outlander 303 – all debts paid – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, tobias menzies, david berry, 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. (Except for the title card, that’s mine.)

Terry Dresbach’s drawing of Claire’s graduation suit, courtesy of STARZ.


NOTES on Episode:

The 18th Century bits of this episode was based on events from Chapters 8 through 12 in Voyager, and a little bit from the beginning of Chapter 14.  Most of the 20th Century parts are original to the series, except for a few bits toward the end that were taken from Chapter 19.


Review:

The episode started out with an unexpectedly happy scene between Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Frank (Tobias Menzies).  Frank is quite the house-husband, cooking breakfast while Claire was studying.  In a bit of twist, she asks him on a date in the same way a stereotypically hardworking husband might ask his stay-at-home wife, a la ‘I’ve got time tonight, darling. Let’s go out.’  However, the show quickly makes it clear that this glimpse of domestic tranquility is just a façade.

It sets the stage for a marriage held together by a thin veneer of civility.  They stay married not just out of convenience, but out of necessity, as each succeeding 20th Century scene shows.  The different scenes whip through huge chunks of Claire and Frank’s disintegrating marriage, showing brief glimpses of their lives.

First, there was what ended up being a very uncomfortable breakfast, then the unexpected and humiliating appearance of Frank’s lover at Claire’s medical school graduation party, a nasty argument with a drunken Frank, an uncomfortable 16th birthday celebration with Brianna (Sophie Skelton), and then Bree’s high school graduation.  Then, there was confrontation when Frank said he has had enough and was going back to England and that he would take Brianna with him.

Interspersed are scenes with Jamie back in 1755 and 1756, now a prisoner at Ardsmuir, with the new Governor Major John William Grey (David Berry) and the barely-alive Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix).  We last saw John Grey in the 2nd season’s episode ‘Je Sui Prest’ as a 16-year-old (then played by Oscar Kennedy), and Murtagh was previously last seen in the season opener, ‘The Battle Joined.’

Lord John is an important secondary character, with a complicated relationship with Jamie, and later becomes his friend.  Lord John’s introduction in this episode is not quite the same as the book, but the show gave him needed weight as a character who will be part of Jamie’s life for decades to come.

As for Murtagh, Jamie’s Godfather and trusted right-hand man in previous seasons, he died at Culloden in the books.  Him surviving and being imprisoned in Ardsmuir with Jamie is the biggest departure from the books that the series has done up until this point.

Immediately, Murtagh’s presence saves the show from the necessity of adding in voiceovers for Jamie, as the show would likely have needed as he dealt with Duncan Kerr’s revelations about the French gold and White Witches, and the possibility the ‘White Witch’ was actually Claire.  So, Murtagh came in handy for the series, but what about longterm?

Murtagh plays a different role in this episode than the most likely book character he may have replaced, Duncan Innes.  In the book, a one-armed shyly quiet man, Duncan is almost the polar opposite of the show’s version of Murtagh, who is bluntly honest and to the point.

While Duncan Innis doesn’t have much of a role in Jamie’s life at Ardsmuir, if Murtagh is replacing him that becomes a more interesting choice.  Duncan becomes a bigger part of Jamie’s life later in the third book, but is largely absent from his life in subsequent books.

While Murtagh replacing Duncan seems to be the most popular pet theory, it’s Duncan’s absence from Jamie’s life later is the reason I don’t think he is.  I don’t think they’d let Murtagh survive Culloden, only to send him off to do other things apart from Jamie later.

So, Murtagh perhaps isn’t replacing him, but Jamie’s godfather acts as a sort of an amalgam of many of the men in the book who had been in Ardsmuir with Jamie.  Much in the same way that Frank’s many alleged mistresses in the book became a single love-affair with Sandy (Sarah MacRae) in the show: those many men becoming Murtagh simplifies things, and focuses them.  When you only have one episode to spend on something, better to have one person for the lead to deal with, rather than several… So Jamie caring for Murtagh as he battles an upper respiratory infection (or whatever it was) stands in for Jamie caring for many men in the books.

Simplifying and focusing things is likely why they also had Jamie taken off to Helwater at the same time as the men get transported.  In the book, Jamie stays behind for several months until Lord John could arrange for him to be paroled at Helwater, the home of a close friend of John’s.

In the book, accompanied by Lord John, Jamie rode away from Ardsmuir, angry and embittered by being parted from his men, even while he was relieved not to have to deal with his epic seasickness for months it would take to travel across an ocean. What the show did instead had worked very well: a lonely ride with Lord John replaced with a painfully sudden and unexpected parting with his loyal friend and godfather, Murtagh, in the show.  It gives the moment more emotional weight and was heartbreaking.

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Though, the way that Jamie was dragged behind Lord John’s horse I initially thought was an odd choice.

Even author Diana Gabaldon went off about it in a comment on her forum on CompuServe.

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However, after reading the script online and watching the episode again, I am of a different mind about that choice.

In the book, Jamie was more or less resigned to be living at this point in the story. Jamie no longer had the death wish he had at Culloden, and he was more engaged in life than he had been while living in the cave.  It’s different in the show.

In the series, Jamie’s main issue in prison was that he hadn’t really moved on from Claire’s loss, so much so even speaking her name was painful to him.  He didn’t say speak it aloud at all to Murtagh when talking about a ‘lass’ who knew about healing.  Nor did he when he initially mentioned his wife to Lord John, he said she was a healer and that she was gone, but didn’t say her name out of his continued grief.

Devastated by his inability to find her when he had escaped, finally convinced he would never see her again, Jamie had offered himself up to John so that he could fulfill his promise. (‘Murder by military prison governor’ must be the 18th Century version of ‘murder by cop.’) Though, as an honorable man, Lord John refused to accommodate Jamie’s death wish.  This showed to me that Jamie, aside from taking care of Murtagh, wasn’t really willingly amongst the living.  Much like when Hal Grey saved him at Culloden, John not slitting his throat was not something he was grateful for.

This showed that Jamie wasn’t really willingly amongst the living.  Much like when Hal Grey saved him at Culloden, John not slitting his throat was not something he was grateful for.

So, when John dragged him away from Ardsmuir, Jamie was a man with little desire to live.  This is especially so after being separated from the other men and his beloved godfather, Murtagh.

But as he stated, John couldn’t just free Jamie, nor commute his sentence to transportation without an order of the King, who hadn’t seen fit to order that.  So, John did the next best thing he could, take Jamie to Helwater.  Yes, as a paroled prisoner Jamie will be a servant, but in essence a virtual slave and not free to leave.  However, like the book, it will be a life among horses.  It is not Jamie’s Scottish Highland home, but it’s still a hopeful change for the better.As for Frank and Claire, his ending was fitting.  Frank’s role in Brianna and Claire’s lives was thankless in some ways.  He provided support and love, but now that Bree is an adult, he was over being useless to Claire. She could earn her own living, so she didn’t love him and didn’t need him for financial support, so I don’t blame him for wanting to reach for whatever love he could get. He may not love Sandy as much as he did Claire, but at least she loves him back.

As for Frank and Claire, his ending was fitting.  Frank’s story is tragic, he was hopelessly in love with Claire and lived a lifetime with her in vain hope she might return his love, but he just couldn’t compete with Jamie.  Yet, when he died, freeing Claire from that complication in her life, she still mourned his loss.  Her grief at his passing was heartbreaking, but as she went to the door to leave Frank behind it was a bit of a hopeful ending.

While the episode was solidly written, directed and acted, it generally suffered from the cuts made (apparently) for time.   Having the script available online really is a valuable resource for fans of the show, and help inform reviews like this one, it really is a double-edged sword.  So much had been trimmed from almost every scene in the Ardsmuir parts that the episode had a choppy feel to it. I wish they could have found a way to not be quite as brutal in the editing bay…Still, given the episode’s flaws, it is probably my favorite so far in this season because of the power of the performances.

David Berry in his debut as Lord John Grey proved himself the perfect choice for the part.  His Lord John was dignified, honorable, and (by the end of the episode) in love with Jamie.

It was a subtle performance, and it needed to be.  David couldn’t telegraph John’s love for Jamie by the time he got to that point of the episode because it couldn’t be obvious enough for Jamie to realize the man’s feelings for him had become romantic.  It had to be a shock when he caressed Jamie’s hand, and it was. The moment after Jamie got up, John was devastated and humiliated and David perfectly played that.  The tears that welled up as Jamie walked away from their chess game was heartbreaking.

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As David’s primary scene partner, Sam Heughan was fantastic as Jamie Fraser and the two men had wonderful chemistry together.  Jamie had a very tough episode and went through hell.

Sam is always good, but this episode was an extra strong outing for him.  Ever since ‘The Battle Joined,’ he has played Jamie as darker.  He was not only less cheerful, his voice is deeper, his very physical presence is more menacing.  The way that Sam played Jamie, he is clearly a very dangerous man.

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Throughout the episode, Sam took Jamie very capably from one emotion to another, even sometimes within the same scene.  From Jamie’s joy at eating the pheasant with a burgundy wine sauce, to the devastation when John refused to kill him, to his quiet bonding with John over chess which was followed almost immediately with the horror, fear, and revulsion he felt when John made his unwelcome advance.

In that scene, the strain of holding in his emotions and staying outwardly calm, even as he was shattered emotionally, was apparent on his face and in his physicality. Sam’s acting is truly awe-inspiring.

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Over in the 20th Century scenes, Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies were more than holding up their fair share of the heavy lifting in this episode. And while Caitriona had moments where her artfully delicate way of handling of props was out of place in Claire’s more emotional scenes, she portrayed the depth of Claire’s emotions beautifully.

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She was especially effective after Frank died and the ending scene at Frank’s deathbed was devastatingly powerful.

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Tobias, in likely his last outing as Frank, was stellar.  His anger and frustration in Frank’s arguments with Claire were perfectly delivered.   Frank is a somewhat hard character to love, but Tobias managed to believably mix a Black-Jack level of danger with Frank’s more geeky nature.  He was truly a beautiful choice as Frank/Black Jack, and this episode was an excellent way to say goodbye to Frank, just as ‘The Battle Joined’ was a beautiful goodbye to Jack.

One of the stronger parts of this episode was the beautiful Costume Design of Terry Dresbach.  It must be a joy to create clothes for Caitriona Balfe, she was simply stunning in the cream-colored suit she wore for Claire’s graduation party.

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Although, I was a bit confused why Lord John’s uniform coat did not fit him better.

 

He is the younger son of a wealthy noble family.  He doesn’t have a title of his own, but he is a rich man in his own right and his uniforms should be perfectly tailored,  yet his uniform coat and pants are extremely baggy on him.

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David Berry was reportedly cast at the last minute and he was filming within days of getting the job, but did they not have time to do any fittings? With the way the shoulders drooped and how loose the coat was on him, it looked like it was made for a taller, broader man.

Despite the episode’s missteps, and there were more than a few, this is one of the strongest outings of the series based on the stellar performances.

4.75 shackles out of 5

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Odd things I noticed:

– Before meeting the soldiers in the road, Duncan Kerr looked to be walking at a pretty brisk pace for a man who was on the brink of death hours later.

– When Jamie is marched out to talk to John after the soldiers find Duncan Kerr, the shackle on his right ankle comes undone and got dragged behind him.

 

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