Tuesday, 2 September 2014

OUTLANDER, 1.3 & 1.4 – 'The Way Out' & 'The Gathering'

Tuesday, 2 September 2014
FATHER BAIN (to Claire): I smell the vapours of hell in you.
If the first few episodes handled the set-up, this third hour was about adjustment as 20th-century time-traveller Claire (Caitriona Balfe) started to find her feet as a "stranger in a strange land". It was also a helpful instalment in terms of explaining why Claire doesn't try to take anyone into her confidence by telling them the truth of her predicament, as there was a brilliant fake-out moment when she imagined telling kindly Mrs Fitzgibbons (Annette Badland) about her timeslip, only to be branded a demon. And the rest of this episode's events proved Claire has to be very cautious about what she says, as the 18th-century is still a very superstitious and religious place.

This was primarily demonstrated through a local boy, Mrs Fitzgibbons' nephew, undergoing a pointless exorcism at the hands of zealous hard-liner Father Bain (Tim McInnerny)—despite the fact Claire knows the lad is just suffering fits and hallucinations brought about by accidental poisoning. Claire also had to deal more with the fact women are, in general, second-class citizens in this time—whereas in the 1940s, via flashback, we saw she was the one being sent to the front lines, and her dutiful husband had to wave her off, in a subtle role-reversal.

Claire's position as a healer is certainly a help, and her success rate is surely going to make her an increasingly powerful and respected part of the Clan MacKenzie, but she still has no real desire to hang around in this time. The presence of handsome Jamie (Sam Heughan) isn't quite enough just yet, as this week's episode took a little time to dial back their nascent romance. They clearly like each other and there's an attraction, but Claire's not going to cheat on her husband (who is still alive, if not technically born yet), while Jamie was glimpsed kissing another woman at Castle Leoch. So, while Claire looked a little jealous, it's a reminder they're still very much in the friend-zone right now—with Jamie happy to help Claire right some wrongs (like freeing a young thief nailed to some stocks through his ear), or accompanying her to various castle entertainments.

Of course, while the episode was about Claire standing up against outdated notions and barbaric practises (which I'm glad she wasn't completely flummoxed by), it was ironic that she has to accept that an old folk song half-accurately described the method of her own timeslip. She perhaps can't discount every weird belief she hears in the Highlands.

Overall, "The Way Out" was a decent third episode, which are always tricky things to write. This hour gave us a stronger flavour of what the week-to-week episodes of Outlander will be like, in-between the hours dealing with the bigger picture story of Claire's attempt to return home. I'm glad the show appears to have found an audience beyond the book-readers, too, as 1m tuned into this episode on Starz, which means it's steadily risen every single week after debuting with 0.72m. That suggests positive word-of-mouth, and viewers wanting to watch it live rather than catch a repeat later on. Not that it really matters, because a second season has already been ordered, but it's interesting to note.

A solid hour, with Claire making a potentially troublesome enemy in Father Bain (an unfortunately one-note villain right now), and tightening her own bonds to Castle Leoch in her futile attempts to leave. My least favourite of the three episodes to have aired, but a promising sign that Outlander can entertain even when it's serving up bread-and-butter stories like this.

written by Anne Kenney | directed by Brian Kelly | 23 August 2014 | Starz

JAMIE: I give you my obedience as kinsman and as Laird and I hold myself bound to your worth so long as my feet rest on the lands of the clan MacKenzie.
Claire's incessant voice-over aside, "The Gathering" was a decent episode, improving after a shaky first half where the inhabitants of Castle Leoch participated in the titular ceremony, giving Claire an opportunity to put a long-gestating escape plan into action.

My gripes with this episode are fundamentally down to how clichéd a lot of the plotting felt. There's comfort in seeing old ideas redone, but it's a shame Outlander doesn't have a way to make its time-travel factor more integral to the weekly drama. (Life on Mars performed the same trick a lot better, if you ask me.) It just feels increasingly likely that Outlander is going to be a medieval drama that gets increasingly distant from its starting point, as Claire learns to enjoy and perhaps even prefer this 18th-century world.

There's nothing wrong with choosing that path, but I want the show to do more surprising things within its chosen parameters. One assumes Diana Gabaldon's book was happy to tick off a list of scenes you've seen a thousand times already: spiking the drinks of unwanted guards, getting attacked by would-be rapists in a dark hallway, tending to a man mortally wounded during a woodland hunting expedition. The story did a competent enough job with all of that, but none of it felt very fresh or interesting to me. However, I did like how Dougal (Graham McTavish) is now being written a great deal shadier—planting a kiss on Claire's lips as reward for seeing off her attackers—although he ultimately ended up seeing the value of Claire as a veteran of war, to accompany him on a road trip with his men.

Caitriona Balfe is getting better each week, too, and I was pleased this episode afforded her some opportunities to actually smile. She's been a bit angst-ridden (understandably), so it was nice to see Claire looking and feeling more confident in her surroundings—even though she's now desperate to leave and get back to Craigh na Dun. Also, the show continues to use Jamie sparingly (he doesn't even appear in this episode until halfway through), when it could easily be pushing him and Claire together as part of a forced romance. Things are being allowed to develop more naturally between the characters, which is good to see.

Let's hope having Claire leave Castle Leoch manages to inject a bit of pace and excitement into next week's episode, though...

written by Matthew B. Roberts | directed by Brian Kelly | 30 August 2014 | Starz