Outlander: A Story in Pictures. Part 1

It’s actually Ellen Moody’s fault. Without her insightful articles, I would never have watched the series and so would have missed something very profound. Outlander is far more than a love story or a history piece. I was struck by how interconnected everything in the story was, time, events, the characters’ actions. There are parallels throughout, and you can both watch them as a very, very well done piece of storytelling and as something more, something spiritual, a story about fate and karma.

I have debated for quite some time how to do this article. I find it somewhat difficult to put into words how many of the things in the series work. It goes far beyond the story; its real fascination lies in the way it is written and presented, full of symbolism, parallels, closing circles, mirrors. I find myself lingering over how glances and gestures convey the depth of a scene without words; over inflexions or pauses in a speech; over how scenes are composed, how music points out connections to other scenes. So I am going to try it with the help of pictures. Any series or film is, naturally, first and foremost a visual medium. It cannot give us the same insight into a character’s thoughts and feelings that a book is able to do. And yet, Outlander has managed to move away from relying purely on speech to bridge that gap. In so many little things we actually see what a character is thinking without them having to vocalise it.
For this article, I’ve gathered stuff I’d already written on the subject from various places: My private blog, my comments on Ellen Moody’s blog, my article in this blog’s series “Unterhaltungsmedien und die Botschaft aus dem Licht”, notes on the TV series.
It might be worth noting that I watched the feature A Triangle in Time in the DVD specials only after concluding all the things about Jack and about Claire’s reaction in “The Garrison Commander” myself. I was very happy to see that I’d been spot-on. 🙂 My thanks to Ellen for pointing out the existence of a far more complex triangle than I’d first realised, and I really, really commend Tobias Menzies for his astute characterisation of Jack in The Making of Outlander. He absolutely gets the guy (which might be scary).

What struck me – especially with the role „Time“ as such plays in the story – is how all four central characters at some point in their lives get stuck in time. A part of them is caught at some moment in time while life goes on for the people around them. And them being out of sync, they react in a way that hurts people, whether they want to or not. Frank naturally can’t move on from losing his wife without knowing what happened to her. So when she returns more than two years later, his idea of their relationship is very different from hers, because for her so much has changed in the meantime, not the least her feelings for Frank. Basically the same happens with Claire who can’t get over the loss of Jamie, even twenty years later. Jack is fixed in the moment of Jamie’s second flogging. He has to learn that this experience which has been so important to him doesn’t mean nearly the same for Jamie like he has assumed all this time. Jack is only able to move on by reliving that moment, by acting out his fantasy of breaking and possessing Jamie. (We find his demeanour very changed, very relaxed, when he meets Claire and Jamie in France.)
Jamie’s case is interesting because I actually find two instances of him being „stuck“. The obvious one is his PTSD after Wentworth.* Then there is his capture at Lallybroch. He is tortured by his recollection of Jack going after Jenny, even believes Dougal’s story of Jenny giving birth to Jack’s child. I really like this example, as horrible as it comes across, because there is a great deal of humour in it, too. Jamie beats himself up, imagining some high drama; and Jenny, wonderful character that she is, simply goes: „Oh, you mean that guy all those years ago?“

This feeling of time is both enhanced by and mirrored in the colouring technique throughout the series. Looking back from some point in the future, Claire relays her time travel adventure, the events of 1945 and 1948 are represented in pale, cool colours, faded in Claire’s eyes and contrasted by the vibrant colours of the 1743 to 1745 storyline. Only at the very end, in Season 2’s final episode “Dragonfly in Amber”, is the reverse true: The present of 1968 really is very present in strong colours as contrasted with the grey Culloden storyline 1746.

One of the more obvious mirror scenes: Castle Leoch, switching from 1743 to 1945 and back.

And a bit more subtle: „How can you have me like this?“ – „I will have you any way I can. Always.“ Loves that are too great to give up. Claire and Frank both fight for their relationships.

With a deeply traumatised Jamie after Wentworth…

… and a grieving Claire after her return.

Tentative progress and new beginnings.

„I’ve always been drawn to hands. I think it’s because it’s the way that we touch people.“

Starting with the promotional material for Outlander’s first Season, hands have become one of the series‘ symbols in their own right.

Mirrors, again.

Hand lines and patterns.

Switching time: From the USA, 1948, to France, 1744.

Through a Glass, Darkly: The Doppelgänger Frank/Jack

For fans, Outlander is a love story between Claire and Jamie. In truth, there is much more to it. If we move beyond the obvious, we find something very old and archetypical in the story that transcends even the not-so-subtle love triangle between Claire, Jamie and Frank. But let’s stay with that for a moment. The triangle is always present, not only in Claire’s choice of returning to her own time and to Frank or staying in the past with Jamie. We are never allowed to forget this particular triangle through a story device that is older than Jungian psychoanalysis: The doppelgänger. Frank is very much present in Claire and Jamie’s story by way of his dark mirror image, Black Jack Randall, and thus we are confronted with a second triangle within the first one, that of Claire, Jamie and Jack.

In olden times, the doppelgänger was a sign of doom. To meet one’s doppelgänger meant certain death. It was an omen, a part of the „world beyond“, of the mystical. While Frank and Jack never meet in the story, the connection is there. Jack becomes the bane of Claire and Jamie’s love, the dark rival, something so evil and twisted as not quite of this world. The TV series develops a lot of symbolism here. Wentworth Prison becomes Hell, with Jamie as an aspect of Christ (the tortured back, the nailed hand, the wounded/branded side, the pieta image, Jack mocking Jamie’s Christ-like passivity in suffering, not least the resurrection from almost death, the empty tomb), and Jack of course as the ruler of this particular hell (in „Lallybroch“, Jamie remarks that there is a devil in Randall, and later on in Season 2 Murtagh calls him the devil’s spawn; Claire declares she’d be damned if Randall had Jamie’s soul as well as his body).

“To Ransom a Man’s Soul”: The title of the episode alone points out the religious subtext.

Iconography: The pieta.

But it goes even beyond that imagery.
Fantasy stories have dealt with the doppelgänger/twin in particular ways before; I recommend for example The Gemini Factor or Hellboy – The Golden Army. It is about a sort of split personality, of two halves or aspects of one personality. And as in the medieval imagery of the doppelgänger, there is a supernatural connection between the two parts. Outlander does not use this symbolism directly, it instead transfers it to the whole of the triangle. We see it time and again: A hurt to one of the parties instantly backlashes. Jack attempts to hurt and rape Claire twice and gets knocked out both times. He tortures, rapes and almost kills Jamie and is almost killed in return. Jamie seemingly kills Jack (and thereby Frank) in the duel, and Claire loses her child (and almost her life) as a result. None of it happens when the triangle is incomplete, as in the case of Jamie’s flogging or Jack’s death at Culloden.

Mirror scenes: “The Garrison Commander” / “The Hail Mary”. Two conversations about redemption

Both episodes have become favourites of mine. While „The Garrison Commander“ also packs a powerful punch in incorporating a flashback to Jamie’s second flogging and „The Hail Mary“ tells a story of two sets of brothers, the two episodes are bookends with corresponding scenes. Claire and Jack’s second meeting is mirrored by their second-to-last meeting.
„The Garrison Commander“ is a piece in the theatre tradition found usually once in every series: a one-on-one. Basically, two people sit around and talk and in so doing, they give the audience an insight into their personalities and motivations.

At this point, as seen in the previous episodes, Claire is missing Frank very much. Now suddenly she is confronted with the man who looks so similar to Frank in this timeline. Though she has not forgotten their first meeting, she is willing or at least hoping to see some part of Frank in Jack. Her entire behaviour towards Jack is influenced by that hope. Her two lives, so to speak, intertwine in this episode. The title card already gives it away by placing Frank’s watch next to Jack’s shaving kit. A symbol of the connection of the two men in Claire’s mind and of time that both connects and separates them?

Jack’s disclosure of the darkness inside him; Claire crying, not so much about Jamie here, I think, or about the horrible events at Fort William, but about the loss of all the good she imagines in Jack via his (perceived) connection to Frank. Her happiness when she believes she has succeeded in redeeming him. And when Jack effectively kills that belief, it also in a way marks the end of Claire’s love for Frank. It’s somewhat telling that what follows is her marriage to another man. While she does try to return to Frank in „Both Sides Now“, it already is more an escape *from* the changes she notices in herself than an escape *to* Frank.

Redemption again comes into play in „The Hail Mary“ when Claire attempts to convince Jack to go along with his brother’s wishes while Jack tries to enlist Claire’s help in convincing Alex otherwise. Again, we have a heart-to-heart, he reflecting, baring his soul, she trying to get him to do the right thing. In a twist, this time around Claire doesn’t try to save his soul while we get the feeling that’s more or less the very thing Jack asks of her. I like the prolonged pause after his anguished „Help me…“ before he continues with the sentence.

Both scenes are prime examples how in Outlander so much is said without words, and both are superbly enacted by Caitriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies.

The Cup of Evil

The producers, of course, play with the audience’s expectations once in a while. Just as Claire’s point of view slowly changes from „Frank in Jack“ to „Jack in Frank“, the audience subconsciously start to do the same. The series runs with this in the grand finale of Season 1’s first half, „Both Sides Now“, and in the first episode of Season 2, „Through a Glass, Darkly“. Seeing Frank after quite a bit of exposure to Jack, the question undeniably hovers in the air: Will his inner Jack emerge or not? And so the writers go for it in „Both Sides Now“ when Frank unleashes what Brianna later calls his temper on the trio of muggers.

Mirrored again in “Wentworth Prison” when Jack strangles Claire.

„Through a Glass, Darkly“ is done even more cleverly: Our last (and lasting) impression of Jack/Frank in Season 1 has been the horrors of Wentworth Prison. Fast forward to 1948 and Claire and Frank’s reunion. Just as Claire first recoils from him, there is this lingering unease somewhere for the audience. And sure enough, what we get is Frank almost raising his hand to Claire. Almost. Because, as we realise, he is still a good and loving man.

Reverend Wakefield’s speech of the cup of evil – one of the most beautiful speeches in the entire series – and his subsequent conversation with Frank in “Both Sides Now” again mirrors Jack’s case. “[Evil] finds purchase in good men by giving sin the sweet taste of ecstasy,” the Reverend warns, asking Frank to turn away from the darkness that beckons him. “Darkness” is a word invariably associated with Jack; he mentions it several times himself, the darkness that has grown inside him, the darkness he inhabits, dwells in; the darkness he belongs in. We see Frank at basically the same crossroad as Jack two centuries before him, knowing where Jack’s choice led him and where Frank might end up. Jack chose the dark road, allowing evil to find purchase in him… and that he once was a good man we can still see in the remnants, the pitiful, twisted ruins of his former virtues. Alex who knew Jack long before his fall praises his tenderness and generosity, and while that might make the audience scoff, Jack’s honour, tenderness and generosity actually are still recognisable even in their horribly perverted form, as seen in the cases of Jenny and Jamie.

The doppelgänger connection doesn’t ever stop. I was delighted to find it even in Season 2’s final episode „Dragonfly in Amber“ that doesn’t star Tobias Menzies at all! But the 1968 storyline is full of recollections of Frank and so it becomes an echo of Jack as well. Three times is a charm when Roger remembers Frank’s habit of wearing „his hat down over one eye – very dashing.“ „Dashing“ has been used twice before in the series, both times to describe Jack. Frank likes Jack’s „dashing“ nickname; Annalise admires the „dashing“ gentleman in the gardens of Versailles unable to keep his eyes off Claire.
The connection continues as Roger remembers Frank as kind. „The kindest man in the world,“ agrees Brianna while the camera comes to rest on the platform where Jack once flogged Jamie almost to death.

For those interested in a more spiritual approach to the doppelgänger question, see my interpretation of Frank as Jack’s reincarnation. English translation in the comments section: https://clarissaschnabel.wordpress.com/2017/03/14/unterhaltungsmedien-und-die-botschaft-aus-dem-licht-outlander-aus-der-sicht-von-schicksal-und-reinkarnation/

Interestingly, the mirror image in the triangle is not only Frank/Jack. As we move into Season 1’s horrid finale, the line between Claire and Jack begins to blur in Jamie’s tortured mind. Delirious with pain, to him they become interchangeable, something Jack consciously plays upon and Claire later imitates, unknowingly at first but as a last resort in the end.

The extended dream sequence of „Not in Scotland Anymore“ underlines the connection much better than the broadcasted version. In his soon-to-become nightmare, Jamie interacts with Claire, yet her words, her mannerisms are clearly Jack’s.

Mirror scenes: “The Wedding” / “Wentworth Prison” / “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”

Since Anna Foerster directed all three episodes, she consciously established parallels. This is of course an acknowledgement of the triangle/connection already discussed in this article, a twisted dark mirror of love, lust, and desire.

Jamie and Jack both toasts the joyous occasion…

… both their objects of desire rather prefer to get drunk.

The creepy thing, as the events in Wentworth are presented, is not the violence. I absolutely commend writer and director for not making it that easy. For Jack, this actually is about lovemaking. Sure, his default setting is to hurt people at the smallest provocation, but in this instance we really get the feeling that he would have preferred not to. He is sincere in his wish to make this a „pleasant experience“ – it is only when Jamie refuses to go along with it that it becomes about submission by any means necessary.

There are several more parallels; but as they move more and more into the intimate, I won’t post pictures here. (I hope the audience notice that there’s actually a span of time where we can only imagine what happened? Jamie simply sums it up in that Randall made him crawl and beg.)

Just as “Wentworth Prison” and “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” are mirrors of “The Wedding”, so we actually find all points of the triangle “wedded” to one another in the course of the series. Jamie and Claire, Claire and Frank, even Jack (and Mary Hawkins) get proper weddings; as just discussed, Jack and Jamie have that twisted imitation of a wedding night; and as Part 2 of this article will show, Claire and Jack also get their chance of enacting a scene from wedded life – in a comedic way for a change.

Jack’s molestation and torture of, well, quite a lot of characters in the story is never mainly about sex. When one looks at all the scenes, it is always about submission, as corny as it sounds. There is a certain nasty, sick rationale about it that reminds me of characters from de Sade novels who also rationalise their abuse of others. If Claire had thrown herself upon Jack’s mercy during their first encounter, he might even have acted the gentleman. Instead she runs, insults him, spits at him. Jamie at Fort William is first given the chance of escaping his second flogging altogether by having sex with Jack, and later on, during the flogging, by being asked repeatedly if he is ready to give in, to beg for mercy. (Jack’s obsession with Jamie really starts with Jamie’s repeated refusal to submit to him.) Jenny is offered the choice between watching her brother die and submitting to Jack sexually. The list goes on and on. It is about exerting his will and his power over others, by any means he perceives as necessary. And yet it is very specifically about active submission, not simply subduing someone. His victims have to take an active part in the proceedings, even (particularly?) if it means to sacrifice their integrity.
Another creepy pattern is Jack’s tit-for-tat response: Jenny submits to him, he is gentle to her. Jenny hits him, he hits her back. Claire during their first meeting disrespects him, he disrespects her back. In “The Garrison Commander” Claire and Jack come to the “My honesty will match yours” agreement which Claire for obvious reasons cannot uphold, while he bares his inner darkness to her, and in return he feels he is owed the truth from her, by her free will or not. At Wentworth, it’s about Jamie’s word of honour against Jack’s. There really is a logic to his behaviour, even if it’s a horrible one.

* What I find has never been properly addressed, maybe because we’re so modern and open and politically correct?, is a huge part of Jamie’s trauma. The way it is presented in Season 1, his problem centres mainly on his feeling that he has betrayed Claire, that he has been unfaithful to her. Which in the real world would hardly be the point at all. It’s only in Season 2 that the real problem is suggested – we never find it spoken about, which is weird in a TV series that features a lot of very direct stuff! As a man of his time (and of any time, really), I think what really gets to Jamie is the destruction of his male self-image. Not only has he been raped, he has had sex with a man, his torturer in fact, and enjoyed it. Now, we know he doesn’t swing that way, and he knows it, but the idea of it all messes with his head. There is nothing macho about it when I say he feels emasculated. The closest the series comes to pointing this out is during Claire and Jamie’s (grandiose) 69 fight when Jamie confesses to feeling like a man again.


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  1. Pingback: Claire… backt? | schnabeline

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