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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Outlander: The Reckoning and By The Pricking Of My Thumbs

Hey, look what's back! I was a casual viewer of Outlander for the duration of its first half, but there was something about the premise and atmosphere that drew me in. That's despite its heroine being menaced almost every episode by the threat of rape.


I was initially under the impression that this second half of the series would focus more on Jamie, what with Sam Heughan suddenly taking over narration duties from Caitriona Balfe, and the depiction of Claire's rescue from his point-of-view, all leading up to the moment in which he bursts through Jack Randall's window with a pistol aimed at his head.
The switch immediately lent itself to more scenes of the menfolk discussing politics behind closed doors, but come By The Pricking of My Thumbs, we've returned to Claire's perspective. I'm not entirely sure why the writers swapped protagonists, however briefly, but hopefully Claire will remain the show's focus from this point on. If nothing else, the brief sojourn from her point-of-view only demonstrated how necessary she is as the show's anchor.
Another point of contention is of course: the spanking scene. I almost feel like that should be in capital letters considering I knew of its existence and the effect it would have on viewers without having even read the book. It's currently a subject of rife discussion in various message-boards, but at this point I feel it's been dissected to the point of exhaustion. The audience initially baulks at what's going on; this reaction is counterpointed by arguments of "historical accuracy", this in turn is met by the reasoning that Starz made a conscious decision to include it, which is then rebutted by the claim that "you're judging it through 21st century eyes" – it just goes on and on, argument after argument, spiralling down into the abyss.
So I'm offering no opinion on the subject, save that it was probably too famous a scene from the book to leave out, and that the show clearly tried to play it for laughs what with the jaunty soundtrack. Take from it what you will, and let's move on.
For me at least, what was a more disappointing inclusion was the (perhaps inevitable) Woman Scorned angle. When Laoghaire learns that Jamie and Claire have been married, she offers herself to the former and places an ill-wish under the latter's side of the bed. I realize Outlander was published back in the 1990s, but the trope just seems hopelessly outplayed by now, especially with the girl's evil little smirk as she watches Claire and Geillis being carted away after setting them up on charges of witchcraft.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The highlight of these episodes was the return of Geillis and the introduction of the Duke of Sandringham, for this show is a gift to its supporting cast. Ask yourself, who is having more fun:
Simon Callow, flitting beautifully between officious charm and dark threat?
Or Lotte Verbeek, cheerfully overplaying her coy-yet-wide-eyed-innocent demeanour?
From the Duke of Sandringham Jamie hopes to have his named cleared by accusing Jack Randall of what can only be called gross misconduct, relying on the Duke to take a petition to government. For now nothing about this plot-thread is resolved – Sandringham has the petition and Claire has used her foreknowledge of Frank's ancestry to dabble in a spot of blackmail when it comes to pointing out Sandringham's double-dealings with both Randall and the Jacobites – so for now we must simply wait on events.
More pertinent is the reappearance of Geillis and the realization that she's been carrying on an affair with Dougal (married and making advances toward Claire, the cad!) The scene of her dancing in the trees was beautifully shot, especially in the way the editing forged the connection between past and present by reminding Claire of the dancers at the standing stones, and how the custom has been passed down through the years.
They've certainly enjoy spotlighting women's breasts in these episodes (heck, Claire and Geillis actually took a few moments to discuss the latter's nipples) which is leading me to regret earlier comments about how the show caters to the female gaze. That said, there was something undeniably amusing about Geillis casually reclining half-naked on the forest floor in front of Claire without a care in the world.
It remains to be seen just how much supernatural power Geillis actually commands. Dougal's display of grief at news of his wife's death was clearly an act to divert suspicion from himself, suggesting that perhaps he was behind it, just as Geillis oversold her hysterical screaming when Arthur Duncan finally drops dead. Colum and Claire weren't fooled for an instant by these performances (an interesting link between the two of them) though Geillis is a hard one to read when it comes to her true intentions.
I found myself asking whether she's a true friend to Claire, as surely she could have made an educated guess as to who would be the recipient of Laoghaire's ill-wish, and Lotte Verbeek really lays it on thick with her affected innocence. I'm sure her overemphasize of the "virtuous seductress" is a deliberate acting choice, since it became all the more striking when she drops the act on hearing the charges of witchcraft, but it certainly leaves her conduct and disposition open for interpretation.  
Miscellaneous Observations:
It was a chilling scene in which Claire discovers the abandoned baby just a few seconds too late, once again driving home the Values Dissonance between her time and this one, but one that was somewhat disconnected from the rest of the episode. Until this moment, I had forgotten all about Claire's melancholy in not being able to have a child with Frank.
Another disconnect (though on a personal level) was the sudden reveal of Sandringham's beautiful manor house. It's interesting how different places/periods conjure up different atmospheres in our mind's eye – for me at least all the scenes in Scotland feel gritty and dangerous and uninviting, whereas the first sight of Sandringham's house brought to mind the courtliness of a Jane Austen novel: all drawing rooms and balls and card games.
If something was missing in these two episodes it was the continuation of Claire's search for the standing stones – or at least the fallout of her just missing them. Up until this point she's been conflicted on whether or not to return to her own time through the stones' power, yet after coming within a hair's breathe of them before the season break, we're left with no indication of how she currently feels about the situation. After complaining this long about the intrusiveness of the voiceover monologues, I now feel a little bereft without them to explain what's going on in Claire's head!
Still, it would appear that the show is leaving this element behind. If memory serves, most of the episodes prior to the seasonal break included at least some reminder of Frank's ongoing search for Claire – now it's easy to believe she's just a woman from England given her current lack of inner thoughts on the subject of time-travel, and the show's decision to delve into characters and events that exist outside Claire's immediate experiences.
The second of these two episodes is called By The Pricking of My Thumbs, and anyone with a fondness for Macbeth knows the continuation of that line is "something wicked this way comes". Given all the enemies that are gathering around Claire, it's difficult to tell from which direction this wickedness will be coming from.

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