outlander 213 – dragonfly in amber – thoughts on the episode, caitriona balfe, sam heughan, and the adaption itself

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NOTE: Spoilers ahead, so read no further if you haven’t seen the episode or read any of the books.  

Screencaps courtesy of Outlander Online. 


NOTES on Episode:

This episode is based on events in Chapters 1 – 5 and 46 – 49 from the second Outlander novel, Dragonfly in Amber.

NOTE: The snippet of The Avengers shown at the beginning is from the episode “The Town of No Return” (1966) episode 4.01, which originally aired on September 1, 1966 with Patrick Macnee as John Steed and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.   It is the first episode  Diana Rigg’s character, Emma Peel, appeared in.


Review:

This episode really packed a lot in. Still, even with the extra-long 90-minute run time, it seemed like it was going to be a neat trick to fit all of the final remaining bits of the book in.

This episode was so smart in terms of storytelling and adaptation, it probably had to be.  Written by Executive Producers Toni Graphia and Matthew B. Roberts, the way they mixed things up, shortened scenes, changing them, sometimes using lines from the book but giving them to others to speak, was beautifully done.

Most of the changes were relatively small ones, even when they erased minor characters and their little side stories altogether. But the biggest change was that, instead of showing them at the beginning of the season, they saved introducing the 20-year-old Brianna (Sophie Skelton) and adult Roger (Richard Rankin) for this episode.

In the book, novelist Diana Gabaldon introduced adult Roger and adult Bree in the first chapter of Dragonfly in Amber, creating a sort of ‘bookend structure,’ with the 20th Century bits at the beginning and ending, Claire’s recounting of what happened to her in the 18th Century becoming essentially a flashback.

Executive Producer and series creator Ronald D. Moore had stated the original structure would have been confusing to the non-book readers, taking folks 20 years past Claire’s original return to 1948.  Maybe Ron Moore underestimates his audience, most of the non-book readers could have probably followed along.  It’s debatable that a 222-year jump might have been more jarring than a 202 year one, so perhaps he made the right decision.

However, that change made it necessary for them to try and mix in the events on April 16, 1746, leading up to Culloden with everything that happened in 1968 leading up to Claire finding out Jamie somehow managed to survive Culloden.  Without that bookend structure of the novel, the episode’s narrative had to necessarily switch back and forth between the parts of the 18th and 20th-century storylines they still had left to tell.

In Diana Gabaldon’s books, the narrative tends to keep to the same century within any particular chapter, so maybe it’s natural that this isn’t really something they’d done before in the show.  Up until this episode, whenever they went back and forth in time, the 20th Century bit usually tied in with the larger 18th Century storyline in some way.

Sometimes the scenes in the flashbacks tied in thematically with each other, or had similar narrative threads, showing events in Claire’s life with Frank similar to things she experienced with Jamie.  They are usually Claire remembering events with Frank.

The biggest departure from this sort of flashback in the show was with the 20th Century scenes in “Both Sides Now” weren’t a memory of Claire’s, but Claire and Frank’s storylines complimented each other narratively. Both characters looking to reconnect with each other and ended at the same place with them both running up to the top of Craigh Na Dun. It created a sort of resonance between Claire’s and Frank’s storylines.

Here it felt like they were trying to develop the same sort of connection between the 18th Century and 20th Century timelines like they had in that earlier episode, but it didn’t work consistently as well.  Unlike the first transition where Claire looking at sleeping Brianna switched to a similar view of Jamie walking with Prince Charles, basically a visual bridge.

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Many of the other transitions between the two centuries often had no apparent connection at all. As a result, they could be, at times, jarring.

For example, when a very shocked and angry Dougal found Claire and Jamie planning to murder Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower), suddenly the scene switched to Bree and Roger walking up the steps at the university.  It didn’t really make sense.

Other times it worked out better.  Like when Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) signed the Deed of Sasine in 1746 before Claire shows Bree and Roger a photocopy of the same document in 1968.

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The cross-century transitions probably worked best toward the end of the episode, with the dual build up to the heartbreaking scene at there between Jamie and Claire, and then Roger telling Claire Jamie survived.  Yet, the episode ended with an unnecessarily melodramatic flourish, with Claire declaring she had to go back and looking hopefully at the standing stones as the music built and the camera moved quickly to the stone.  It came off as overwrought and made the episode end on a somewhat sour note.

That moment capped off a somewhat uneven performance by Caitriona Balfe.  At times, Caitriona seemed more concerned with her appearance rather than her acting (like too carefully placing a cup down when Bree confronts Claire about her real father, and very deliberately folding her arms just after that, or the oddly exaggerated way Claire later touched Bree’s hair saying it was just like Jamie’s). She does that same sort of thing fairly frequently throughout the series, although it is happening less often.  It’s almost like Caitriona sometimes doesn’t know what to do with her hands and reverts to acting more like a model…

Despite the awkwardness she had at times, in the bigger moments of the episode, Caitriona showed how brilliant her acting can be.  Claire’s devastation at Jamie’s pained insistence she should return to Frank and her grief at leaving him behind the stone circle, makes me tear up every time I’ve seen the episode.

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Sam Heughan gave one of his strongest performances of the series in this episode, especially at the end when a clearly heartbroken Jamie was determined to remain strong while sending the love of his life away forever. I loved the way he ‘danced’ with her backward to the stone, seemingly unwilling to let his eyes leave her face until the last possible moment.  It was only once she was facing the stone that his devastation truly became clear, as a tear rolled down his cheek.

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What a powerful scene.  I can’t wait to see what happens from his point-of-view in season 3 after Claire goes back.

Like Caitriona Balfe, Sophie Skelton’s performance was at times a bit stiff.  Though, the way that her mannerisms echoed Sam Heughan’s as Jamie was a terrific choice.  She doesn’t look a lot like Sam, except in a very general way, but with those inserted by her, it helped reinforce the idea that she is his daughter.

Richard Rankin is fantastic as Roger MacKenzie. In the opening scene when Roger was standing in his father’s library, and Fiona Graham (Iona Claire) came to point out his guests were wondering where he was , he didn’t say a word and was clearly devastated.

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And what a beautiful singer he is. The rat satire song was short, but very good.  I hope he gets more chances to sing next season.  Richard makes Roger an intriguing character, I can’t wait to see what else he’ll bring to the part next season.

This episode was powerful TV, but it was not without its flaws.  I thought switching the timeframe for all the events leading up to Claire leaving, which happened in the book over a 24-hour period, to one very busy morning was a good choice. It gave the race to first avoid a disaster at Culloden, and then for Jamie to save the farm, Fergus, and Claire an urgency it wouldn’t really have had otherwise.  However, this was at the cost of a few of the book’s set pieces, making one of them not really making sense.

Why would Claire suggest poisoning for Prince Charles, as she did in the book, saying he would just go to sleep, only a few hours before an expected battle?  Claire isn’t a stupid woman, no way would she think this a good plan.  In the book, it made sense because Claire and Jamie had this conversation on April 15th, the evening before the battle. It would be believable for him to drink tea before sleeping, then, only never to wake up.  If he was given this poison the morning of the next day, far from no one knowing like Claire claimed, everyone would have known the Prince was poisoned the minute he fell asleep with Cumberland and the British forces about to confront the Jacobites on Culloden Moor.

It was also a mistake that Jamie supported this plan, saying ‘We would need to move quickly’ as he held up the bottle of yellow jasmine. Unlike killing someone in battle, poisoning is cold-blooded murder and totally lacks honor. I believe it was for that reason Jamie refused to go along with the plan in the book.  He isn’t beneath murdering someone when needed, like killing Dougal to protect Claire in the next scene, but this is another deviation from the book that made little sense.  At least they probably won’t need to write around it like they did when they had Jamie find out about Laoghaire arranging to have Claire included in the witch trial in season one…

Another thing that bothered me, although it really doesn’t affect the story’s narrative much in the grander scheme of things, I hated that they dropped Jamie and Claire cutting their initials into each other hands.  (If you haven’t read the books, it makes more sense in context – see chapter 46 of Dragonfly in Amber.)  The reminder of each other being cut into their flesh was a metaphor of how impossible it would be for them to move on. It made them physically part of each other, just the way they were emotionally part of each other, they aren’t whole without the other.

One thing I am perplexed by, and wondering how the hell they are going fix it, is that Lallybroch in modern times was clearly a ruin, but a few books down the line it will go back into use again by Bree and Roger and their family.

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Just exactly how much of fortune did Claire pile up while working as a doctor in Boston?  How could Bree and Roger afford what would probably be a renovation worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in ten or eleven years?

Despite the few problems I had with the episode, overall this was an extremely successful outing for everyone and was an excellent adaption of this section of the book.  It was a terrific ending of the season and setup beautifully what will happen in the season 3 opener.

4.75 drams out of a possible 5

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