outlander 401 – america the beautiful – thoughts on the episode, sam heughan, caitriona balfe, john bell, and the book adaptation

outlander-s04e02-america-the-beautiful-title-card

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

Screencaps courtesy of Outlander Online.  Map of Colonial North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia courtesy of UNC University Libraries.

NOTE:

Set in 1767, this episode was largely based on Chapters 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9 of “Drums of Autumn, though the stone circle in North Carolina was originally revealed in Chapter 51.  Ian and Jamie’s conversation about what happened with Geillis was from Chapter 62 of “Voyager” (book 3) and the story Bonnet tells Claire about the drowning nightmares he’d had all his life was revealed to a different character in Chapter 105 of “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” (book 6).


 

Written by Executive Producers Matthew B. Roberts and Toni Graphia, the events in this episode dealt with a pretty large chunk of the book, totaling more than 130 pages (the Kindle edition).  That totals about 1/8th of the book, so there was a lot of material to jam into the episode.

While the series in the past had successfully crammed huge chunks of the books into a single episode, their efforts in this episode in that regard were a bit more hit-or-miss.  Also, jammed full with expository elements, the episode struggled to maintain a consistent tone.    It was talky, funny, tragic, sexy, romantic, suspenseful, and at times chaotic… It was like the episode didn’t know what it needed to be.

That said, there was also some great stuff in this episode.  For one, I liked that they introduced Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) earlier than they had in the book.  In the book, the conversation Jamie (Sam Heughan) had in the jail with Hayes (James Allenby-Kirk) took place ‘off-screen,’ as it were.  Jamie only talked about it after the fact.  It was good they fleshed out that scene.  Hayes had a smaller part in the book and his loss didn’t seem as emotional for Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), but in the show, the role was expanded.  It really paid off when Hayes (inevitably) was executed and made the loss more impactful.  (Though, in the book, he was executed for theft, not murder.)  So, not only had we a better introduction to Bonnet, we got to spend more time with Hayes.

I adored the caithris (a lament for the dead) that Lesley (Keith Fleming) started.  It was nearly perfect.  Keith has a remarkably beautiful voice, and the scene was touching.  It was heartwarming and beautifully staged.

Another great choice was having Ian (John Bell) experience a flashback to his traumatic sexual assault at the end of last season.  The scene was based on one in “Voyager,” but it happened without a flashback there.  The show hadn’t had time to spend on it in 3.13 (Eye of the Storm), which is where it would have happened last season, so it was fitting they put that scene in here. It was also a welcome change they gave Ian a flashback.  The change made the scene more visceral and reminds show-only fans and new viewers of what happened to Ian last season.  It was also not only a wonderful bonding moment for the two men but showed the immensity of the emotional impact Geillis’ assault had on Ian.

“Outlander” has been criticized as using sexual assault too much as a plot point, but in other shows, sexual assault is usually a plot expediency and the characters don’t really seem to have any long-lasting consequences.  In ‘Outlander’ they have the aftermath be far more profound for the characters.  What is not usual for television shows, in general, is that this show also gives the characters time to struggle with the impact and show how they are healing.   It was good to see Ian struggle with the aftermath of the assault.

One thing I had a problem with was that Stephen Bonnet confessed to Claire (Caitriona Balfe) about his history of having nightmares about drowning.  Not that it wasn’t a good idea, I liked how the show used that to give Bonnet an opportunity to try and have a bonding moment with Claire, but it seemed like such a non-sequitur.  I mean, Claire said something about avoiding Bonnet needing to avoid the noose in the future, then all of sudden he’s talking about a nightmare?  It seemed to come from out of the blue.  It’s things like that which added to the choppy feel of the episode.  But why would they foreshadow something that won’t likely happen until late in season 6 (“A Breath of Snow and Ashes”) anyway?  It seemed an odd choice.

I didn’t like the opening either, perhaps it was good to show just how the stone circle might have come to be built (and maybe shows the one that should make an appearance in the show later this season).  Again, it just seemed like something that came out of the blue.  It didn’t really mesh with the voice-over either, in which Claire talked about circles created over ‘centuries’ but the text on the screen said ‘North America 2,000 BC…’ So, shouldn’t she have said something about ‘millennia’ instead?

I also didn’t like how the show changed the geography of North Carolina.  While the Colonial boundaries of the Carolinas in the 1760s don’t match up to the modern state borders…

1765_map_of_North_South_Carolina_Georgia

…Tennessee wasn’t a thing in the colonial period, the Cape Fear River is not in the foothills and there’s no way a day’s wagon ride from Wilmington would give Claire and Jamie a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The mountains are hundreds of miles away.  I can only suppose that it’s due to the location they built River Run on in Scotland, which might be in view of mountains, but I guess that will remain to be seen.

The change to the circumstances Jamie was asked to accept the land grant from Governor Tryon (Tim Downie) was a bit unexpected.  In the book, Jamie was under extra pressure to get men to fight under threat of disclosure that he was Catholic since royal land grants were only allowed to go to Protestants.  If the fact he was a Catholic got out, he would immediately lose the land grant.  It was a remarkably effective method of extortion in the book.

Here, in return for the land grant, Jamie will be under pressure to muster men at the request of the governor or he would need to pay a quitrent.  It wasn’t a term I was familiar with since quitrents were not brought up in the book.

Although in looking into them online the change makes sense.   Quitrents (a type of rent based on ancient English custom) were common fees charged to Colonial land grant holders so it was probably a mistake on Diana Gabaldon’s part to have not ever to have mentioned that. They were often waived to encourage settlement, which was what Tryon offered to do in this episode.  Historically, the quitrents were unevenly imposed and corruption was common since the payments were required to be in cash.  The quitrents in part led to the War of the Regulation (which will be a bigger factor in next season).

So, it makes sense they made that change and is also probably why they brought up the Regulators.  The lack of ready cash is a problem in a barter economy like Colonial North Carolina.  Poor cash flow will be a problem for Jamie and Claire throughout the rest of the series (if the show follows the books in that regard), so the promise to waive the quitrents in return for providing men for the defense of the government is probably a perfect shakedown for Tryon.

While I had no major problems with the episode as a whole, I did not like the ending.  Like, at all.  It wasn’t the musical choice, the Ray Charles version of ‘America The Beautiful’ is wonderful, and I liked the juxtaposition of that with the ugliness of what was going on while the music played.

It just felt like they were trying to recreate the emotional power of the ending of episode 3.04 (“Of Lost Things”), when Jamie rode away from Helwater.  It was a heartbreaking ending, but the situation was very different so using modern music wasn’t going to work the same way.   No one’s life was in danger in that episode, and what action there was wasn’t that involved (Jamie riding away and Willie running after him) and there wasn’t much dialogue.

Maybe it would have worked better if the dialogue hadn’t been totally silent.  In the beginning of the song, dialogue played, with the music underneath it, and that worked.  Yet, as the scene continued, the music got louder and the dialogue and sounds were completely cut out so all that the only sound heard was the song.  It turned the ending into a sort of an overly melodramatic pantomime that didn’t work.

Not hearing everything that was going on, the actions the actors took seemed extremely exaggerated and overwrought.  It reminded me of the more melodramatic silent films I had seen in a Narrative Film History class I took in college. D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” or Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” particularly come to mind.

Worse, music replacing the natural sound robbed the performances of any nuance, diluted the emotional impact and, which is worse, completely pulled me out of the scene.  It left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of what was otherwise a fairly solid episode.

I don’t feel like I can adequately critique the actors’ performances in their entirety with the ending the way it was, so I won’t even try.

Overall, this episode was enjoyable but the ending robbed it of some of its power, so I give this episode 3.5 out of a possible 5 Claire’s Wedding Rings.

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