There was a flood of new, mainstream reviewers talking about Outlander this week (E! has been on it from the start, but they’re the ones who broke the newest pictures on Thursday, the scintillating one above included). The attention is GREAT news for our series—the payoff for not only a quality show but an extraordinary, inhuman volume of PR work. All of the articles and interviews have boggled my thoughts about last week’s episode, though. It’s tough to take in and process the myriad reactions there were to Lallybroch.
That’s another difference between a television review and a storytelling study (I laid out the main differences, as I see them, in last week’s post). If I claimed to be a true reviewer, reading other critiques before writing my own would be like scamming the exam answers over the shoulder of the brainiac in seat next to mine. As it is, I’m studying how this great story is reaching and affecting its audience, as much I’m examining the adaptation on its own merits. As Maurice Sendak said: “There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.” That’s just as true about good television.
You can have your cake and eat it too, if you choose to
The most vehement opinions, both in support of and disparaging of Lallybroch, are coming from those who read the novels. With each passing week, the “that’s now how it was in the book” outcry is escalating on one side, while the “Everything is Awesome!” automatons on the other side are deriding anyone with anything bad to say. Both reactions are natural, even valid within reason. Viewers, regardless of the book familiarity and life experience they bring to the show, are becoming more invested as the stakes and tensions continue to rise. Deviations from expectations become personal, causing any number of minimizing (“Everything is cool when you’re part of a team!”) and maximizing (How dare my favorite linewith from the novel be omitted from the show, and has anyone noticed that Cait’s too tall and doesn’t have whisky-amber eyes?) defensive patterns. Yes, I went back to my Psych 101 notes to look up those terms.
Recognizing the flagship series for which Basket of Kisses was founded, I think it’s high time to look at how Outlander‘s doing in two psychological categories for which Mad Men set the standard: patient plot weaving and nuanced character development.
Breadth and depth… finally
If any other show on television invested as much time as Outlander in background and exposition, it’d be off the air faster than Murtagh’s courier trip from Crainsmuir to Broch Tuarach (seriously, how did he get there so quickly… and apparently unnoticed since his name goes unmentioned? Dude’s a Highlander Ninja). It’s a bold move to invest as much screen time in the kind of institutional knowledge-building we’ve seen thus far. Non-readers, rest assured that it will all be worth it. Just like the first three episodes of any season of Mad Men, what may seem extraneous now will all fit into place down the road.
I have to offer a mea culpa of my own in this regard. I was one of the louder voices (in my own head if nothing else) on the side of deepening these characters sooner. Jamie’s not a he-man white knight, and Claire’s not an brash, uppity know-it-all, although people new to the story might have mistakenly thought so early on. Just as several story threads were being introduced, the painting of the characters had just begun. And where do you start when you’re painting? Broad strokes. Kudos to the production for walking the line between specificity and forward momentum.
Goin’ back to Lally… I don’t think so
Things are really falling into place, now. Unlike preceding episodes, Lallybroch relied far more heavily upon its audience being up to speed with each character’s back story (in Jamie’s case, literally) in order to introduce a whole new plot line, setting, and cast of characters.
Leading up to their arrival, Jamie couldn’t stop waxing nostalgic about the good, easy times to be had once they strolled into the idyll of his youth. Who among us isn’t guilty of compartmentalizing our memories and repressing the complicating factors? Book-readers know more, but the show has alluded to the fact that Jamie almost lived more of his adolescent and young adult life away from home than within it. For as horrific and extended as his most recent hiatus was, it had been preceded others. He fostered at Dougal’s estate, at Leoch, and was tutored in France, as well. His most lucid memories of his home are more fabricated from childhood fantasy than grounded in reality. Think back to The Wedding, Episode 107. The stories he tells of his family are not just spun tales. They’re legen… wait for it… dary.
Here’s another thing to keep in mind: the book is decidedly from Claire’s point of view. As Winston S. Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” I wonder just how trustworthy, accurate, or complete Claire’s account is of her early days with Jamie. She is telling this story to the audience from the distant but unspecified future, as was established in the voiceover in Episode 1:
I do know this—even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.
It’s possible that Book Claire is as guilty as the rest of us when it comes to diplomatically projecting the fully-realized Jamie upon the one who’s not yet fully come into his own. The screen adaptation has taken a more omniscient approach, letting us see aspects of characters that are skirted in the novel. I don’t think these insightful scenes are wholly invented; they’re not on the page, but indications of Jamie’s thick-headed-ness are certainly between the lines. I think it’s far more believable and compelling to see the arc Jamie follows in this episode, from grandstanding, micromanaging, megalomaniac sycophant (yes, it was that bad) to the trusting, compassionate, benevolent leader to be.
Without dwelling too much on the “is TV Jenny too abrasive” argument, it’s my opinion that she is not only portrayed magnificently by Laura Donnelly, but also entirely book-accurately. All of the focus has been on what she calls Claire, but remember just how gobsmacked and exuberant she was before Jamie put his large foot in his mouth.
Jenny is an Alpha Female. She’s not only had run of the household in Jamie’s absence; she’s essentially been the matriarch of Broch Tuarach since she the age of ten. She is the one who proposes marriage to Ian, something most women wouldn’t have the guts to do in the twenty-first century, let alone the eighteenth. She carries just as much guilt, fear, and anger as Jamie, but she’s not had the luxury of physical distance from the place where some serious atrocities took place. What’s worse, she wasn’t present for Jamie’s floggings or her father’s death. While that might be regarded by some as a blessing, she’s been left to conjure and brood about the events, alone. What the mind can invent can be worse than the reality itself.
He took what out? It. He took It, Out? Yessiree Bob.
I really don’t have anything to add to the volumes of praise, criticism, and contempt levied upon the choice to show Tobias Menzies’ flaccid penis on television. I’m in awe of his bravery, seeing as how it wasn’t even scripted per se. I’m grateful that everyone up the chain of command recognized that it wasn’t the least bit gratuitous and entirely integral to the scene. I praise the stylized enhancing of the red tones of the overall scene in post-production. All of this assures me that the production will be just as brave, inventive, yet careful with the depiction of the horrors to come.
As for the invented scene in which Jamie castigates Claire for crossing his word in front of his sister, I’m just this side of okay with it. He’s not entirely in the wrong, but I think even this Jamie would have expressed himself more adeptly, without having to haul Claire out of the room. I’m surrendering to this being the first among many missteps Jamie makes during the next half hour— the dinner, the rent collecting, the handling of Ronald MacNab, et al.
Besides, we get that great scene in which Jamie transitions from the child getting to play with daddy’s toys, on to recounting the heartbreaking story of having been toyed with. Could we have done with a little less flashback to the flogging? Maybe a tad, but no matter. We needed to see Black Brian’s love, desperation, and apoplectic attack.
Keeping the production schedule-imposed TV chronology, the Quarter Day on which Jamie reassumes his lairdship coincides with the day of the feast of the Purification, or the Presentation of Christ. That’s no small coincidence, huh? The day also has a bit of folklore associated with it:
If Candlemas Day is clear and bright, winter will have another bite. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.
Okay, campers, rise and shine! Don’t forget your booties; it’s the historic predecessor of Groundhog Day! To read into this seeming coincidence a bit further, remember that the movie Groundhog Day is about a man who’s doomed to relive the same day over and over until he can manage to live life as he’s meant to live it, true to himself and in tune with the universe. Boom.
Won’t you try just a little bit harder? Couldn’t you try just a little bit more?
The scene at the mill is an Eat Your Cake moment. Pitch-perfect, short of Jenny standing in for Grannie MacNab (and her “saft in the heid” line), and short one pair of red flannel drawers, this had everything book-readers could want. The added bonus was that Jenny finally realized the full extent of Jamie’s suffering, at what she assumes was the expense of her cavalier treatment of Black Jack Randall.
Raa Raa Rass! Kick ’em in the other knee!
I’m lucky enough to have the coolest brothers- and sisters-in-law. The in-law relationship dynamic deserves more psychological exploration like the scene between Ian and Claire. No one knows quite how it feels to be both fully accepted and yet somewhat removed during family occasions quite like those who married in. I love that this exchange is moved from the beginning of the episode to this point. It organically prompts Claire to do what she’s been struggling to do since they’d arrived: take charge.
Who’d have thought they’d lead ya back here where we need ya
I don’t want to belabor the point (you’ve stuck with reading this article this long—don’t want to take undue advantage), but this is a prime example of how investing yourself in the drama, trusting in the showrunner’s vision and the talent of all those in his stead, can pay off. If we had any doubts about either Jenny’s warmth or Jamie’s potential, both were allayed in this scene. These two actors are, in this moment, brother and sister, with all of the history, complication, strength and love that go along with it.
Where you are is where I belong
While I’m devoting some of my time each week to re-reading the relevant passages of Outlander to compare and contrast to the TV version, I don’t think that dropping a line or two is any great offense or tragedy. Leaving some dialogue on the page keeps it precious to me. I can hear the lines delivered in whatever tone of voice I want, with whatever inflection, as many times as my eyes care to consume them. What’s more, the lines we do get have all the greater impact when imbued with such layered, engaging, performance as we’re getting from the entire ensemble. What Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe can do with a raised eyebrow, jutted chin, or smirky grin more than encapsulates what would otherwise take a healthy chunk of time to communicate verbally.
Rebecca, an Outlander fan in Houston summed it up perfectly, saying, “I’m able to separate the books from the show, it’s really interesting to hear how incredibly difficult it actually is to adapt Diana Gabaldon’s written words for the show. I understand why Episode 112 had more “drama” than what was in the books. I find it affirming that the writers, at least Anne Kenney, write pretty much what is in the books, but as they start shooting the scenes, what is written doesn’t necessarily translate for the actors or for the production so tweaking of the script is necessary. The podcasts really make me appreciate how hard everyone that has anything to do with this production works. They feel the weight of satisfying so many fans of Diana Gabaldon’s written words.”