outlander 204 –  la dame blanche – thoughts on the episode, caitriona balfe, and sam heughan

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NOTE: This review will spoil you rotten, for the books and this episode, so you might want to read something else now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

Screencaps by Outlander-Online.

 

Written by Co-Executive Producer Toni Graphia, and directed by a director new to the show, Douglas MacKinnon (a veteran director of mostly English and Scottish TV productions, including a few in Gaelic, he has also directed episodes of Sherlock and Doctor Who), the episode didn’t really do it for me.

Although, I adored the snippet of video that played under the title card. Usually the title card has something to do with the episode, but the snippet included something that wasn’t included in the episode, a guy with a port-wine stain birthmark on his hand sabotaging the wheel of a carriage…

While, again, the episode more or less followed how the events as they unfolded in the book, the details really didn’t work for me.  And it started right at the beginning.

The Comte St. Germain (as always, played capably by Stanley Weber) poisoning Claire (Caitriona Balfe) played out differently in the book, but it was pretty close.  That wasn’t the problem…

For one, I don’t see Claire distracting Jamie (Sam Heughan) from any conflict, not even a game of chess. He’s very calm under fire, normally.  Why would talking with Claire about baby names cause him to lose so decidedly to Duverney (Marc Duret)?  Was it only so St. Germain would see him playing badly?  It seemed to be the only point…  It’s a bit contrived, if that is it.

I did like how perplexed Marc played Duverney at beating Jamie. It was almost like he was saying, ‘what’s going on, Fraser?’  It was nicely done…

There was something else about the scene that was off.  I don’t know what exactly, but the way Claire stepped away from the chess game was played a bit oddly by Caitriona Balfe. It was like a ‘light switch’ moment.  She was chatting with Jamie and Duverney, then after the Comte strolls off, she very suddenly becomes aware that her presence was keeping Duverney from talking with Jamie about the King potentially financing a Jacobite rebellion, so she abruptly leaves?

It didn’t really flow well.  Claire’s very perceptive normally…  So, it came off as a bit contrived since it seemed that was something she did only because the story needed her to (so that waiting servant could give her the tainted glass of wine).

The next scene, where Jamie and Claire talk afterwards, and she disclosed that Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) was still alive, was just odd. I am not sure what I expected would happen when it was spoiled that Claire would tell Jamie what she knew about Jack, but Jamie being ecstatically happy about it probably wasn’t high on the list of possibilities.

I guess it worked, more or less.

Certainly, the scene was well-acted by both Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe.  Though, during Jamie’s speech about how he now he finally had something to ‘look forward to’ I couldn’t help thinking wouldn’t the baby he thought he’d never father be that reason, instead of Jack being alive?

Maybe that wasn’t dramatic enough, or a strong enough motivation, but Jack being alive seemed an odd choice as the motivation for Jamie’s reemergence from the misery he’s been in since Wentworth.  It could work out, in the long run, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

The next short scene with Claire and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) doesn’t make sense really, unless they were playing it for laughs.  I mean, Claire had made the point in her episode-ending voiceover in Not in Scotland Anymore that she was concerned how Jamie would react once he found out Jack Randall was alive. Now she said Murtagh was wrong to be worried?   If they had that bit in there for some comedic value, it completely failed because it wasn’t even a bit funny.

I really liked the scene at the Apothecary shop with Master Raymond (Dominique Pinon). We got a look at the private room with the skulls mentioned in the books! It wasn’t maybe as menacing as I imagined in the book, but it still had all the shelves and knick-knacks.  Production Designer Jon Gary Steele did an excellent job, along with his set dresser, Stuart Bryce.

Oh, I loved the dramatic irony of Raymond’s reading of the bones.  Of course Claire will see Frank again, but she doesn’t know it yet.

Although, I must say I adored Claire’s dress she wore in the scenes with Murtagh, Raymond, and in the scene with Louise (Claire Sermonne) and Mary (Rosie Day), so I’m glad she wore it for several scenes in the episode.  It’s plain, no ribbons or bows, with only a tiny bit of lace… It’s got a sparseness I like about it, and it’s a lovely color for Caitriona Balfe’s complexion.  And I loved the jacket that goes with it, the hood and the embroidery… It was beautiful.

outlander-la-dame-blanche-purple-dress-jacket

outlander-la-dame-blanche-purple-dress

Costume Designer Terry Dresbach also did an awesome job with Louise’s dress in the next scene.  It was so like her, ornate and covered with ribbons and bows. It made her waist look even tinier than normal…  It suited her figure very well.

outlander-la-dame-blanche-louise-dress

I loved that Claire’s argument to Louise about keeping the baby echoed her own upbringing, that Louise certainly can raise Charlie’s child with her husband as long as there is love in the house.  Raised by a man who wasn’t her father, her own parents died in a car accident when she was five, there was still was love. It’s something that echoes through all the books, actually, so it was very welcome here.

In another piece of dramatic irony, Claire does not know that she will eventually face the same dilemma as Louise, as we saw in the first episode of the season.  And it’s can work very well to have a man who isn’t the father raise a child if there is love in the home.

The next scene has Jamie finally willing to make love to Claire, but things go terribly awry when she spots obvious bite marks on his thighs.  There’s probably only one way for that to happen.

And I must point out that the dialogue seems to indicate that the bites are from earlier that night, but the look of the bruises makes it seem they are much older. There was yellow, a sign of a healing bruise. A brand new bruise would be red.  It’s a rare misstep for the makeup department.

Unlike the teasing tone the interchange had in the book, show Claire really doesn’t handle these bites on her husband’s thighs very well.

What they did here makes complete sense, despite the change.  In the book this scene takes place well after Jamie had come to terms with what happened at Wentworth Prison.  He wasn’t healed completely, he still had terrible nightmares and hadn’t yet fully addressed all the emotional issues that arose afterwards, but he and Claire had more or less resumed normal sexual relations at this point in the book.

That is not the case here.  The decision to push Jamie’s healing into season two I think has not completely worked out. They had finished season one in two episodes, 115 and 116, so 1/8th of the season, but those two hours encompassed events that took almost a quarter of the book to relate.

The ramifications of that decision are dilemmas like this… A fairly humorous scene in the book, truly faithful Jamie trying to convey how he managed to have a trollop bite his thighs while still remaining virtuous, in the show turns into the first real disagreement Claire and Jamie had since the season started.

As it was, I suppose it worked out, more or less.  It gave both actors some truly stellar moments to portray, even if I didn’t like how it came about.  Sam Heughan was truly remarkable with Jamie’s blown-up fortress speech, but Director Douglas MacKinnon made mistakes that robbed the scene of some of its power.

Choosing to place Claire and Jamie in profile, backlit only by candlelight, for the first part of the part of the scene seemed to dilute the power of the moment since it made it harder to discern the emotions they were experiencing.

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It’s hard to empathize with an actor if you can’t see his or her eyes.  I felt the need to watch very closely to see what Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan were doing.

The decision seems a bit odd, but I doubt it was because of a lack of shot coverage, the show usually gets good coverage (well, except maybe for the chapel scene in episode 116). So it seemed to me that perhaps the director was too enamored of what the two profile shots looked like.  Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan both have awesome profiles, so I can understand that.

However, sometimes you have to do what English author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said a century ago in a lecture about writing style, published in his book On the Art of Writing: when things get too precious, too ornamental and without substance, you have to ‘murder your darlings’ in order to tell the best story. In other words, when things don’t contribute to the story (if they don’t advance the plot or reveal character), no matter how much you love the thing, or how well it’s written, it’s best to get rid of it.

It’s something my screenwriting professor in college was fond of talking about in regard to his student’s work, including mine: if it doesn’t reveal character or advance the story, cut it.  So, Sir Arthur’s advice still applies to modern storytelling. The same is likely also true of choices made in the editing bay, so perhaps it’s a lesson Douglas McKinnon never learned in school.

I don’t think things got any better for the director in the next scene where Claire goes to Jamie trying to sleep on the daybed.  I don’t know if they didn’t get the coverage, of course, but I would have liked some close-ups.

The thing about the sex scenes in the first season was they had a variety of shot types, including close-ups.  It makes the sex scenes feel more immediate, it reinforces the intimacy.

In a way it’s like Diana Gabaldon’s sex scenes in her books, in contrast to how more poorly written sex scenes are done (a lot of fanfic sex scenes, for example; or if you’ve not read any of those, the ones in Fifty Shades of Grey are also a good example of what NOT to do in a sex scene).  If you haven’t read her piece on how to effectively write a sex scene, I recommend it even if you will never write a sex scene.  It offers an interesting insight into Diana’s writing process.  You can find it here http://www.dianagabaldon.com/2012/07/how-to-write-sex-scenes/.

In Diana’s sex scenes she describes what happens sensually, and I mean by describing what the characters are feeling using one of their five senses. She uses three of the five senses in each sex scene to describe the sex, instead of just sight and sound which is probably what most people do.  If you describe the scene in a more three-dimensional way it is more effective, so it’s easier to feel the emotion of the moment.  She must be right, because her sex scenes are very effective. Without that kind of depth in the description a scene can sorta devolve in a ‘tab A goes into slot B’ mechanical description of the actions the two characters take in a scene.

Diana’s also right that, for most adults, sex is a commonly shared experience because most adults have had it. So, you don’t need to explain every single detail. Simply giving an impression of what is going on through a series of descriptions of what the characters feel, see, taste, hear, or smell is sufficient.

The same could probably be said of sex scenes in TV.

You don’t ‘describe’ sex in a TV show, of course, but to emphasize the other senses other than sight and sound is probably a good idea. You can’t show what someone is smelling, or tasting, of course, or really what they’re feeling, but you can imply it through showing the two folks in the scene in a few well-placed close-ups.  You can suggest what they’re feeling, by showing a hand up close as one person caresses the other.  Or you can imply what a character is smelling through a close-up of person’s face as he or she sniffs a lover’s hair, or what the character is tasting by showing a close-up of a lover tasting his or her partner’s skin.  It’s what the sex scenes in season one were so good at, showing a close up of Claire and Jamie as they kissed, or a close-up of their hands as they caressed each other…

It’s what the scene in this episode lacked.  It was too removed, the director apparently more interested in showing the broader picture, the shot from above, the cold blue of the moonlight, instead of the rekindled intimacy of a pair of people deeply in love, yet lately unable to make things work.

He made this choice, despite most adults knowing exactly what sex looks like.  So it came off almost as dispassionate because it lacked the more tender treatment of the sex scenes from last season.

It’s the first time Claire and Jamie have had sex since last season.  We needed a more intimately-staged scene, something that would let the audience feel them reconnect emotionally, in addition to reconnecting sexually.

The way this was blocked and shot, made it feel a bit anti-climactic. If he hadn’t treated the staging as being so precious, the scene would probably have been stronger. So, Professor Quiller-Couch’s advice might have helped this scene too.

I must say the scene was well-written, even if I didn’t like how it was shot. I adored the change they in the lean-to comment Jamie made.  In the book, he said he’d built the new shelter at the heart of his soul, to substitute for the fortress Black Jack had blown apart, but in the show Claire built it.  She really does… it was a very nice change.

It must be so typical that Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) interrupts Claire and Jamie reconnecting in that post-coital scene, and he comes across as even more boorish than ever.  What a pouty, arrogant ass he is… Andrew Gower is playing him perfectly as the entitled spoiled-rotten brat like the real Bonnie Prince likely was.

I liked the plan Claire and Jamie came up with mostly because, with Prince Charlie being the whiny ass that he is, it has every chance at succeeding.  Way to exploit the man’s weaknesses against him, Frasers.

I adored the scene with Murtagh and Fergus (Romann Berrux).  Romann is just adorably bratty as Fergus, and so cute when he laughed at his own speculation that Murtagh would die alone with his hand.

Murtagh came across like a loving uncle, even if a not a completely respectable one, teaching a child to throw knives. It was a terrific scene and a fantastic addition to the story.

The next scene with Monsieur Forez (Niall Greig Fulton) setting the broken leg was pretty brutal to watch, though I’ll never really complain about scenes that are taken (more or less) directly from the book.  It also provided another moment of comic relief with Mary and Claire’s reaction to the hanged man’s grease, though I wish they had established Mary going with Claire to the hospital before this episode.

The dinner party seemed to be drag on, though I can understand why they were intercutting it with Claire and Mary walking, then getting attacked.  (It was probably not a surprise the man with the port wine stain birthmark on his hand took part…)

Doing something like that extended out the scene, and prolonged the suspense.  But once Claire and everyone makes it back to the house and the dinner party continues, this time intercutting with Alex and Mary in the guest room, the party just does more dragging on.

I’m not sure what could have fixed it, either. There was a lot of good information, and some juicy bits, some comedy, but it seemed like the party went on forever.  It didn’t help that it ended in such a ridiculous way

The ridiculousness started with Mary running off and Alex (Laurence Dobiesz) chasing after her.  She had been injured, in shock from a rape and beating, and she had been in a drugged stupor, should she have been able to outrun Alex? I know he’s consumptive, but he’s got a half foot on her at least, so his longer legs should have made up some of the difference in their relative states of health…

Then when the brawl started it only got worse.  The show’s fight choreography is usually stellar, but something seemed lacking in this fight scene.  Maybe it was the fact that we never got any shots that showed the combatants up close.  Almost everything was from a distance… Was it a shot coverage issue?  Again, that’s something the show doesn’t usually seem to have problems with, which is likely due to the fact they shoot scenes with two or three or more cameras at a time, so again this seemed to be a directorial choice.

Whatever the cause there was something slightly off about it.  When I was watching, there wasn’t much tension in the scene for me, so to close the episode with it made for a very unsatisfying ending to a mixed bag of an episode.

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