outlander 309 – the doldrums – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, gary young, and the book adaptation

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

Screencaps courtesy of Outlander Online, other photos belong to their respective rights holders and to STARZ.


NOTE:

This episode is set in 1767 and was based on Chapters 39 – 46 of ‘Voyager.’


Written by Supervising Producer Shannon Goss, a veteran writer-producer of shows ‘ER,’ ‘Reign,’ and ‘Revenge,’ this is her first script for ‘Outlander.’

It’s a complicated bit of the book, involving far more than could fit into this one hour.  They always have to trim and things are ‘cut for time’ in almost every episode.

Yet, over the course of the series, some things they cut are debatable on whether they maybe shouldn’t have been. For me, that was not really the case for this episode.  They compressed and combined things, but it all made sense.

One thing they improved upon, however, was how the show has portrayed Yi Tien Cho, or Mr. Willoughby (Gary Young). He is different than how he’d been depicted in the book.

Willoughby’s story in the book is full of racist stereotypes. He’s extremely short, a drunk, a foot fetishist (because of the ancient foot-binding practice in China), and was more than a wee bit creepy.  The show has not only given his character a more positive rendering, but also some needed depth.

The character is supposedly a gifted poet, but to be honest I’m not sure if that was really apparent in the book, aside from the retelling of his story to the crew.  Here, he writes poems in Chinese with water on a dry deck.

outlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-willoughby-deck-writing

It’s poetic, making his poems ephemeral and transitory as what he’s written evaporates in the dry air, written in a language that only he understands.  It’s poetically sad and beautiful, and nothing like that is in the book.

Him explaining to Claire (Caitriona Balfe) that he could only tell his story when he was done with it because he would have to then let it go, shows a poetic sort of ennui.  The show’s version of Yi Tien Cho clearly is a poet, and (aside from accosting the prostitute at the World’s End in ‘A. Malcolm’) his story was given a sense of grace and artistry, thanks to the skill of the writing and the beautiful performance of Gary Young.

Willoughby’s heart-wrenching speech about his origin was extremely powerful and perfectly delivered by Gary Young.  It was a shorter speech than in the book, yet they managed to keep the core of Willoughby’s origin story and didn’t undermine the power of it.

How Willoughby was reworked for the show was a positive improvement over the book, but his redemption as a character really pays off when he tells his story.  His story and the fact he rescues poor Hayes (James Allenby-Kirk) from the intense bullying he was subjected to by the crew and somehow makes the wind appear at the same time, makes him a far more positive character than he was in the book. It also humanized Willoughby, making him more likable and a richer character. It is a neat trick, especially given Gary kept a touch of the bitterness Willoughby feels for his extreme change in circumstances.

Yi Tien Cho went from a prominent place as a poet in the Imperial Court in China with no doubt many romantic options, to being a bootlegger and thief among ‘Barbarian’ Scots, who is spurned by all women, even the lowest of whores.  I would probably be somewhat bitter myself, were I in his shoes…

While I thought the writing showed skill in how the story played out, and how the characters acted and interacted with others, in terms of writing as a craft, the script was technically well-done.  The writing has a sort of grace, in and of itself.

I like how neat and spare the action descriptions are.  Sometimes, the prose within screenplays can be somewhat… clunky, for lack of a better word, saying inelegantly what the writer’s intent for the scene is.

Not that I’m not saying that other Outlander scripts are ‘bad,’ per se, in that way.  Yet, this screenplay reads differently enough from the other scripts for the show that it’s notable.

As a fan of the well-written word, with some writing experience and a film school and screenwriting education, I’ve read my fair share of feature film and TV scripts.  Believe me when I say that clunky and trite action writing is the standard operating procedure for most screenplays.  Even professional screenplays of produced movies and TV shows can come off as amateurish because of this.  Others try too hard to be ‘hip’ in the use of language and slang so it comes off as forced, so that can make it rather hard to slog through reading.

Not here.

Give these screenshots a look, the prose of the action description is very brief and yet so evocative…

Screen Shot 2017-12-06 at 10.51.31 PM

I love that exchange between Fergus (César Domboy) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), and the action line underscores just how right Fergus is about the BS that Jamie is speaking, yet how stubborn Jamie is about his point of view on the matter…

outlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-jamie-and-fergus-cabin

 

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I love how Shannon combines her brief action descriptions with refreshingly upfront language…

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And a few pages later…

Screen Shot 2017-12-08 at 2.50.33 AM

 

It made for a very fast, enjoyable read.

Another thing I loved about the writing of this episode was the intimacy between Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jamie. It is what was largely missing in season two.

I’ve read criticism about the lack of the Frasers doing ‘it’ in season two, which (the typical thinking goes) caused a loss of closeness between Jamie and Claire.  However, I disagree that less coital bliss was the cause of that.

No, it was the result of a lack of intimacy.

You don’t have to have sex to be intimate.  You just have to be close, or to be in sync, with another person.  Season one had plenty of intimacy between Claire and Jamie.  This was even true of their interactions before they got married, even when no sex was being had.

That same sense of emotional connection was for the most part lacking in season two.  That was probably on purpose, given that Jamie wasn’t really himself post-Wentworth Prison.  This is especially true because the series decided to delay Jamie’s recovery of that trauma until season two, instead of including his recovery at the end of season one like what happened in the books.

That decision was largely a pragmatic one due to time restrictions, but that not only had consequences on Claire and Jamie’s sexual relationship, it reverberated through their emotional connection, at times even putting them at odds.  Aside from a handful of episodes, primarily the ones after their return to Scotland, aside from the few times they had sex Claire and Jamie were more like roommates, rather than soulmates.

This episode has a return of Jamie and Claire sharing intimacy, even more so than immediately after the reunion in ‘A. Malcolm.’ While they were intimate after their reunion, Jamie keeping his ill-conceived marriage to Laoghaire a secret for as long as he did put a wall between them.   This is the first episode where they’ve had a chance to be intimate since Claire found out about Laoghaire, so it was good to see them do some real reconnecting.

We saw them bond first up on deck while the ship was becalmed, with the talk about the moon and Brianna.  Then later they did more bonding after they made hasty, passionate love in the cable tier (the place on a ship where spare cable and rigging is stored).

outlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-jamie-and-claire-cable-tier

Them getting in touch with each other again, with intimate quiet conversation, was probably the best part of this episode.

I also loved the writing, but the primary addition to the novel’s story here maybe wasn’t all that great at first look.  I mean, the becalmed-ship/crazy-murderous-superstitious-crew storyline is not exactly unique…

Recently I saw the Russell Crowe film “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” on HBO. It’s an adaption of several novels in the Regency-era British Navy Aubrey-Maturin novel series by Patrick O’Brian. The film has an extensive storyline nearly identical to what they did here with the doldrums.

The crazy-murderous-superstitious crew in that film had also blamed a ‘Jonah’ for the loss of wind, just like how the Artemis’s crew did.  At least in this episode’s story, Hayes (James Allenby-Kirk) doesn’t end up throwing himself overboard out of despair like the ill-fated Ensign did in “Master and Commander,” though it was a very close thing.

There had even been a becalmed-ship-crazy-crew plotline in “Muppet Treasure Island...”  The ‘Cabin Fever’ number is adorable and fun.

Still, it is worth pointing out that being becalmed and the crew going crazy because of it is such a trite idea a kid’s movie spoofed it.

Yet, despite how hackneyed the idea is the storyline paid off.  I loved how the becalmed-sea/crazy-murderous-superstitious crew plot was resolved with Willoughby telling his story.  It was a beautifully written outing for the show.

The acting was outstanding in this episode, and Sam Heughan was fantastic as Jamie.  His tumultuous journey in this season continues with lots of ups and downs, and Sam portrays Jamie’s reactions to those perfectly.   From comedic moments as he suffered from severe seasickness…

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…To far more serious moments, like when tried to deal with Claire’s intent to go to the Porpoise….

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I liked the note he put in the script:

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There wasn’t a wrong note this entire episode.

Caitriona Balfe was terrific as Claire.  Her strongest moment was when Claire told Jamie that she missed Brianna (Sophie Skelton) so simply, with one word, ‘terribly…’  Caitriona infused such raw emotion into that one word, it was a powerful moment.

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I teared up each time I viewed this episode, and I saw it multiple times in writing this review.

Speaking of tearing up each time I saw this episode.  Gary Young’s performance as Willoughby as he told his story to the crew was so potent, I was moved to tears each time.  And I adored the way he wrote in Chinese on the deck.  Writing Chinese calligraphy on the deck was beautifully handled and it confirmed that Mr. Willoughby was not only a poet, but an artist.

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I don’t usually talk about stuff other than the writing and acting in my reviews of Outlander, which is different than what I did with my Smallville reviews…  Yet, I have to talk about the ships. This episode is the first one with the ships this season and they were truly things of beauty.

It’s hard to believe at times they are either on a set or in a life-sized recreation of an 18the Century ship that’s sitting in the parking lot of a production studio in South Africa.  It’s remarkable and was a joy to watch.

outlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-bts-shot-jamie-climbing-the-riggingoutlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-bts-shot-jamie-and-claire-on-deckoutlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-bts-shot-camera-crane-shot

The photography by Cinematographer Michael Swan was beautiful, with some beautifully smooth focus pulling (when the focus changes between two different subjects in the same take).  In addition, the set design by Jon Gary Steel was fantastic. He and his crew did a wonderful job redressing and reworking the Black Sails ships and sets to work with Outlander’s storylines.

What a fantastic episode.  I give this episode 5 out of a possible Yi Tien Cho’s poems.

outlander-s03e09-the-doldrums-chinese-calligraphy-via-MET

 

Other stuff:

  • When I decided to use Chinese calligraphy as an image for my grade of this review, I actually found a Chinese poem in the New York Metropolitan Museum’s collection that is an excellent example of Chinese calligraphy, and it turned out that it was a poem written on a boat.Screen Shot 2017-12-19 at 4.04.23 AM
    The way Gary Young had Willoughby write the poem, with his arm hanging down from his body, is just like how the work I found on The Met’s site was written:

    • “Sun Guoting’s Manual on Calligraphy (687) states that calligraphy reveals the character and emotions of the writer. Few works demonstrate this principle as clearly as this handscroll by Mi Fu, the leading calligrapher of late Northern Song. Mi wrote Sailing on the Wu River with a suspended arm, working from the elbow rather than the wrist. It was not his aim to form perfect characters; instead, he entrusted his writing to the force of the brush, giving free reign to idiosyncratic movements, collapsing and distorting the characters for the sake of expressiveness. Su Shi (1036–1101) likened Mi’s writing to “a sailboat in a gust of wind, or a warhorse charging into battle.””
      – (The Met)

The way Gary Young wrote the characters on the deck was like the above description the best of Chinese calligraphy.  Writing itself is best when it conveys the character and emotions of the writer, even through imperfectly shaped characters…

I hadn’t read anything on why the calligraphy writing in the episode was staged the way it was, but either Gary or the director David Moore must have known about that theory of writing in Chinese calligraphy.  I mean, Gary’s body as he wrote the poem on the deck was a demonstration of the writer as an artist, who reveals his character and emotional state as he writes.   It was beautifully done.

 

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4 thoughts on “outlander 309 – the doldrums – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, gary young, and the book adaptation

  1. Hello Cindy! I really like your point off view when you write about the Outlander series. Are you reviewing the rest off the episodes off season 3?
    Kinde regards /J

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    • I was going to, but life got in the way. I got way behind and no one seemed to notice I hadn’t written past this episode so I hadn’t. I have a very small readership, like each review gets about 40-50 unique views, so I really appreciate your comments! Thank you! I was going to do the rest sometime before season four, so stay tuned!

      Like

  2. I just discovered your reviews and I find them fantastic. I agree with you most of the time. I hope you will continue to comment on season 4!

    Like

    • i just posted one for 310 and hope to finish the previous seasons (I hadn’t done a complete season yet). I will try to do season 4, but it’s hard for me to finish in time so I hope I can keep up this season. Book 4 is one of my favorite books, so I hope I can do it.

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