To say that The Devil’s Mark was a show bursting at the seams is a gross understatement. I agreed with what Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore said in his podcast; each of three events within it—the trial, the revelation, and the decision—didn’t merit their own episodes but were a challenge to execute within just one. Since the episode aired last Saturday, much has been made about expansions and diversions from the source material. I’m usually a big ol’ fan of these woulda-coulda-shoulda moments on screen, but it’s my opinion that unnecessary, languorous passages nearly suffocated the story line this time around.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
I got the idea for the name of this post in a somewhat flip and passing thought. I’m in full-on geek mode while writing these posts, but I like to keep it light, too. That’s especially true when an episode this heavy is on the docket.
Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
Bismillah! No, we will not let you go. (Let him go!)
It’s a tricky gambit to invoke the much-beloved Bohemian Rhapsody lightly. What’s more, I’m a middling Queen fan at best. I wouldn’t identify as a fan whatsoever, were it not for how awestruck I am by the groundbreaking artistry and singular talent of Freddie Mercury. While arena rock just isn’t my bag, I can absolutely appreciate that what both the band and its lead vocalist created was not only best-in-class, but legendary. Nothing like Queen ever existed before, nor will anything quite like them ever be created again.
I had a minor revelation this week; I’m not acting as a critic with this series I’m writing. A critic recognizes the merit and shortcomings of that which she studies, reflecting on her visceral and intellectual reaction but also dispassionately evaluating the piece on its own merits. Think equal parts Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. and John Keating.
Like those in the Dead Poet’s Society, I’m a student of the writing profession, honing my craft through examining the work of industry leaders Diana Gabaldon, Ronald D. Moore, and the scores of cast and crew members in his charge. I’ve toyed around with how I refer to my work on this site, first calling the essays “recaps,” then “reviews.” They’re neither, I realized. They’re studies. So, here I am, humbly, judiciously sharing my opinions, welcoming discussion and even criticism in the pursuit of greater understanding.
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality
“Fine, but what’s any of this have to do with Bohemian Rhapsody?”
For as long as this iconic rock ballad’s been a part of popular culture, musings and speculations about its meaning have ranged the full spectrum, from Mercury’s own assessment, “random rhyming nonsense,” to full-scale dissertations analyzing every last syllable, drumbeat, and note ad infinitum. Sounds kind of like the volume of blogger-blather on the internet about Outlander, no?
One thing everyone can agree upon: Bohemian Rhapsody is a earworm extraordinaire. Get it in your head, and only two things will get it out: either strong solvent or a more insidious earworm. Eschewing both, I accepted the infestation, electing to finally learn the few lyrics I knew I’d been singing wrong for decades. What I found were a few interesting, coincidental similarities between the song and The Devil’s Mark.
Bismillah means “In the name of Allah” or “In the name of God”), and a shortened form, of the full Arabic Basmala phrase Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim (meaning God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”). Apropos, no? An awful lot is done in this episode in the name of God.
Next I looked up Scaramouche: this stock character in commedia dell’arte wears a predominantly black costume with a white collar. He typically entertains the audience by his “grimaces and affected language” and is often portrayed as “sly, adroit, supple, and conceited.” Because of his propensity to lose his head (literally; commedia is a very physical theatrical form, from which we get “slapstick” comedy today), the name has also has become associated with a class of puppets with extendable necks. Quelle surprise!
While I was on a roll, I looked up Fandango. Before it was a movie ticket app, a WWE wrestler’s name, a ZZ Top album, or the title of countless films, songs, bands, etc., it was a lively Spanish dance in the Flamenco tradition. In today’s nomenclature, a fandango (lower-case) is a foolish or useless act or thing. ¡Muy interesante! There was a lot about this episode that was foolish or useless, both intentionally and not; for the good of our protagonists and for naught.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see
The title card to the episode features a murmuration. I thought this term referred to the transfixing sight of thousands of birds flowing en masse about the skies. That’s not quite the case. Murmuration is simply a group of starlings. If a bunch of these iridescent birds was hanging out and playing darts at the local pub, it would be still a murmuration of starlings. Remember this word at your next Trivia Night—that and some of the other fascinating terms terms for flocks:
- a murder of crows
- a descent of woodpeckers
- a bevy of quail
- a bouquet of pheasants
Anyway… Toni Graphia latched onto this metaphor and rode it as hard as the days-long journey from Cranesmuir to Craigh na Dun.
Murmurations on TV are mesmorizingly beautiful. Murmurations in real life evoke the Tippi Hedren in me. Murmuration is a better metaphor for the synchronized shifts in mob mentality, which we witness, big time, in Episode 111. The context in which the phenomenon is referenced in the episode is more upbeat but less effective. Claire implies that it’s she and Geillis who are the “birds of a feather” who ought to “flock together.” This is a bold, brave thing for these two women to ponder, since neither woman is at all accustomed to trusting other women. Still, it has to be said; way too much time was spent on ornithology this week, and not enough was invested in the episode’s third act.
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Here’s another victim of poor pacing and odd scripting choices this week. I thought the second half of the season was going to be about humanizing Jamie. Not this week, I guess. Donas, Jamie’s horse during this passage in the novel, is a sorrel stallion. In the show, he’s black. “But who cares? No big deal,” you might say, and you’d be right. “I want more,” however. So long as they went with a horse of a different color, why not pick a white one? After all, it would have been more consistent with the unexplained, valiant Disney prince-like manner in which our hero arrives to save our damsel in distress just in the nick of time, plausibility be damned. A simple, “Auld Alec rode all night and the next day to find me, and then I rode like the devil himself comin’ back,” would have gone a long way.
Ach, weel. I’m trying to be “easy come, easy go; little high, little low” about this point, but the fact is, “it does really matter to me, to me.”
Mama just killed a man
Geillis Motherf*cking Duncan wins this episode, or at least the first half. She’s like Severus Snape, William Wallace, and Jake Epping wrapped up into one. Lotte Verbeek embodies what David Grohl said about Freddie Mercury: all the barriers came down.
him his she her life from this monstrosity
The trial was nearly pitch-perfect, in my opinion. They didn’t hold it in the town square, and they didn’t go to the loch or threaten to tie thumbs to toes before throwing the women off a rowboat (the term “sink or swim” has its origins in this witch trial test of old; if the accused sank, they were innocent. And you think our modern justice system needs reform!).
These changes were totally fine by me. The set they chose to use instead was ominous, and I didn’t miss the anachronistic trial mechanisms at all (including the jet rosary, even though I really liked the passage in the novel). Furthermore, we got the inspired line from Bill Paterson’s Ned Gowan about how this entire trial would be illegal under the British law of the time. The way he won the crowd’s sentiment by endorsing the Scottish and Ecclesiastical approach, then forcing his way into the proceedings on those grounds was masterful. I also like that there were only a few key witnesses, rather than the alluded-to rash of cockamamie fever-pitch rants. This passage could have gone the way of a high school production of The Crucible* in less practiced hands.
*The Crucible is the first play in which I ever performed. I’m not making fun of it; believe me. I wrote an essay about Arthur Miller and HUAC for a class in college, too. Mad props for the body of this genius’ work. In the wrong hands, however, it easily becomes cornball city.
Also, Mark Prendergast appearance as Alistair Duffie was well performed but poorly written. The best I can tell, this was a stand-in for the absence of the waterhorse passage. Readers will remember that the drover on the rent expedition saw the Loch Ness Monster. Then, the same guy guy comes to the trial to testify that Claire summoned the creature. The only remotely truthful testimony to that point, the guy is laughed out of the proceedings by Judges Mutt and Jeff.
For as long as it took to get through this silly tirade, the conclusion of it was utterly unsatisfying. After he finishes his absurd diatribe, the judges are all like, “Uh.. Yeah… Okay… Whatever…” I’m reminded of the line Lewis Rothschild (played by Michael J. Fox) delivers in The American President:
Because you dropped the whole kick-ass section, now we’ve got this thing hanging out there.
I have one more beef: Laoghaire MacKenzie, channeling her best Nellie Oleson, bugged me big time, but not for the reason you might think. Nell Hudson’s rendition of this much-abhorred character (homonym totally intended), rivals Alison Arngrim’s bitch-cred any day of the week. My beef is with the believability. Granted, Leery’s track record for good decisions is worse than the Cubs’ World Series record*. Still, I can’t believe that she’d admit to requesting and using the love potion in open court. Even if she would be so foolhardy, wouldn’t the beret’d magistrating duo reign down upon her, too? I guess that if we punish prostitutes but not johns today, then we know from whence the judicial precedent can be traced.
*I’m a die-hard fan; I get to make fun of my Lovable Losers.
In any case, as the mania escalates, Ned concedes that he can only save one of the accused witches, and Geillis delivers her golden line. No lie; I’m going to make t-shirts that say, “I guess I’m going to a fucking barbecue” in big bold letters. We get the 1968 reveal directly from Geillis herself, which Moore explained makes more sense for a visual medium. “You want the dramatic moment to occur in real time, not after the fact.” True. The smallpox vaccination scar gets its due attention, as does the bang-up prosthetic work done to give Verbeek a wholly believable six-month baby bump. I’ll skip poo-pooing the Gangsta Ned bit, because his performance through the rest of the episode was just so spectacular.
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here
Once safely ensconced in the woods beyond Crainsmuir, we have a bit of time left to see what we really came to see in this episode.
And it was spellbinding, at least to start. Not only did the most fervent of fans get the full novel-grade gravity of Claire’s revelations, but we got the re-purposed, powerful “When you do tell me something, let it be the truth.” speech from Jamie. The emotional range that Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe each possess is only matched by the nuanced manner with which they wield this rare talent. This could have been full-on Lifetime/Hallmark/Harlequin-esque. There’s a time and place for such genre acting, but this wasn’t it.
Be there, you know, for her
I almost named this post, “The More You Know,” after the NBC PSAs of the 1990s. The level of Outlander background knowledge a viewer possesses has everything to do with that person reacted to the last act of this episode. If you’re coming to the show with fresh eyes, you were probably ambivalently nonplussed by Claire’s decision to stay in the eighteenth century. You got that, while Frank is a great guy and a serviceable husband, Jamie is Claire’s soulmate. He’s her lobster (another 1990s NBC reference; stick with me, here).
If you’ve ruined your pages of Cross Stitch, chapter 25, with your teardrops and greasy stress-eating fingers, however, then your reaction to how Claire’s anguish at the stones came across was dramatically different. If you know just how distraught Claire was during the hours she spent on the fairy hill among Merlin’s stones, you were probably overcome with emotion while watching it play out on TV. Which emotion, though? The Outlander Superfans (da
Bears Frasers) either got All The Feels or became indignantly outraged by how this episode concluded.
For all of what’s so moving about Claire’s pivotal decision, very, VERY little of it came through on the screen. Don’t blame Toni Graphia, and don’t blame Sam and Cait. Except for spending too much time on the trial, each of them did everything they could within the constraints with which they were presented.
I lay the blame on direction and post-production.
I accept that Moore has made the decision to play down the sci-fi aspects of the story. I think this choice makes Outlander more accessible in TV format, more palatable for a wider range of viewers. Couldn’t Mike Barker have done something to indicate the jarring, soul-crushing sensation Claire experiences when going through the stones, however? The first time we see her travel, there’s a whole car-catapulting sequence dedicated to it. You’re saying we couldn’t have gotten some jangly handheld camera, depth-of-field manipulating, cinematographic fanciness to indicate what it’d be like for Jamie to see Claire start toward the twentieth century? I understand the reluctance, but this show hasn’t shied away from fearless choices, yet. Let’s not begin now.
And really, with the rings already? I’m of two minds on this point. Did we just need more silent time watching Claire walk toward and away from the stones? Did we need flashbacks and voiceover to remind us of what she has at stake? We haven’t lacked for that at any time up to this point! Were these elements left out in the hope that all of the voiceover and flashback in the preceding episodes would suffice? I don’t know what the right way forward would have been, but staring at the rings?? Meh. And Meh is NOT what was called for in this situation.
So I’m a little upset. I’m a fan. If I weren’t a fan, I wouldn’t be so upset. Don’t worry; I’ll get over it. I have my eBook, after all. All the Feels are there, and it’s less susceptible to my teardrops and greasy fingers than a paperback, anyhow. The viewers who let themselves become (like Grohl describes with Mercury) Jamie and/or Claire got the best experience out of the show’s final scenes. Bully for those who were able to do that. I wish I were among your ranks.
Phew! How about breaking the tension of my foul mood with a little Friends humor, eh?
I’d originally captioned these final pictures with Bohemian Rhapsody lyrics, but I couldn’t stand to make light of them. Heughan and Balfe deserve every last bit of acclaim and admiration coming their way. Besides, I did that thing with the caption above. I think I owe them this dignity.
Any way the wind blows.