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Friday, May 1, 2015

Outlander: The Devil's Mark and Lallybroch

I know it's been slow around here, but I'm knee-deep in assignments with a deadline looming. Since I desperately want to get on top of them before Penny Dreadful starts up, I'm going to have to give Outlander short-shrift in the coming weeks. That's more so than usual, considering I'm already doing episode reviews on a fortnightly basis.
So The Devil's Mark deals with a good old Burn the Witch storyline. This form of execution (or at least the threat of it) pops up in almost every story that takes place at any point during or before the 18th century. It's almost always used to demonstrate the paranoia-fuelled superstition and innate misogyny of the past, for though there were certainly many men across the years that were tried and found guilty of witchcraft, it's a threat that's overwhelmingly aimed at women and inextricably tied up with the idea of female promiscuity – as seen rather eye-openingly in Geillis's confession on the stand.
Basically it's the old timey version of slut-shaming. Only with more horrible deaths.
And unfortunately for me, it's also inherently wrapped up in memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Put an angry mob in a courtroom screaming "burn the witch!" and I'll inevitably look around for the duck and the giant scales.
But I'll try and take this seriously.

Having been set up by Laoghaire and arrested by soldiers, Geillis and Claire are now accused of witchcraft. As is always the case, the crowd is little more than a mob that has turned out for a spectacle, and the pyre is already being built just so we're in no doubt as to how the trial will conclude.
It's a little depressing that most of the testimonies against Claire and Geillis come from other women – a disgruntled servant, a grieving mother, a scorned lover – though I was a bit thrown by what Father Bain had to say. I'm not entirely sure whether his melodramatic meltdown over a woman being a more competent healer in saving a sick child was sincere, or whether it was all an elaborate act to land them in deeper trouble. He had a highly ambiguous expression on his face when he turned to face Claire:
Any book readers want to enlighten me?
Ned Gowan on the other hand, was just lovely. One of my favourite things in the show is the friendship he and Claire have fostered (his sympathetic "come and sit by me lass" after Claire's beating was a tad condescending, but was also kindly meant) and here he was her somewhat aged but still hale Knight In Shining Armour.
Yet despite his best efforts to defend the two women, Ned ultimately decides that he can only save one – and that her way out is to denounce and betray the other. Oh, and they have about three seconds to decide which one goes down. Ouch.
As it happens, there was a rather interesting twist in this particular take on the Burn The Witch trope, and that's that at least one of these two women is a murderer, and both of them are in fact touched by supernatural powers. As we eventually discover, Geillis is a time-traveller just like Claire; that she in fact comes from further into the future than Claire herself.
It's a damn shame that Claire only discovers this in the moment they're separated forever, though Geillis was dropping plenty of hints beforehand (understanding Claire's line of poetry, whispering a date, utterly the highly anachronistic: "looks like I'm going to a fucking barbeque"). 
But it's not until she exposes her smallpox vaccination scar in the courtroom that the penny finally drops for Claire, and it's a pity they didn't foreshadow this earlier – say for instance, if Jamie had noticed Claire's identical scar in one of their love scenes a few episodes back. It would have saved the need for Claire's awkward explanatory voiceover as to what exactly we were looking at during Geillis's big moment.
Geillis has always been my favourite supporting character, and I'm disappointed that we've (apparently) lost her just as we learn about who she truly is. More heart-breaking is the fact that she infers she was brought back for a reason; to help the Scots in the Jacobite uprising by stealing money from her husband to help the cause. Yet when she discovers that Claire arrived in Scotland simply by happenstance and for no real purpose whatsoever, she realizes that her involvement in the past has been all for nothing.
At this point, does anyone else feel that Geillis would have been the protagonist of a far more compelling story than Claire's? I mean, the very fact that she (presumably) conspired to return to the distant past and work towards a specific goal  in order to do nothing less than change the very course of history is far more interesting (to me at least) than Claire accidentally stumbling through the portal and into a cross-centuries love triangle.
Okay, I'm simplifying Claire's story. But it's still a shame to lose Geillis this early and in this way, though she never looked more beautiful than when she confessed to witchcraft in order to save Claire's life. Despite Jamie's Big Damn Heroes arrival, it was not he that saved Claire's life, but Geillis.
Having escaped from the angry mob, Claire and Jamie head for the safety of the woods where she finally tells him the truth about where she's from. I actually liked this sequence despite the interminable voiceover; particularly in the way Jamie reacts. He just quietly absorbs what Claire has to say and comes to the decision to trust her. It reminds me of that old-ish saying about how you can believe in a person without actually believing them.
Now in possession of the truth, Jamie agrees to "take her home", and ends up returning to the standing stones where she first passed through into the past. Now, I'm guessing that at some point Claire does in fact return to 1945, or at least Jamie does, as the very first episode depicted him watching her from the street as she brushed her hair in her bedroom. So at some point, all of this has to loop back around.
But for now at least, Claire decides to stay with Jamie.
Great visual.
(For the record, I would have been outta there. I don't care how great the sex is, there's no way I'd remain in 18th century Scotland, especially after I'd just escaped a witch-burning, and with a lunatic like Black Jack Randall running around. Perhaps thirteen year old Rav would have been all for it, but thirty year old Rav? No way).
With that decision made, it's time for the happy couple to return to Jamie's home and meet the family. Namely, his little sister.
And hey, look who it is! Laura Donnelly, also known as Jenny Fraser, previously known as Freya, a.k.a. the Lady of the Lake. Last time we saw her was in the flashbacks to Jamie's first meeting with Jack Randall, in which he was flogged for the first time while she was sexually menaced in front of him. So glad we could return to that! So glad.
In this week's temple-rubbing example of "this is horribly sexist but that's the way things were back then and I know you're striving for historical correctness but that still doesn't make this particularly fun to watch", the relationship arc between Jamie and Jenny revolves around HIM blaming HER for making HIM feel guilty for HER attempted rape. Try and get your head around that one.
After a bout of slut-shaming when he mistakes Jenny's young son for Randall's bastard and then a request to Claire that she not contradict him in front of other people (Claire hon, remind me why you're still here?) Jamie lets his newfound status as Laird of Lallybroch go to his head and makes a hash of his responsibilities.
Thankfully, the whole thing is resolved when the women reassert themselves and Jamie bows (or at least nods his head) to their wisdom. As Claire points out to him, Jenny has been running the place for years without his assistance, and at this point knows more about the process than he does. There's also a really nice scene between Claire and Jenny's quiet husband Ian in which the two in-laws discuss what it means to be married to Frasers – and how best to handle them.
So with Claire finally in a place that feels like home, reminding me of the first episode in which she stared sadly at that vase in the shop window and reflected that she'd never had a permanent dwelling place before, it's naturally the very next day that Jamie is arrested by English soldiers.
Miscellaneous Observations:
There was an odd lack of a reaction shot from Laoghaire when Jamie turns up to rescue Claire. Surely that would have been worth seeing.
I'm pretty sure they weren't burning witches at this point in history, and that they certainly never executed pregnant women (even if Geillis was screaming about it being Satan's baby). Ah well, dramatic license and all that.
So what DID break the waterwheel at Lallybroch? That's going to be one of those completely unimportant bits of minutia that bugs me.  
I found it amusing that after a solid twelve episodes of Claire refusing to keep quiet under any circumstances, she finally keeps her mouth shut in dangerous circumstances when Jenny tells her to.
Not saying anything...
A more interesting cultural clash that didn't involve rape was the corporeal punishment meted out to a young boy by his violent father – and once more Claire wasn't going to stand for it. This time at least, she's supported by Jamie and Jenny, reminding us that however more "acceptable" violence may have been back in the day, there's still a clear distinction between right and wrong, and that decent people can recognize the inherent wrongness of pain being inflicted on a small child that has no means of fighting back.                                                                                  
As with the beating scene of a few weeks back, I'd rather not do anything beyond pointing out the reveal of Jack Randall as a Depraved Homosexual. It's an unfortunate development, and though the precise nature of Jack's sexuality is up for debate, I'd rather not wade into what will surely be a very fraught and on-going fandom discussion.
(Though for what it's worth, I have a vague recollection that Diana Gabaldon introduces another overtly gay but heroic male character in later books. So there's that to anticipate).

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