outlander 301 – the battle joined – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, tobias menzies, and the book adaptation

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

Screencaps courtesy of Outlander Online.


NOTES on Episode:

The 18th Century bits of this episode are based on events from Chapter 1 from Voyager; the 20th Century parts were suggested by bits from both Voyager and Dragonfly in Amber.

Nothing like what happened between Claire and Frank actually happened in the books, we never saw much detail in what Claire remembers within her inner monologues about her time with Frank, or about the exact events surrounding Brianna’s birth. Although, her birth was noted in the book as being difficult when it wasn’t in the episode.


Review:

I was very excited for this episode for a variety of reasons, but primarily because “Voyager” is my favorite book of the series.

Then the actors and producers and almost anyone who had seen the episode said it was an epic outing for the series.  Reviewers had tossed around a variety of superlatives at their readers about it: ‘impressive,’ ‘groundbreaking,’ ‘magical,’ ‘making you fall in love with it again…’

It was a lot to live up to, and frankly, I am not sure it totally succeeded.  Yes, the writing was totally on point (an excellent adaption of the novel), the acting was top notch, and the photography beautiful, startlingly so at times, but there were some problems with it.

That said, however, I must say that the first 10 minutes or so of the episode is one of the most powerful segments of the series so far.

Similar to the book, the episode opened after the Battle of Culloden, with the dead and dying spread out on the battlefield, red coats dispatching the wounded in brutal coup de grâce with bayonets brutally jabbed into their sides, or other soldiers picking up dropped swords and looting valuables from the dead.

The first time we see Jamie (Sam Heughan), he is out cold, severely wounded on the battlefield with a red-coated corpse lying on top of him.   As he comes to, he struggles for breath, his ragged breathing and wheezing gasps surprisingly loud, a helpless witness to a British soldier killing a wounded Jacobite nearby.  Jamie is only saved from that fate because his suffering is quieter, and the fact that the body laid out on top of him hides the few signs of life he exhibits.  As Jamie goes in and out of consciousness, what followed is a series of impressions of the battle, which are out of order and at times even surreal.

Limited by time and budgetary constraints, the episode’s writer (Executive Producer and Series Creator, and Ronald D. Moore), stated he had to abandon a more straightforward linear retelling of the battle and do something else.  With the forced economizing, Ron turned Jamie’s experience in the aftermath of the battle into a something quite special.

Ron, Director Brian Maher, Director of Photography Alasdair Walker, and Editor Michael O’Halloran all worked to make the battle, and the fight between Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) and Jamie, as epic as they needed to be.  And the actors did a spectacular job.

Jamie’s jumbled memories and quick flashes of delirium-infused dreaming about the battle came quickly at first.  It was very intense and grim and, except for brief scenes of dialogue with Prince Charlie (Andrew Gower) or Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix), everything was quick cuts and confusion, even the brief, heartbreaking glimpse we got of Jamie on Craigh Na Dun. There were jerky hand-held shots, rotating shots, some that went in and out of focus, the story going back and forth in time… Things didn’t really slow down until Jamie finally found Black Jack Randall across the field.

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After a few charged moments of sizing each other up, the two men came together with a clang of steel, and they tried to kill each other while a beautiful sunset bathed the scene in a warm rosy-orange light.  It was a striking dichotomy, two blood-spattered, dirty men fighting to the death while bathed in the romantic light of a sunset.

It was only after this start of this sequence did we finally see that it was Black Jack who lay dead on top of Jamie.

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Shots of Jamie nearly dead on the battlefield, still wrapped up in dead Jack’s embrace, were skillfully interspersed with the brutal and desperate fight between the longtime adversaries.

It was almost like a pas de deux, a ballet dance for two.  While the term suggests something romantic, this really wasn’t.  Yet, like a dance, Jamie’s fight with Jack had a give and take to it, a coming together and breaking apart… Then the fight ends in a staggering embrace as they fall together, Jamie wrapped in Jack’s arms, which could very well have been the conclusion of a dance.

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It was beautifully choreographed and shot, and the actors did a fantastic job.  It was fittingly epic to end their complicated relationship.

I have to say in the next scene when Jamie saw that rabbit, I was a bit confused.  It seemed totally incongruous since I wasn’t aware of any particular symbolic importance of a rabbit, aside from the animal’s fertility and being lucky.  Nothing like that happened in the book, so the rabbit made no sense at all.

So, I looked online and found that in Scottish folklore there was a mystic connection between hares or rabbits and witches.  There was a tradition that witches could shapeshift into hares. There was even one case of a witch named Isobel Gowdie who gave the incantation needed to do the switch in her confession to being a witch.

Perhaps the rabbit in Jamie’s vision was tied to Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in some way, a white lady, la dame blanche, a white witch; because it’s right after the rabbit hops away that a vision of Claire appears.  When she does, she is ethereal, wearing white and so calmly and slowly walking past the piles of dead bodies, clearly untouched by it all. (EDIT: The rabbit was more about Claire, not an intentional reference to Gaelic superstition.  It was only meant to match a scene where Claire sees a bird and thinks of Jamie.)

When dream-Claire finally reaches Jamie, it is in a shot that is a reverse-match of one from the hallucination Jamie had of Claire in To Ransom a Man’s Soul.

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Much the same way her previous apparition asked ‘Are you mine,’ she asks Jamie ‘Are you alive?’  Like they’ve done before, the resonance between the two scenes added an extra layer of meaning to the moment.

It was beautifully sad: Jamie weak and dying with phantom-Claire gently touching his face.  However, this time instead of Black Jack coming through his earlier vision of her, it’s Rupert (Grant O’Rourke), come to take Jamie from the field.

It’s from this point, that the episode took a bit of a downturn for me. Though there was some stellar acting in the Boston scenes, Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies both turned in top-notch performances, for me there was something oddly… off, in the Boston scenes.

Things somehow seemed remote, like I was set apart as a viewer in some way.  The feeling of distance just made me more aware that Caitriona and Tobias were acting.  My willing suspension of disbelief sort of went AWOL during those scenes, and initially I couldn’t quite get a handle on it on why that was.

Upon subsequent viewings, however, it seemed director’s fondness of having the camera sit back a bit from the subjects made me feel a bit removed from things.  While the episode looked fantastic, the camera staying back seemed to dilute the emotional intensity for me.  For example, I wanted the camera to move in during Frank’s and Claire’s fight.

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The camera moved in later in the fight, but still…  It seemed weird that Frank and Claire were so small on the screen as the fight heated up. I wanted to see them more closely.

That aside, there was a lot of good stuff in the Boston sections of the episode.  It was very interesting the way the misogyny in Boston of the 1940s was really not all that much different than what Claire had experienced in the 1740s. Everyone benefited from the far superior technology available to them at the time, refrigerators, stoves, cars, but that doesn’t change the underlying patriarchal culture.

The societal expectations of a woman of her class and education work against Claire in 1948, so the pressure to conform would have been considerable.  And it shows up everywhere, at home, the busy-body neighbor, during the boss’s party, even at the hospital, everyone was either judging her or even actively working to take Claire’s ability to decide for herself what she should do and what she can say.

Her helplessness in the paternalistic society of post-war America, which was extremely hostile to independently-minded women like her, had nicely echoed Jamie’s helplessness in the wake of the slaughter at Culloden.  Once he fell underneath Jack, he couldn’t walk, much less fight back. He couldn’t even manage to die. Lord Melton, Hal Grey (Sam Hoare) denied him that.

It’s daunting that Claire is alone in a battle for her independence, not even Frank is totally on her side.  Yet there were several times when she had a chance to push back, which she did with varying levels of success.  Taking on a touchy gas stove, or Frank’s ass of a boss, is one thing, but she couldn’t get her way when it came to giving birth.  The doctor didn’t give her a chance to even protest, he had her sedated against her will almost as soon as he saw she wasn’t going to cooperate.  Going forward through this season, Claire will definitely have her work cut out for her to make the sort of life she wants for herself in the 20th Century.

It was a beautiful setup for the season.  Claire now knows the battle she will need to fight in order to take some control of her life.  For Jamie, his path will be more difficult. He didn’t die like he wanted, but now that he’s made it back home no doubt there will be a lot of drama as he works out whether he can find a reason to want to live.

While the story for the episode benefitted from strong writing, directing, and stellar acting by the entire cast, for me Sam Heughan’s performance was really what made the hour such a strong outing for the show.

The only thing I am sorry for was that they didn’t give us more of Jamie at the standing stones, but the few seconds we saw of that were heartbreaking.  While Sam was fantastic in the entire episode, the most powerful moment of his performance was when he waited to hear Rupert (Grant O’Rourke) being shot.

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Reading the script on Outlander’s Community pages, I was surprised the action direction for that in the script was very sparse…

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Sam Heughan did a lot with so little.

In what has become a signature of Outlander’s, key moments of the books can be stretched out in a flashback/flashforward structure so they take up more screen time. This was a pivotal moment for Jamie, so his death scene lasted almost the entire episode.  Not that Jamie ended up dying, but who knew someone could make engaging TV out of 55 minutes or so of a man dying while flat on his back?

And Sam made it heartbreaking to watch, all while avoiding the common pitfalls of death scenes on TV dramas: becoming an excuse for scenery-chewing overacting.  He figured out the right amount of pathos to infuse into his portrayal of Jamie’s episode-long death scene, without going overboard into something overly melodramatic.  His gentle touch with this made all the difference and turned the episode into an extremely engaging one I watched more times than I want to admit.

For the most part, Caitriona Balfe’s performance as Claire was terrific, but there were moments that I didn’t ‘buy.’  The main problem I had with her performance was that when she flung that ashtray at Frank during their fight it seemed to come a bit out of the blue. Maybe if the camera hadn’t been so far away from her, like I mentioned above, that moment might have worked better for me.

Another thing that bothers me a bit is that Caitriona can be too careful about what she does with her hands.   While the deliberately delicate nature of her business (small things actors do to keep their hands busy as they act) was sometimes exaggerated enough to pull me out of the scene, overall I was touched by her performance.

Claire is not in an enviable position, still mourning the soul mate she left behind, she has to build a life with the man who she loved once. She is settling for Frank because she needs to in order to protect Jamie’s baby. Claire isn’t happy with the situation, but thinking that Jamie died at Culloden she really has little choice.  She grins and bears it, and Caitriona does a brilliant job at portraying Claire totally over it.

And how infuriating it must be to have all modern conveniences, hot baths, and refrigerators, but to have to deal with the sexism and patronizing men like Frank’s boss… The way that Caitriona played that scene at the office party, it was clear she would have killed that infuriating man on the spot if she could have gotten away with it.

I love Tobias Menzies.  He is awesome in his double role. Frank clearly loves Claire and is willing to go through a lot to support her and her baby.  I adored how proud he played Frank when Claire was speaking with his boss, as if to say ‘see, my wife is more than just pretty, she’s also very smart’ only for the sexist ass to patronize and belittle her.

For me, the fight that Black Jack had with Jamie was the best part of Tobias’s performance in this episode.  The fight was brutal and desperate, yet Tobias had Jack find a sort of joy in it. And at the last when Jack reached out for Jamie as his final act, Tobias played it almost like Jack was grasping for someone he loved as he was about to die.  It was a beautiful performance.

Grant O’Rourke was fantastic as Rupert MacKenzie.   He had his normal mix of acerbic joviality and straight-forward Scots pragmatism.  His farewell to Jamie was touching, and the comment to the sergeant to ‘try and keep up’ was perfectly played. It was a good send-off for the character.

While the ‘The Battle Joined’ was probably one of the best episodes of the series so far, there were some lingering questions left at the end.

Like, what the hell is the deal with not showing what happened to Murtagh?  Executive Producer Maril Davis said in a tweet from Sony’s account that we’d find out.

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Though I hope finding out about Murtagh’s fate happens sooner, rather than later.

And what are they going to do with Frank’s letter to Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet)?  In the book, Frank looked for Jamie and found him.  With the Reverend’s help, he knew far more about what happened with Jamie, Claire, and Brianna in the past than Claire ever realized.

However, in the books, that wasn’t revealed until much, much later.  In fact, most of that was revealed in book 8, “Written in My Heart’s Own Blood.” So what they’re doing with that is a definite change.  It’ll be interesting to see where they go with it.

I really how they introduced the 20th Century’s casual sexism, misogyny, and ‘toxic masculinity’ into the show, it will act as a motivating force for Claire. It’ll help establish just how difficult becoming a doctor would have been for Claire back then.  It’s something that Diana didn’t spend a lot of time addressing in the books, so it’s good to see it explored more in the show.

Overall, this was a fantastic outing for the series.  Even with the few problems I had, it stands as one of the best episodes of the show. The beauty of the opening battle sequences really, and Sam Heughan’s and Tobias Menzies’ strong performances made it really stand out.

5 out of 5 Saltire Flags

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A couple of oddities:

– At the end of Dragonfly in Amber, episode 2.13, Roger says the wounded soldiers were in a house, and this episode has them in a barn.

– In the hospital, Claire said she had a miscarriage about a year before. But at that point, it would have been more like two years (or 202 years) before.  Claire miscarried Faith in the summer after she married Jamie, so in 1744, which would have been like 1946 in the 20th Century.

 

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