Sunday, 17 May 2015

OUTLANDER, 1.15 – 'Wentworth Prison'

Sunday, 17 May 2015


For a television series that could so easily have become stuck in a fug of romanticised chivalry and glossiness, one of Outlander's biggest surprises has been how damned intense and unsettling it can become—not to mention outright gruesome. This began relatively early, with the notorious flashback where Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies) was seen gleefully flogging Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) to within an inch of his life, but a part of me wondered if that scene was an anomaly. But no, it seems Outlander takes a curious pleasure in bringing Captain "Black Jack" Randall back into the lives of Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), to wreak misery and psychological damage on the happy couple. This may become wearisome and repetitive, but not yet.

Not much actually happened in "Wentworth Prison", plot-wise, because most of it was built on latter scenes of the mind-games and pain being inflicted on the imprisoned Jamie by his nemesis Randall—who rode in to rescue him from a hanging, moments after his comrade Taran (Douglas Hensall) was left twitching on the end of a rope, to extend his misery even further in the prison's dungeon. Outside, Claire and group of would-be jail breakers attempted to gain access to the prison and rescue Jamie—by befriending the facility's governor, Sir Fletcher Gordon (Frazer Hines), and stealing vital keys.

The latter storyline was relatively predictable, but writer Ira Steven Behr knew exactly where to put the emphasis of this hour for maximum effect. And while it can be argued that simply dishing out violence and sadism is an easy route to take, it was extremely well orchestrated—thanks, once again, to the astonishing performance of Menzies, who continues to savour playing one of television's most evil characters. Just recently, his unhealthy fascination with Jamie took on a sexual angle—and the show now continues to play with this idea that Randall is privately disgusted by his homosexuality (the root cause of his apparent impotence when trying to rape Jamie's sister Jenny?), and his ruination of such a handsome male specimen is some kind of outlet for those feelings. This aspect of the whole thing prevented the scenes between Jamie and Randall, later joined by Claire, from becoming superficially grotesque instances of torture and cruelty.

There's a much deeper, troubling problem with Randall as a character, which is what really made the dungeon sequences so vivid. So yes, wince as Jamie's hand was bludgeoned by a mallet, pull a face when Randall forced Jamie's good hand onto his raging erection, and bite your lip when Claire watched her husband's injured hand get nailed to a table as he was forced to kiss his own torturer, but what really made those moments "work" was a combination of the sicker psychology that's fuelling Randall's acts, and our genuine concern and attachment to Jamie and Claire as a couple.

I guess what I'm saying is simple: some may dismiss "Wentworth Prison" as being little more than an explicit barrage of uncomfortable scenes and grim incidents, but that stuff is actually very hollow and deadening (have you seen most of the Saw films?) without some underlying groundwork—achieved in this hour, and the previous fourteen. Plus, as Jamie goes through another dark night—having secured his wife's safety at the expense of his own dignity and physical well-being—the finale's sure to be doubly emotional when, one assumes, Jamie's rescued and Randall gets his just deserts.

written by Ira Steven Behr • directed by Anna Foerster • 16 May 2015 • Starz