In my last post, I called attention to the number of parallels among the many Outlander characters’ plot lines. I get to do something similar this week, except instead of plot lines, By the Pricking of My Thumbs delivers a cavalcade of parallel character traits. Namely, we get to see how single-mindedness plays out, for better or for worse, in service of the story.
We’re ten episodes into the season, now. The main characters’ attributes, motivations, and nemeses are largely established. For the most part, the screen adaptations from the novel are not only true to the source material; they enriched by virtue of the visual medium. Whatever few deviations or simplifications there have been, the show has committed to the choices and, essentially, been internally consistent. Ronald D. Moore talked at PaleyFest this April about how, once something new is established on the show, the production is beholden to maintain that new trajectory. This mischief is managed almost entirely, but there are a few instances that leave me a little puzzled as to their purpose and effectiveness.
The Best Part of Waking Up
Scene One is probably the most book-accurate scene of the episode. Butterflies, indeed! Jamie has taken to the ways of love in short order; quite the quick study, he. Let’s just call this the first occasion during the episode in which a character is single-minded in his mission.
Yielding, finally, to Murtagh rapping, rapping at the chamber door, we fast-forward considerably. We miss out on Hamish’s mating inquiries and ill-fated afternoon of steeplechasing, we power on past Jamie’s bee sting and ankle injury, and we skip the foal-birthing. We don’t get the scene when Claire overhears Dougal and Colum on the stair landing, Claire mistaking Laoghaire’s stumbling awkwardness at hearing the conversation to indicate that she might be pregnant by Dougal.
Snaps to Ira Steven Behr for allowing these endearing scenes to remain gifts of the readers in the audience. As the song goes, “Want to know the rest? Hey, buy the rights.” We’ve got a Duke to entreat, and no amount of coitus interruptus will keep Murtagh from moving Jamie along. Note to the writers’ room, however: I would be ever so grateful if we can, somewhere in the remaining episodes, get the line from Colum, “If the brothers MacKenzie have but one cock and one brain between the two of them, then I’m glad of my half of the bargain!”
Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That
We can’t head out before we firmly establish the Sandringham strategy, however. The structure given to this passage is far more detailed than that it is in the book, wherein there is only a nebulous indication that the Duke might be amendable to pleading Jamie’s case for pardon to the King. In the interim, there are a lot of borderline homophobic, definitely pedophilia-implying stories told in the novel about the Duke that are sincerely played down in Simon Callow’s portrayal. This, to me, felt like an accommodation of twenty-first century sensibilities. If the “arse-bandit” shenanigans had been bandied about on screen in a more book-accurate way, they would have been a distraction to the Sandringham plot line. Incorporating just enough of the Duke’s proclivities imparts that Jamie’s youth and physicality are no small factors in winning the Duke’s good favor, without overplaying it.
This is a smart choice. Some critics believe that Sandringham as written is an affront to gay culture, equating the Duke’s homosexuality with his pedophilia. My opinion is this: Diana Gabaldon has written an astounding series of novels that follow the exploits of Lord John Grey, a well-bred, well-mannered, well-respected man whose homosexuality is no more material to his character than Jamie’s or Claire’s heterosexualities are to theirs. Herself is no bigot. While sexual orientation, identification, and preference all factor into characters’ personae, they’re just not that important compared to the myriad strengths, weaknesses, priorities, etc. that truly comprise who a person is.
Gabaldon neither shies away from nor caricatures anyone she writes. The Duke of Sandringham is a slippery figure who plays both sides of politics, favors men sexually, and also has a deviant, horrifying weakness. None of these qualities have much to do with one another, except that they occur in the same individual. Simplifying Sandringham a bit on screen, instead of going full-bore Falstaffian dandy child molester, lets his primary motivation—self-indulgent self-preservation—come through with crystal clarity.
After discussing the matter of Jamie’s pardon request at length with Ned Gowan (here’s another single-minded guy who sure does like to hear his own logical arguments meander toward their conclusions), the solicitor proceeds to take his sweet-ass time drawing up the petition of complaint. We know this because Claire has a whole lotta hours on hand to traipse all over Leoch, Cranesmuir, and the outer reaches of the surrounding foothills before the draft is ready for review and signature.
The Magical Mystery Tour
Claire sure has free rein about the lands now that she’s a Fraser, huh? Does the freedom with which she saunters about castle and countryside seem a bit out of the realm of believability for anyone else? I guess it serves a condensed story line, but I don’t quite buy that she’d be able to cover this much ground without arousing anyone’s suspicions.
Claire’s First Stop: Chez Fitz, whereupon all back-of-house activities can breezily be put on hold, never mind the scores of bannocks to be burned in time for the lunch rush. After all, an impromptu rendition of The Boy Is Mine takes priority. Look, you’ll never find me at a meeting of the Laoghaire Fan Club, but I feel like she’s getting pretty short shrift here. It’s not that I didn’t get thorough satisfaction out of watching her get smacked (a backhand swat with that Lallybrook key/ring would have been that much more so). I think it’s a step too far that Laoghaire admits to placing the ill-wish under Claire and Jamie’s bed, though. “He must have to get himself swine drunk at night before he can stand to plow your fields,” is a too-obvious bit of foreshadowing for the reader audience, too.
No matter; Mrs. Fraser has a schedule to keep. Stop #2 takes us to visit the Flatulant Fiscal. Talk about a caricature. Not that Arthur Duncan was terribly sympathetic in the book, but reducing him to a screaming human whoopie cushion doesn’t make it very easy to fault Geillis for seeking comfort in another man’s arms. Not that it’s necessarily comfort she’s seeking with Dougal, but speculating beyond what’s been shown on TV ranges into spoiler territory.
Bogus Hocus Pocus
Onward to Stop #3, a midnight one-woman staging of The Crucible. Isn’t Claire the Sassenach who had to tie all manner of hair ribbon upon trees to mark her escape route for the night of the Gathering? Apparently becoming a Scot comes with night vision and a tricked-out GPS system. Anyway…
There’s been a fair amount of chatter about this NITB scene. Would we have preferred the book-accurate, edge-of-your-seat, floor-blanket, water-pan, opium-laced scene from the book? With all due respect… meh. I love the visual reference back to the Samhain ritual at the standing stones. Even without the tie-in, Geillis’ dance was absolutely beautiful and chilling (figuratively and literally, wind-whispering being what it is). What’s more, I learned that, for those in the audience up on pagan history, this scene imparts a pretty fascinating bit of early information.
Geillis performed her summoning “skyclad.” Wiccan and other neo-pagan practices encourage disrobing for some ceremonies as a means to better commune with Mother Nature. Therefore, people ranting about this scene’s “gratuitous” nature are somewhat off-base. However, being upset with Geillis’ acorn-like nipples on historic accuracy grounds has some merit. Skyclad ritualism was not a thing in 1743. SPOILER ALERT: It wasn’t common until the early twentieth century! In case you haven’t already guessed, Geillis isn’t done sharing her secrets. Thanks to Kristen of Portland, Oregon for sharing this insight!
One more note on Geillis and witchcraft. Mistress Duncan is not a good witch. I don’t mean this in the Wizard of Oz sort of way.
The main issue is the ill-wish. It’s true that Geillis didn’t know upon whom Leoghaire was planning to use it, and that’s the problem. This bit of stage business is book-accurate, show-replicated, and irritating to those who practice any of the many types of pagan religion. Any witch worth her salt wouldn’t have produced an ill-wish without knowing the intended target. It’s not because all witches are benevolent, although a tenant of the Wiccan Rede, which spells out the moral code of the religion, states, “An ye harm none, do as you will.” It’s because, in order for it to have been effective, the crafter of the ill-wish would need to know the identity of the victim. Thanks to Tracy from suburban Rochester, New York for this intel!
What can we take from this scene, then? Is Geillis a con artist who’s willing to do whatever for whomever so long as money’s on the table? Maybe. It’s more likely that Geillis is sort of a mystical dilettante, picking and choosing elements to practice as her single-minded purposes may dictate. The hubris and ambition Geillis exhibits is also anathema to pagan practice. It’s kind of offensive to some viewers that Geillis’ summoning is somewhat tied to the death of Dougal’s wife, Maura. This insult is similar to that described earlier regarding Sandringham. Neither Gabaldon nor Moore owe equal time to depicting proper pagan practice, any more than they should feel the need to present the full spectrum of homosexual culture. The fact is that both characters are deluded and rather nefarious; both using whatever means necessary to pursue their single-minded ambitious ends.
There’s No Such Thing as a “Trifling Incidental”
(I had to dig pretty deep into the recesses of my geek mind for that title. First person to note the significance wins mad props from yours truly)
Stop #4 was a bit of a detour for Claire, brought about by the cries of a baby abandoned atop a hill. For all the times I would recommend against following Geillis’ advice, this is not one of those times. Leave changelings be. That’s just Heathen Coexistence 101.
I sort of wish that we could have sauntered past this portion of the story, actually. I feel like we’d already established Claire’s penchant for defying both primitive and pious sentiments in favor of modern medicine. What’s more, Book Claire discovers the baby while it’s still alive. It’ll be tough to peg the baby’s death on soon-to-be accused witch Claire’s interference, not that you can’t see that accusation coming from a mile away, regardless. If I’d had my druthers, I would have rather seen Father Bain set upon by wild dogs (because who wouldn’t). The gashes from that NITS encounter become infested because he won’t let Claire tend to them. He calls her on the impropriety of her offer, seeing it as highly disrespectful of him, the very embodiment of The Church. Then, when the gashes inevitably become infected, he chooses to take what she’d offered as a warning as Satan’s curse.
As it stands, seeing Claire mourn the child, and seeing Jamie share in her sadness, looking into the baby’s pallid face while cradling it in his arms, is a heartbreaking visual we will, however painful, file away for Season 2. *Sniff*
Much Ado about Nothing
Stops #5 and #6 cross the line from mildly divergent to just plain preposterous. After Ned’s finally wrapped up his one-pager (granted, quill calligraphy is a tricky and tedious task, remembering a school field trip of mine to colonial Williamsburg circa 1986) we head off to the temporary digs of the Duke. But what’s this? This isn’t who I expected to see taking tea (or, because it’s Claire, booze, natch). Claire’s managed to prance herself on out here, as well. I guess I don’t understand what we gain from this sequence, but there it is. If there’s any silver lining, at least it gives us more screen time with Simon Callow.
Neither do I get the prolonged drunk and belligerent Dougal bit. We already know that Colum has it in for Dougal; was all this flitting about really that necessary? I’m going to retract the statement I made at the beginning of this post. I’ll take a foal-birthing, Hamish-sex-ed-ing, or Donas-breaking scene any day over superfluous and cavalier inventions such as these. Besides, how do Rupert or Angus know what a sedative is all of a sudden?
Finally ensconced back at Leoch, we attend the dinner honoring the Duke. This scene was just as campy as the one that preceded it, but at least it was a means to an end. Arthur dies, and the glances among the characters afterward remind me of The Californians from SNL.
Those who have brushed up their Shakespeare may recall that the “Nothing” in the title of his mid-career comedy is a play on the word Noting. In the play, a sequence of misunderstood messages lead to near-disastrous consequences before all is resolved in the end, with not one but to ineffectual duels and other Elizabethan hilarity. Sound familiar?
I actually liked the duel scene. I had enough with hunting during The Gathering. All the invented business with the MacDonald clan made me snooze a bit, but the puffery was another means to an end. What I didn’t buy was Jamie running his big mouth afterward. I know he was precocious in his youth, but it seems like married Jamie, just on the verge of getting the price lifted from his head, would be able to hold his tongue.
Go Stand in the Corner and Think About What You Did
I felt like the rants, the no-so-furtive glances post-poisoning, and the MacDonald injuries were all invented to give Colum the justification for banishing Dougal and Jamie. This isn’t the pragmantic, reasoned Colum of The Reckoning. This is rash, one-dimensional, and just not as compelling as we’ve come to expect from this show. There’s honing of character and condensing of plot, and then there’s over-simplification such as this. What became of the Book Colum who gave Claire the black jet rosary, after all?
In any case, Dougal, Jamie, et al. are off to bury Maura and cool off, presumably using the time to figure out how to demonstrate the proper amount of contrition. Except…
…it’s also a stark way to get the women, who are screwing with the lives of the two men Colum depends on the most, in a most precarious situation. All that’s left is more noting. In the book, this particular summoning (now meant in the literal, not the mystical sense) is done verbally. This means no paper trail. Wouldn’t a note from Geillis have been wax-sealed? Whatevs. Ours is not to question why, I guess. Claire, as she’s demonstrated throughout the episode, is the chief high priestess of single-minded stubbornness.
Even though our last shot of the episode is of Smug Miss Priss, are we really to believe that she acted alone? The setup certainly fits Leoghaire’s M.O., but I frankly doubt that she’s crafty enough to have pulled this off single-handedly. It would have taken greater power than what she wields to get the wardens to the late Fiscal’s office on cue. Besides, Laoghaire isn’t the only one that stands to gain from what’s transpired. Dangerous times, indeed, mo nighean donn.