"... something wicked this way comes." More than last week's mid-season premiere, "By the Pricking of My Thumbs" felt like an hour that took a stride into fresher territory: introducing an important character only previously alluded to in conversations, the Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow); deepening the character of Geillis Duncan (Lotte Verbeek), Claire's (Caitriona Balfe) mystical friend at Castle Leoch; adding another complication caused by Dougal's (Graham McTavish) carnality; and even threw in some inter-clan violence with the McDonald's...
It was one of the busiest episodes of Outlander I can recall, as the drama has been content to bob along as a simple romance with a fantastical circumstance and bursts of appalling violence to ensure nothing becomes too sickly sweet. But now it seems things are being allowed to bloom in some unexpected ways, and I enjoyed how this episode explored some of the superstitious practises of the era, together with its political double-dealings.
Geillis Duncan has been a very peripheral character until now, but is suddenly a more important figure and a source of massive upheavals. I had anticipated a reveal that Geillis is a druid, so the scene where Claire witnessed her friend performing a "summoning" (naked in a circle of small fires, recalling the ritual at Craigh na Dun), didn't come as much of a surprise. Although it perhaps opens up the possibility that Geillis could believe Claire's far-fetched tale of time-travel, and perhaps hold the key to sending her back to the 1940s?
More unexpected was the reveal Geillis is pregnant with Dougal's child, who she's been sleeping with behind her husband Arthur's back—and she's not above passing Dougal cyanide to murder her spouse, paving the way for them to become a couple. It's hard to see how Claire's friendship with Geillis can continue now, knowing she's a murderess, if not an evil witch as later claimed when Colum's (Gary Lewis) men came to whisk her away for trial. Indeed, this episode ended with both Claire and Geillis being charged with witchcraft, as the true villain of the piece (the "wicked this way coming") was revealed to be pretty teenager Laoghaire MacKenzie (Nell Hudson); a woman scorned, out to see Claire dead for daring to marry her beloved Jamie (Sam Heughan). This was all very soap operatic and slightly clichéd, but fun—and it's welcome that the alleged heretics can't rely on their manly lovers for help, as drunk Dougal's been banished and Jamie's his grudging escort.
The other notable thing with this hour was Claire again using her future-knowledge to manipulate "current" events. Thankfully, she seems to have perfect recall when it comes to conversations her 20th-century husband Frank had during their Highlands trip. This allowed Claire to try and restore Jamie's good reputation as a murderer, while simultaneously undoing Jack Randall's abhorrent behaviour, by cleverly blackmailing the fruity Duke of Sandringham—whom she's correctly surmised is a friend of Jack's (turning a blind eye to his transgressions over Hadrian's Wall), but also in favour of the Jacobite rebellion. Callow's always playing roles such as this, but he was nevertheless very entertaining as the debonair Duke successfully seduced by Claire and caught in her web—nudged along by his genuine adoration of Jamie, and desire to see him return to the seat of his own family home.
Overall, while this was undoubtedly an episode bristling with incidents and fresh material being thrown on the storytelling fires, it wasn't without its flaws. Dougal's sudden meltdown didn't work for me, mainly because the death of his wife meant nothing to me as a viewer. The show has done a poor job with this aspect of his character, as I didn't even remember he was a married man. We needed to share in his breakdown and sympathise with him turning to booze to get over his grief, but it wasn't possible—and not helped by the reveal he's been shagging a redheaded mistress anyway.
It was an uneven hour and needed to be smoothed over, because some of the developments felt quite jarring and unconvincing because some necessary groundwork with the season hasn't been great. But still, it was a promising new position to launch the rest of the season. I just hope the rest of the upcoming episodes aren't similarly disjointed.
written by Ira Steven Behr • directed by Richard Clark • 11 April 2015 • Starz