viewers of Outlander who’ve tuned in for the period tropes, romance, or speculative elements are put to the test by this episode. Watching Outlander means accepting all of what comprises the story, and that’s going to include some pretty depraved stuff. The line Jack delivers at the end of his wrenching reliving of Jamie’s second flogging says it all: “Truth carries a weight no lie can counterfeit.”
If Rent is about Claire accepting that the Highlanders aren’t her enemies, then The Garrison Commander is about learning who is. This is a tough lesson for an English woman, especially one who’s spent the last seven years of her life in the ranks of the British Army. Consider all of the ways in which Claire, and we by extension, are lulled into the comfort of a costume drama mindset, just to be yanked back from the action to see the scene again from an objective distance.
- The Brockton setting hits all of the expected notes, what with the spitting soldier, the sneering Dougal, and the “who’s the Outlander now?” voiceover. We get it; the tables have turned. After the idyllic horseback ride into town, we’re led to a literal table in an inn altogether different from Claire accommodations the previous evening. The scene is British History Personified—venison, claret, lobsterbacks, and and wigs as far as the eye can see, harpsichord parlor music completing the tableau. We even get the requisite haughtiness in the form of base, overdone Scottish insults, Dougal’s response to which is equally banal and sullen. Enter Jack. He is filthy, wigless, boorish, and disdainful, made to look the fool twice within a matter of moments. Our nerves are on edge, but we rest assured that Claire has the upper hand over both her dinner companions and assailant… not so fast, however.
- Jack sees right though Claire and manages to manipulate her into some treasonous territory within a matter of moments. Who would suppose that news of an arm to amputate would be welcome relief? Claire rushes down to the pub and flips the tables herself, not only by ordering Dougal to “make himself scarce” (hearkening back to the occasions that the lowly “wanted man with a price on his head” Jamie has had to do the same) but also by taking charge of the makeshift surgical table. We’re reminded of the scene from the first episode, when stepping away from a similar operation leads directly to the news that World War Two has ended. Can stepping away from this table lead to similarly good news… ‘fraid not.
- It seems as if, while Claire was gone, the garrison commander and his dragoons have set off to capture the perpetrators of whatever led to the injuries to which she had just been attending. Plausibility notwithstanding, Jack has decided that this an opportune time to have a shave administered by poor Corporal Hawkins. This bit of stage business serves to reveal an heirloom with which Claire is intimately familiar…
- …Cut to an intimately familiar flashback, she using the very blade at the neck of her husband’s ancestor to shave his doppelganger, Frank, the two in dappled light and states of undress. Just as Chekhov’s gun must be fired, Jack’s face must be nicked, and Hawkins must be threatened. While disturbing to be sure (cue the ominous violins), this is a predictable progression of events. Once Hawkins is dismissed and scampers away, and once the claret is poured from the window, we’re left to see the few pages of book-derived script play out. Jack is quick, but Claire is somewhat quicker… or so we think.
- Except that the writers, masterfully, reassign the job of telling Claire about the flogging from Dougal, who in the book tells the story to gain Claire’s sympathy for Jamie, to Jack himself. We already know the gist of what happened at Fort William from Jamie’s point of view, but to truly understand the events that are to come in the show’s second half, we need to know exactly how twisted and dark Black Jack really is. He’s no simple rapist, boor, bully, or interrogator… what’s worse…
- …he’s aware of his own depravity and struggles with the loss of whatever shreds of humanity he might have once possessed. Remember that Claire knew something of Black Jack’s reputation before stepping through the stones. Everything she’s seen so far has disappointingly lived up to that reputation, but not even she could have anticipated either the depths of his evil or the self-awareness that rarely accompanies such evil. This revelation isn’t in the book until much later. Readers know how this scene ends. Seeing it play out somewhat differently than we expect, and seeing he has no wig to be left crooked, we wonder whether the climax of the scene will be changed as well… no such luck.
- Not only does Jack punch Claire, but he kicks her and then orders Corporal Hawkins to do so. Yanking her head perilously far back, Jack whispers his confession to Claire. He knows he’s a monster and has accepted his monstrousness. “I dwell in darkness, Madam, and darkness is where I belong.”
- The sequence of how Claire exits the room and Dougal confronts Jack are somewhat altered on screen, thus keeping all of the characters confined in the same ominous space. Once departed and back on the road, Dougal takes Claire to St. Ninian’s spring. Drinking the sulfurous waters, Dougal asks Claire once again whether she’s a spy. Once he sees that her gizzard isn’t being burned out and is assured of her honesty, he reveals his plan to change her from an English woman to a Scot. Apart from the “grinding corn” remark, it’s straight from the novel.
- Apart from the discussion happening at the inn and a few minor stage directions, the conversation between Jamie and Claire about the arrangement that’s been made is straight from the book, as well.
Without giving too much away now, there will be plenty of time to talk about sadism and the particular manifestation of it in Black Jack Randall. Suffice it to say for now that the sexual gratification that a sadist draws from inflicting pain doesn’t have to come from pain inflicted sexually, or even bodily. Black Jack was just as aroused by creating the “exquisite, bloody masterpiece” itself as he is by seeing how the retelling of the story devastates Claire. It’s not going to be just a violent series of episodes to come. It’s going to be a cerebral juggernaut.