Television

Outlander episode 508

Cold open: Oxford University, 1969. Professor Roger Wakefield is being a little bit of a jerk in that way academics sometimes do to make a point. (I can do without that, whether on TV or in daily life.) Bree enters the classroom and admires him working. In this scene we get the question (but no answer): “what does it mean to bury the hatchet?” which is a bit of foreshadowing. We also get the episode title, “Famous Last Words.” When asked, Roger doesn’t speculate about his own last words, just says he hopes the people he loves will remember his words and deeds when he is gone. After class, Roger and Bree have planned a date to a silent movie marathon. As the scene ends, she asks him, “Would those really be your last words?” which makes me think that Roger wasn’t dodging the question about his own last words, but instead said that his actual last words would be, “Let history forget my name, so long as the people I love . . .” which is pretentious, but OK.

Title card is someone starting a movie projector, which takes us to silent-movie style credits, and then a silent film (the only sound is the projector running) of Jamie cutting Roger down from the hanging tree and realizing he’s breathing, then Claire performing emergency surgery to open his airway. Roger opens his eyes and Jamie says (via dialogue card), “You’re alive. You’re whole. All is well.” He’s alive. The other two statements might be assuming a lot.

Three months later. (August 1771?) Claire is inspecting Roger’s throat. She says he’s “healing nicely,” but he won’t speak. Brianna jokes that if he doesn’t talk, she’ll teach Jem to say “sweater” and aluminum” instead of “jumper” and “aluminium.” That made me laugh, but Roger doesn’t respond. “Non-responsive” is a good term to describe him all-around. Claire and Bree leave Roger alone and he is plagued by a silent-film flashback of being taken by Buck to where the redcoats had Regulator prisoners and then hanged. All is not well with Roger.

Talking with Claire, Brianna says Roger reminds her of a Vietnam vet she met once who had a “thousand-yard stare.” Claire identifies that as “war neurosis” or “shell shock,” and now I want to research the evolution of terms used for, and the diagnosis of, post-traumatic stress. Brianna is afraid that Roger is “lost.” Claire says, “No matter how lost he is, you just have to have faith that you find him,” which has to be the singular most “Jamie and Claire” piece of relationship advice ever. There you have soon-to-be nine books in a nutshell, folks. Goodnight.

Now, in case we weren’t already crying, here’s Jocasta singing over Murtagh’s grave. Just give me a minute.
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Ahem. She’s wearing the necklace he gave her and her voice is beautiful and I am going through tissues like crazy over here. This scene is gorgeous and heartbreaking. I love the wide shot as the camera pulls away at the end. Ulysses is standing there at a respectful distance, ready for her when she needs him. They are completely alone. When the scene opened and the camera was on her face, I assumed she was singing at a small family funeral, but no. Her love is a secret. She’s a prominent person in North Carolina; people know her, and she is married to Duncan Innes now. She can’t be openly mourning Murtagh, wearing his gift and singing lovely songs for him. Not even Jamie is there. But Ulysses — Ulysses knows everything.

At the Big House, Jamie and Jocasta mourn Murtagh together briefly on the porch. It’s time for her to leave. Jocasta says to Jamie, “How careful we’d be if we kent which good-byes were our last,” and they had better not kill her off, is all I’m saying. Jocasta 4-eva. (Also: Maria Doyle Kennedy has been singing professionally for more than 30 years and you should absolutely check out her music here: http://www.mariadk.com/ )

Tryon has granted Roger 5,000 acres in the backcountry because Tryon didn’t mean to hang him. (The families of Regulators killed intentionally get no such recompense.) Lord John says “valuable tract of land” and I can’t help but think of Monty Python. Bree is pissed; she’s not interested in land or being paid off.

Roger is alone, looking at plans for a loft and having another silent-movie hanging flashback. This technique is cool and I like how we get to see a little more of what happened each time, but I could do without seeing Roger be hung over and over. Every time they kick the barrel out from under him, I wince.

Lord John gives Brianna an astrolabe, which she appears to instinctively know how to use.

Grieving Jamie is drunk and it seems Claire has been dealing with this for a while now. He asks if there is a medicine for grief in her time. No, dammit, there’s not. We’re still using alcohol (some of us) and time (all of us).

Jamie and Claire bring food to Roger and Bree’s cabin. Roger stops building the loft long enough to eat. Jem is about to touch a boiling tea kettle and Roger yells, “stop!” and bolts across the room to stop him. Bree is intensely excited that Roger spoke and begs him to say something else, but he won’t. He walks away from the pressure of her hope.

Bree is singing, “Oh, My Darling, Clementine,” to Jem while Roger works on the loft. Roger stops working and starts to cry, alone. That cabin is not large. They are coexisting on parallel tracks. It hurts more to feel alone while physically close to someone you love.

Claire and Jamie are playing in the woods with Jemmy, which is adorable, when a wild boar appears. Jamie gets ready to fight it with only his dirk and his bare hands (he’s Jamie), when the boar is felled by an arrow. They look up, and it’s Ian! Young Ian!!! W00t! (He is in his Mohawk attire and I like that they kept the face tattoos from the book.) Jamie and Claire are overjoyed. Fans everywhere are overjoyed. Young Ian is not overjoyed. Young Ian is grieving. This episode is a study in grief.

Bree is happy to see Ian, but not as happy as I had expected. I expected her to run to him; she stands to the side so Roger and Ian can have their moment. She and Ian were the ones who had a relationship before this, not Ian and Roger. But Ian and Roger have shared sacrifice and pain. Ian joined the Mohawk so Roger could go home. Roger is overcome with emotion hugging Ian, but still does not speak. Finally, Brianna and Ian embrace.

Ian seems skeptical of, or intimidated by, the Big House and that makes me chuckle for petty fan reasons. Claire says that all the settlers helped them build the house, reinforcing the show’s in-universe explanation for how the Frasers got a mansion in the middle of nowhere. Jamie offers to “have one of the men” butcher the boar for Ian, but Ian turns him down. These two statements together make it seem like the tenants of the Ridge are Jamie and Claire’s servants, which is not how that’s supposed to work.

Marsali is reading tarot cards, first for herself, then for Roger. She turns over the Hanged Man for Roger, is flustered, and takes the cards back. She shuffles and lays them out again. Hanged Man again. She and Roger are both upset. He takes the card and knocks the rest of them off the table. Another silent-movie flashback. Marsali cleans up the spilled cards and leaves as Brianna enters the room. Brianna pleads with Roger to speak to her, to come back to her and Jem. He does not look at her, does not engage, just crumples the card in his hand.

I have mixed feelings about the show’s use of tarot cards here. First, I’m not sure that Marsali would read tarot cards; I think she would be too superstitious for that. Second, the show doesn’t dig beneath the surface at all regarding the card’s meaning. The reactions are simply, “Hanged Man? Roger was hanged! Oh, no!” But the card’s typical meaning in a reading is actually relevant for Roger, no literal hanging required. In the card’s picture, the Hanged Man is hanging by one foot, not his neck — he’s suspended upside-down. In terms of meaning, he’s suspended, as in waiting. This could be a time of contemplation or spiritual awakening before taking action. It could be indecision or stalling. There is a need for sacrifice (giving something up or leaving something behind) in order to move forward. When the man moves forward, he is changed and/or has greater self-understanding. That works well for Roger’s character this entire season so far, but the writers don’t seem to be aware of that. There’s no reference to the card’s meaning. So, this scene doesn’t work for me on a surface level, but works well on a thematic level that feels almost accidental.

L-R: The Hanged Man from Morgan-Greer Tarot, Universal Waite Tarot, and The Shakespearian Tarot

Family dinner at the Big House in Ian’s honor. John Bell does such a good job here showing the pain on Young Ian’s face and how out of place he is feeling. You can tell everything is surreal for him. Jamie asks Ian to go with Roger to survey the land grant, but Ian doesn’t answer. Roger is not at dinner. Claire tells Ian that he’s “welcome to the bed in the kitchen,” which confirms for me that Claire was sleeping in the kitchen back in episode 503.

Roger is alone in the cabin, playing the guitar and softly trying to sing “Oh, My Darling, Clementine.” He’s interrupted by terrible silent-movie hanging flashbacks and how many times are we going to see the barrel get kicked out from under him and his body drop? Make it stop, show.

Young Ian can’t seem to comprehend the bed in the kitchen. (Also, how big is that kitchen?!) Jamie finds him sleeping out on the porch (breezeway?) instead. Jamie astutely observes that Ian is “out of sorts.” Ian says he literally cannot talk about it now. He also says he knows there are things that Jamie and Claire keep hidden from others. This makes me wonder whether he knows about Claire’s time-traveling. (Seems like he would have suspected something was up after Geillis tried to ritually murder him so she could travel through time at the end of season 3, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t catch on then. To be fair, he was trying not to die at the time and Geillis’ rantings sounded/were insane.) Jamie sits quietly with Ian because Jamie is good people.

Marsali lists all the things she’s doing with her time, and it’s an impressive list, but does not include helping to make whiskey, so that’s another of my questions answered. Her chat with Ian reminds us that they were kids together — or at least, in the same community — and confirms her place with the Frasers now. Ian is supportive and kind to her while still clearly unhappy. Ian’s pain hurts my heart, but Marsali’s belonging makes me smile.

While Brianna folds a paper airplane as a going-away present for Roger, she mentions that she didn’t get to finish her degree. Wha-wha-whaaa? I know that’s not the point of this scene, but in the books she absolutely did graduate before heading through the stones. She has a degree in mechanical engineering. Why would they change that?

Roger and Ian are surveying. Ian doesn’t even want Roger’s wordless pat on the shoulder as thanks for his help. He’s cranky.

Back at the Ridge, Claire is missing most of her deadly water hemlock. Hmmm.

Roger shares his paper airplane with Ian (who calls it a paper bird) and Ian tries to connect with him. That night, Roger wakes from a silent-movie-hanging-flashback dream and for crying out loud, how many times do we have to see his body drop?

Claire tells Jamie she suspects that Roger stole the water hemlock in order to commit suicide. Cut to Roger, the next day, standing dangerously close to a cliff for a long time while having another goddamned hanging flashback. This one transitions from silent movie to color film memory and oh, great, there goes the barrel and his body drops again. I could have done without that shot of his red, dying eyes, too. Roger throws the paper airplane off the cliff and it flies away. That’s not as bad as Voyager Claire casually tossing the cling wrap from her sandwich into the streets of 1760s Edinburgh, but come on, people! Who taught you how to time-travel?

That night, Roger wakes to Rollo whining. Young Ian is gone and Rollo is staked in place. Ian is alone in the woods, ritually (literally) burying his hatchet. Then he (surprise!) puts the stolen water hemlock root into a pan of water over a fire. He settles in to breathe the deadly steam and Roger ruins it by kicking the pan off the fire. Ian attacks him. Ian demands to know what Roger saw right before he blacked out while being hung. Roger finally, finally, speaks. He says he saw his wife’s face. Ian is desolate. “Then there’s no escape? Even in death, I would see her face.” Oh, Ian.

He won’t tell Roger her name, only that she’s not dead, but she is lost to him. Roger alludes to Ian’s soul being in peril if he kills himself and that only pisses Ian off more. Then Ian ties the cold open into the episode for us:
Young Ian, “Ye buried yer weapon, yer voice. Now ye dare to use it against me.”
Roger, “Ye’re right. I did. But now I have to pick it up again and fight. Can you?”
“I dinna ken.”
“Then dig up your weapon and come home with me until you do.”

Now Roger is taking action and invites Ian to be the Hanged Man — suspended for a while in order to decide what to do next. This, and a comment Roger makes in the next scene, make this too good to be an unintentional theme.

Roger comes home and talks to Brianna — actually tells her how he feels, which is refreshing for the two of them — and there are more references to the cold open scene and Roger confirms that he interpreted the tarot card 100% literally: it was his fate to be hanged. Ah, whatever. But he also tells Brianna he can’t be the old Roger anymore: he’s changed. (Ding, ding, ding! More about this after the credits.) He tells Brianna that his last words aren’t what matters, their love is, and ends the episode by saying, “I will always sing for you.”

Then this damn show has Brianna and Roger singing “Oh, My Darling, Clementine” together, with Roger’s clear, pre-hanging voice, over the end credits.

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OK, let’s talk about this tarot business and the art of adaptation. I was explaining to my husband how baffled I was by the unacknowledged Hanged Man meaning that nevertheless worked so well throughout the episode. He asked, “Is it in the books at all?” I said, “I don’t think so — I don’t think Marsali would touch the cards; she’d assume they were of the devil. The books had some stuff like this when they were in France, or maybe as late as Voyager with Geillis . . . does Roger visit a fortune-teller before he’s hanged, maybe?”

I searched and there is something in the book — and it’s focused on the meaning of the card, not just the hanging. In the early days of Roger’s healing after the hanging, Brianna writes in her journal that she dreamt about an old college friend who used to do tarot readings for people in the student union. In the dream her friend, Deb, explains the meaning of the Hanged Man card to her: “Self-surrender leads to transformation of the personality, but the person has to accomplish his own regeneration.” Bree then writes, “Transformation of the personality. That’s what I’m afraid of, all right. I liked Roger’s personality just fine the way it was!” The entire scene is about a page long out of a 979-page book.

This is like the Stephen Bonnet scene at the end of episode 502, which I talked with my husband about at the time, but didn’t compare to the book in my blog post. I thought the scene of Bonnet brutally blinding the man at the end of the duel was not in the book. I didn’t remember it. Turns out the scene is described to Jamie in a letter from Lord John, who didn’t witness it himself, but heard about it from a houseguest. Lord John had been inquiring after Bonnet at Jamie’s request. In the book, Brianna accidentally finds this letter and that’s how she learns Bonnet is alive. The writers of the show adapted this by first, having Brianna overhear LJ and Jamie talk about Bonnet being alive in episode 501, and next, playing out the scene itself in episode 502. The scene is vicious, action-packed, and shows us a lot about Bonnet’s character (as well as the characters of other men in the room, like Gerald Forbes). It was very effective.

Back to this episode and tarot: whether or not Marsali would be reading tarot cards (or calmly helping Claire dissect a corpse and hide it in the root cellar, cough cough), she and Roger as characters do not have to understand the meaning of the Hanged Man card for the writers to effectively use that meaning in Roger’s story. We know it’s not accidental because Gabaldon makes those connections explicit in the book — but only for a moment in Brianna’s journal. The show writers took that moment of explanation and ran with it. On the surface, a fan like me might say, “Marsali wouldn’t do that! They’re getting this wrong!” but when you look at it closely, it works beautifully.

While I’m blathering about changes from the book . . . I don’t believe Ian ever attempts suicide in the books, and he returns to the Ridge at a later point in the story than this. (Roger surveys the land alone, suffering more indignities and dangerous misadventures in the process.) I don’t love Ian being suicidal. I do think the two men surveying together while each struggles with grief and depression works well. There is a lot in these books about male relationships, challenges and expectations put on men in any time period, and the importance of family bonds. Giving Roger and Ian this time together fits right into and expands upon those themes.

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