Episode 101 – Sassenach

This is my first “official” blog in this series, so let me explain a bit about my process. First and foremost, this isn’t a recap. As a starting point, I’ll be going episode-by-episode, and so I will attempt to discuss things roughly chronologically, but I may veer off on tangents when subjects seem to lead that way. I will also freely and probably frequently reference any or all of the books. I will attempt to add some context to such spoilery references, just in case it’s been a while since you’ve read the source material, but sometimes I will forget.

During the hiatus, I plan to blog about the series as a whole. I’ll look at character arcs, major themes, and how well some of the conceits established (like the voice over and flashbacks) are working (or not working).

I’ll start my episode review with a positive thing. I adore the intro. Which is a good thing, because when I first tried to stream this episode (at midnight on the internet premiere) there were huge amounts of lag and I ended up looking at this still image for a very long time. The prologue text is also nice, and very close to the book. Bear McCreary’s music is fantastic. In truth, all of the music is great, from the 40s songs to the Clanadonia bagpipes during the first skirmish with the redcoats. But the mournful wail of the pipes over the image of the mountains and valley is gorgeous. I didn’t realize the first few times I watched it (damn you, buffering!), but it is raining in those shots! Such gorgeous and totally apropos Scottish landscape porn. God, I want to be there, even in the frigid cold and wet.

But then we get a voice over that I DON’T like. Once we shift to Claire looking in the shop window, it feels melodramatic and trite. The idea is taken from the book: BookClaire sees a set of 3 vases and thinks “I’ve never lived anywhere long enough to have a vase” and muses a bit about Uncle Lamb and potsherds. But for one thing, in the book she buys the vases. I’m OK with the choice not to buy them. It’s an interesting story change that I can get behind. The problem I’m having is the actual words used in the voice over. When she says, “I’d realized I’d never owned a vase,” I cringed. For one thing, I hate it when characters think/realize/feel/etc. in their own PoV. We get it. Just say, “I’d never owned a vase.” And since this is TV, the actor’s tone of voice will tell us that it’s a realization. Then she goes on to say, “and at that moment, I wanted nothing so much as to have a vase of my very own.” Ugh.

I should mention that this is not a criticism of Caitriona Balfe. She did a great job with the text that she was given. It’s a criticism of the writing. It’s heavy and overwrought. It is enough to say: “I’d never owned a vase – I’d never lived anywhere long enough to justify having one,” and then cut to the flashback.

Now, I’m not going to nag on every single voice over in this episode, or in future episodes. In most cases, I will suffice to say that they should be relegated to a special hell where they can languish in a conflagration. But one thing makes this example truly awful. When the scene switches back from the WWII flashback, Claire expresses the exact same sentiment, except this time, she NAILS IT. “I can still recall every detail of the day I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.” Damn. Now that is a good voiceover text. It communicates her longing without using tired phrases like “I wanted one of my very own!”

Aside: Did anyone else think about Disney Princesses during this scene? It’s a well-known Disney trope that the princesses always have an “I want/wish” song early in the films. Belle wants “adventure in the great wide somewhere.” Ariel wants to be “part of that world.” Mulan wants to “not make a fool of me” and “keep [her] father standing tall.” Anna wants to build a snowman (which is a giant metaphor for spending time with her sister). And in all of those cases, the things they want end up getting them in huge trouble. Claire is no exception to this!

And what Claire wants, apparently, is a vase. Except what she really wants is HOME. That’s a huge theme that follows her throughout the book series, and is touched on in many of the other Point of View (PoV) characters’ storylines as well. What is home? Can home be, not a place, but a person? The answer to that one is pretty obvious, because Jamie and Claire have traveled from Scotland to Paris to the West Indies to North America, and as long as they’ve been together, they’ve been home. And when they were apart, they were untethered and alone.

So when the VO says, “Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I would still make the same choice,” she isn’t talking about buying or not buying a vase. She’s talking about what the vase represents. She isn’t a vase person, anyway. “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.” Note that they actually use the word HOME here. “Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy?” Honestly, no. The cracks in her marriage were already starting to show. The take-charge nurse, hardened by war, raised on archeological digs, was not meant to be an academic’s wife and host tea parties. There are a lot of references to the cracks in their marriage in the book that the writers cut (on purpose) in the show so that the audience will feel more for Frank and be rooting for her to get back to him. But even in the show, we feel the fundamental disconnect between them. He adores her, and she loves him, but they are very different people who, I think, would not have been happy even without Jamie’s (and the stone circle’s) interference. They may have found a measure of contentment, but it would not have been happiness for Claire. It would not have been HOME.

In my opinion, it isn’t so much that the vase is the life she wants. It’s that Claire wishes she wanted the life the vase represents. At this point in the story, she’s wishing it so hard that she refuses to see that she’s never going to mesh well with the quiet, bookish academic (side note: I’m sure Frank is besotted with Claire, but what in the hell made him think he could “tame” the wildcat archeologist’s niece?).

Still, she doesn’t buy the vase.

Oh, I almost forgot the WWII flashback. I love that we get to see the moment of marginalization when the “real” doctor pushes competent Nurse Claire aside to stitch up the soldier. From the perspective of having seen episode 106, I can see that they are following through with the idea that, to the English, she’s just an extra pair of hands to get out of the way once the “true professionals” show up.

Although, to be fair, someone posted elsewhere that chain of command is very important in the military and medical fields, and Claire at this point is just a nurse. She’s competent, but she isn’t a doctor yet. Still, the doctors’ attitudes are ones that she will come up against many many times over the course of the series. It’s even an issue in 50s/60s Boston, when she IS the doctor. But she’s one of the few female surgeons of the time, and respect is something she has to fight for.

Random continuity error: in the close coverage, the other nurse hands Claire a bottle of champagne. It has green glass. In the wider shots (showing the celebration beyond), she’s holding a clear glass bottle with dark liquid (red wine?) inside. I love finding stuff like that. Maybe I’m a weirdo. 🙂

I also loved the way Caitriona played the sort of dull disconnect when she’s told the war is over. Claire looked empty. I wondered if she was thinking, “What happens now? Who am I now?” So much of her identity has become wrapped up in healing. In a way, botany for TVClaire is her way of trying to hold on to that identity once she’s back in “workaday life” with Frank.

Interesting deviation from the books: BookClaire is a “book botanist.” She collects plants and presses them, but doesn’t use them. There’s actually a whole bit with Mr. Crook, the elderly Scot who first takes her to Craigh na Dun, about plant presses and how pressing plants makes the herbs useless. Mrs. Baird says “but they’re so pretty,” and the man scoffs. Pure Scots practicality there. Reminds me of Jamie and his poesy in Fiery Cross. 😉 It is also stated that BookClaire has taken up botany at Frank’s suggestion. So it is interesting that they chose to go the opposite direction in the show. TVClaire is interested in medicinal uses, in practicality, more than what is (literally) on a page.

Back to Claire’s statement from the end of the intro: “Even after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I would make the same choice.”

Claire would always make the same choice– again, not about a vase. In my opinion, Voice Over Claire (henceforth known as VOClaire) is talking to us from the end of the series. We may find out that VOClaire is telling the story to Bree and Roger in season two, but I choose to believe this is Claire circa 1800/2002, somewhere near the end of her life, reminiscing to Jemmy’s and Mandy’s kids about her adventures.

But no matter what the distance between the audience and VOClaire, I think the choice is much bigger than whether or not to buy a metaphorically significant vase. I think it’s the choice to run down the hill of Craigh na Dun into the setting sun and Jamie’s arms.

Because the metaphor for the vase is home, and Jamie is Claire’s home.

OK, back to the episode.

While I found the blood on the lintels a little suspect (is that a real thing they do in the Highlands?), I was much happier with TVClaire’s response to the blood. She isn’t particularly bothered; she’s more curious, and is the one who gives Frank the idea it could be mythologically oriented. In the book, it’s the other way around. I always thought it was weird that BookClaire, a combat nurse, would be squeamish about a bit of blood on the stoop. So I’m very happy that TVClaire raises an eyebrow at Frank and says “I think I should know the look of blood by now.”

In general, I like that TVClaire is forward, assertive, and sexually confident. I do wish she had let Frank say whatever he was going to say after they jumped on the bed at Mrs. Baird’s, though. Whatever it was, it was nothing good, and I very much want to know what it was. She didn’t, though, and I guess I don’t get a say in their conversations.

So…the downtown scene. Everyone has an opinion about that, and here’s mine. Based on the scene where Jamie goes down on her the first time in the book, it is very clear that BookClaire is uncomfortable with oral sex. Now, as Diana has pointed out, this does NOT mean that she and Frank never did it. Other people say that, because Jamie asks her “would it feel the same if I did that to you?” after she’s given him a blowjob, and she answers, “I don’t really know,” that that is supposed to mean she hasn’t had oral sex performed on her before. But I take that to mean that Frank was never rough with her. The point of her going down on Jamie was to use her teeth and show him that a little pain can be a good thing. She also explicitly states at a later time, when contrasting Frank and Jamie’s lovemaking skills, that Frank was polished and controlled. I don’t think he ever crossed any lines with her in bed. Jamie, on the other hand, crosses every line that she has, and demands that she meet him on the other side.

All of that being said, it is out of character for BookClaire to basically push Frank’s head into her lap. But I don’t mind TVClaire doing it. I’m totally fine with her being more assertive about sex. That plays very well when she later deflowers her virgin husband. ^_^

The next scene that gave me a few qualms was Mrs. Graham’s fortunetelling. Now, I once again understand why they made the choices that they did, as far as what to cut and why (still waiting to see wee Roger, though!). They needed the scene to play with a little more menace and more of the weight of prophecy (as VOClaire says) in order to add conflict into this, to be honest, very conflict-free portion of the episode.

So I get it. I do. But I wonder how that decision is going to force a change in Claire and Murtagh’s journey toward Beuly after Jamie is taken by the Watch. In the book, Claire takes what she learned from Mrs. Graham about palmistry (that you look at people’s faces and body language more than their hands) in order to tell fortunes. Claire and Murtagh also sing and such, but I’m curious what they will have her do instead. BookClaire references that experience (traveling with Murtagh) several times throughout the series as the one that taught her to be so good at reading people. So even though that’s a small thing, it is a character change.

After that, there isn’t much to say about the rest of the 40’s portion except to gush over how gorgeous Bear’s score was when the druids danced around the stones (although I did find the huge fake “spotlight sun” a little distracting).

The touching-the-stones and the metaphor-for-travel bit was interesting. I’ve listened to/watched Ron Moore talk about the decision making process for using the car crash instead of some kind of faked CGI-magic effect, and I agree with the reasons for his choice, but it makes me wonder how he plans to do the later scene at Craigh na Dun, when Jamie forces Claire to touch the stone and then drags her back from the Untempered Schism (yes, I just made a Doctor Who reference).

In the book, Jamie says, “You started to go,” but he isn’t very explicit about what that looked like, beyond the general sense of her fading away. We are treated to multiple explanations throughout the books of what time travel feels like- from Claire, Roger, Bree, Jemmy, Geilis, and Saint Germain. I am going to have to go re-read the section in Dragonfly where Gillian/Geilis goes through to see if Roger tells us what it looked like. But even then, I’m curious to know what the show is going to do with the Jamie & Claire scene. It has to be executed in such a way that Jamie completely believes Claire. When she tells him her story, he says he believes her, but believing that someone is telling you what they think is the truth is different from knowing for yourself that it is, indeed, the truth. So whatever happens has to convince him and the audience.

So now we’re through the stones and in 1743. From here on out, I have only a few criticisms and lots of gushing.

Criticisms first:

The voice over really needs to go die. Yes, there are a few instances where we needed to know the information Claire shared. For example: that Beauchamp is Claire’s maiden name. Although that was one of the most awkward VOs to implement, and really jolted me out of the scene. Honestly, they could have given us that info during the flashback to Uncle Lamb. His last name is Beauchamp, too. If she’d referred to him as “Quentin Lambert Beauchamp – Uncle Lamb to me” that would have solved the problem. Or be more explicit about it and have Frank call her “Claire Beauchamp Randall” at some point. Again, problem solved without awkward VO.

All I’m saying is that most of the VO isn’t necessary. And this dead horse has been flogged by many other people online, so I’ll say one last thing and leave it alone: episode 106 had almost no VO and only one significant flashback. And it was the best episode of the series so far.

A flashback criticism: did we really need to flash back to Frank talking about Cocknammon Rock? That was only like 20 minutes ago. I am not a goldfish.

OK, that’s really all I’ve got. On to the gushing.

First- Sam Heughan is KILLING IT as Jamie. He doesn’t match Diana’s physical description perfectly, but in truth it would have been weird if he had slanted cat eyes, natural red hair, and was left-handed, as well as completely embodying the spirit of James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. It’s already oddly coincidental that his birthday is only a day off from Jamie’s, and he definitely has the height and build.

But beyond the resemblance, he channels JAMMF whenever he’s on screen. I can tell he did his homework, has read the books, and has talked to Diana about things not even avid readers such as myself know. He nails every moment in this first episode. Fans will recognize them: The initial awe and attraction when Claire pops his shoulder back in, and he can’t keep his eyes off of her. The protectiveness meshed with humor when he threatens to throw her over his shoulder. The overwhelming desire for the spitfire hellcat sitting on his chest when he wakes up under a tree in the dark, his blood on her hands.

And here’s the best part: it is in that moment that he decides that this is the woman he wants to marry. This cursing, wild-haired, confident, demanding woman, is who he wants to have by his side for the rest of his life.

And that’s why Jamie fits Claire. Frank is attracted to the wildness he perceives in Claire, but he doesn’t celebrate it. He…accepts it, understands that it’s part of her, and desires it at the same time as he tries to tame it.

Jamie realizes the futility of that almost immediately- Claire’s courage is “more than is safe for a woman,” but he admires and loves that about her. He balks at some of her choices, but comes to embrace them (case in point- giving in with grace to her need to help at the Hopital des Anges).

But to get back to the episode, Sam is playing all of those emotions. They’re things Jamie won’t tell Claire until long after they’re married, things that readers had no idea about in the book because Claire didn’t know. But if you’re looking, it is all right there on Sam’s face and in his eyes. Jamie’s besotted, from the very beginning.

I liked the little change they made to the “stop-help-he’s going over!” scene. It was a good way to keep Black Jack Randall (henceforth known for brevity’s sake as BJR) in the “threat” position, as a clear and present danger, and also to let the audience know that Jamie has a history with him. I do wish they’d ended the episode in the woods, though, with that threat still looming. Allowing us to get to the safety of Leoch is a bit of a mistake.

If it were up to me, though, I’d have conflated “Sassenach” and “Castle Leoch” into a 2-hour series premiere. It makes more sense that way, and episode 102 leaves Claire in a very dark place- a place we were introduced to, in a positive way, in 101. It would have been a perfect kind of symmetry. I think all newbies to the series should just go ahead and stream both episodes back-to-back. They work better together.

However, if I try to talk about “Castle Leoch” in this post, it’s going to become even more unbearably lengthy, so I shall refrain.

To sum up:

I’ve nitpicked and prodded, but I was so excited and happy with this episode. I worry that our “instant gratification” culture may keep a broad audience from sticking with the show, but for anyone who has the patience, I think we’re in very good hands. The character work is being done, the visuals are gorgeous, the music is sublime, and we’ve finally gotten back to sexy-times with 107 – The Wedding.

The short short version: not my favorite episode, but not the worst, either.

Do you agree with me? Disagree? Have an insight or a different view? Do you just want to come gush and talk about all things Outlander? Leave a comment. I am looking forward to chatting with you!

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