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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Outlander: The Garrison Commander

This episode certainly began on an ominous note, for slipped in between the ending of the opening credits and a short repetition of last week’s final scene was a panning shot over a red coat and a razor; two objects that are highly emblematic of a certain character and suggestive of what is to follow.

Having been approached and detained by an English garrison, Clare cannot help but feel more at ease. And you can’t blame her for this; it’s human nature to be more comfortable among your own people, and despite the significant gap in time periods, it still is much less of a culture shock to dine with a group of English men. She knows how to be charming and gracious to a room of like-minded people.

But the clever thing about this episode is that her feelings of belonging gradually eroded over the course of her time with the English, until once more she is swept out into the safety and acceptance of the Scottish Highlands instead.

Even more remarkable is that a good 90% of this episode took place in a single building; a single room in fact. It is the most modern we’ve seen yet, a far cry from the gloomy halls of Castle Leoch, with wallpaper, rich furnishings, and pictures on the wall. It's not a million miles away from resembling a contemporary dining room, which makes it all the more disturbing when we see what goes on inside it during the course of the episode.

When Claire ushered into the room she’s showered with amiable attention and warmth by General Thomas; though he is simultaneously rude and hostile to Dougal, insulting his accent and attire.

Yet there’s an interesting perspective in how Clare handles this situation and the way the room responds to it – when she scolds Dougal and Thomas for acting like children, she’s tolerated; even indulged. She’s playing the part of the disapproving school marm; a role that these men recognize and value. It’s they that are disrupting the mode of behaviour she symbolizes: refinement and civility, and they apologise accordingly.

But later on in the dinner, after Dougal has left for the tavern, she speaks out against the treatment of the Scots and is met with a much different reception. Stony silence greets her outspoken opinions on politics, for now she is the one encroaching on their territory. It is not simply that she is a woman (though one of the men present cannot help but comment on it), but also due to her more modern viewpoint on borders and ownership.

To a woman who has just lived through WWII, her understanding of land and territory is conceptualized by the words “theirs” and “ours”. For this room full of soldiers, the Scottish Highlands is the property of the English monarch. Claire is an outspoken woman even in her own time, and now she’s crossed a definite line by entering a realm of discussion that she's not welcome to hold an opinion on.

Then of course we get an unpleasant visit from Jack Randall, who immediately recognises Claire from their altercation in the forest.

I initially felt that Claire seemed far too antagonistic and fiery around a man who had attempted to rape her (it’s okay to let her show fear and vulnerability in such a scenario) but then I conceded that she’s probably still confused over the fact that he’s the splitting image of her husband; is in fact his ancestor.

So what follows in their interactions is a rather heart-rending attempt from Claire to establish a rapport with this otherwise loathsome man; reminded every moment of her own loving husband. A quick flashback establishes a further link between them: Claire witnesses Randall getting shaved, and recalls a similar time in which she did the same to Frank (told you that razor was symbolic!)

Credit has to be given to Tobias Menzies for differentiating between Frank and Jack so thoroughly – they speak, move and even look different despite being – you know, the same actor. It’s not quite a Tatiana Maslany level transformation, but then again, it shouldn’t be. There needs to be enough of a resemblance beyond the physical for Claire to let her guard down around him.

Having found in him the empty dining room, what can only be called a “casual interrogation” follows. Randall is convinced that she’s a spy of some kind, and having already played the part of the English Rose for the benefit of the other Englishmen, Claire now slips into the role of Lovelorn Fool. She spins a story about how she followed a man to the Highlands, another acceptable role for a woman, but uses her true emotions to infuse it with sincerity. In between her lines of loving a soldier only to find that he was cruel and unworthy is her own experience of following Frank to Scotland and finding Jack Randall instead. Naturally, he doesn’t buy her story for a second.

It’s uncomfortable watching how Randall owns the room; how the two of them partake in a sinister game of musical chairs as they move about, with Randall deliberately sharpening a pencil with his knife and sketching her portrait (I initially assumed it was to cross-check her story with the officers, but perhaps it was just to unnerve her) before sharing his own story.

He describes flogging Jamie in erotic terms (exploding, shaking, fluttering are but three of the adjectives in his monologue) but manages to fool Claire into thinking he’s ready to change over a new leaf. And once again, Claire slips into a role, this time as the typical “missionary”, the type of woman that so often likes to rehabilitate broken men.

Of course, this is born out of Jack's likeness to her husband and her recognition of what sounds like PTSD, but for a second there it really feels as though she loses her centrality in the narrative; that by offering Jack her sympathy and comfort the scene becomes more about him than her.

And how many times have we seen a female character become subsumed by her desire to “save” a man from himself? You certainly feel the first hint of that when she begins to insist upon his capacity for redemption. Suddenly the scene revolves around his experiences.

And yet Frank is playing with her just as surely as she initially tried to play him. He certainly doesn’t regret flogging Jamie and his sadistic streak is demonstrated when he promises to take her to Inverness, ascertains that she’s happy about it, and promptly punches her in the stomach when she stands.

I half expected it, and it was still pretty shocking.

While on the floor he orders one of his underlings to kick her, and in a strange way I find this sort of snivelling coward (who reluctantly obeys) to be worse than Randall. That youth, however cowed he may be and however much he believes he has to follow orders, knows on a fundamental level that kicking a woman is a terrible thing to do – you can tell by the expression on his face. But he did it anyway. Though we know next to nothing about this character, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of how easy it is to do something terrible simply because we’ve been told to.

But luckily Dougal is at hand to stop things getting further out of hand. I would appreciate this newfound rapport between the two of them more were it not for that damn altercation in the corridor of a few episodes ago. My only choice at this point is to pretend it never happened. And you don’t need me to explain the implications of that.

But he also comes up with a plan that will keep Claire out of English hands: marry a Scotsman. Jamie in fact – who has been absent for most of this episode, another fantastic reminder that though he’s technically the leading man, this is Claire’s story and he is her love interest. And another fun subversion in their courtship is established – only one of them is a virgin, and it’s not the heroine.

So it ends on Claire agreeing to marry Jamie in order to protect herself from Randall. From her attempt to connect with the man whose hereditary line will eventually lead to the birth of her husband springs the irony of her having to marry another man in order to protect herself from him; eventuating in the very unfaithfulness that Frank himself half-expected of her back in the very first episode. On the heels of Doctor Who, I can’t help but feel that this is a time-travelling trope at work, though on a much more subtle level than anything to be found in that other sci-fi show.

As it happens, this may well be my final Outlander review. Though I’ll continue to watch and no doubt post my final thoughts at the show’s conclusion, I only ever started in order to tide myself over until Sleepy Hollow returned – and since there’s only so many hours in the day, I’m going to put this one on the backburner for a while.
 

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