Saturday, June 18, 2016

REVIEW: 'Outlander' - Claire and Jamie are Separated Once Again by British Soldiers in 'Vengeance Is Mine'

Starz's Outlander - Episode 2.11 "Vengeance Is Mine"

Claire and the Highlanders are sent north after the Jacobite leaders decide to halt their march on London. A band of redcoats makes trouble for the Scots, leading to a most unexpected reunion for Claire.

"Vengeance Is Mine" is the first episode of Outlander to be written by book author Diana Gabaldon. It's fantastic to know that the show has the support of the writer who created this world in the first place. It's a very collaborative experience if she is able to serve as a consultant and writer on the series. Unfortunately, "Vengeance Is Mine" isn't a really good episode. It largely plays as a detour from the big events happening on the show right now to provide some bigger closure to stories that happened back in the early days of Paris. It's weird and awkwardly placed in the season. The show is coming off of a remarkable episode that showed the true cost of war and how personal this battle for independence is for all of the characters. It follows that up with the latest instance of Claire being taken by British soldiers and needing Jamie to rescue her. It's a formula the show has done before. But here, it plays out mostly as something that needed to happen in order to bring all of the pieces back together. It never really seems all that compelling.

It does take some posturing to get to that position as well. The Jacobite rebellion has managed to win a number of key victories in this war with the British. They have made enough advances that London is now in their sights. Now, the generals are debating whether or not they should continue to move forward towards the big city. Or if they should retreat in order to come up with a much better strategy. Jamie argues for the advancement on London because that would take the rebellion away from its doomed fate at Culloden. And yet, that is such an afterthought in the plotting of this sequence. Things don't go Jamie's way and he largely just takes it. He and Claire know how dangerous it is to allow the army to fight at Culloden. But he allows the generals to talk Prince Charles into not moving forward to London. He's not upset about that either. Nor is he when Dougal delivers word that the generals are cutting Jamie and his soldiers out of the process all together. It's a move that helps isolate Jamie's troops for the events that are about to come. But it plays as something that Jamie, Claire and the audience just need to accept. Last week, it was thrilling to watch all of these players come together to defeat the British in battle - despite the ultimate consequences war has. And now, Jamie and Claire are isolated once more and won't be able to make a difference in the hope of changing the future - the whole point of this season.

All of this happens just so Jamie and his troops get ambushed by British soldiers. They strike while Jamie and company are resting. It is a thrilling sequence. One that has life and death stakes as well once Rupert takes a bullet to the face. Jamie, Claire and Dougal are able to outmaneuver them by horseback for a little while. They find shelter at a nearby house. But the British soldiers still find them. It forces them into a position where they need to fight back in order to survive. Instead though, Claire once again comes up with the solution of playing the part of a hostage in order to get everyone out of this tricky situation. It's something that worked for her once before. Her status as an Englishwoman has really come in handy in this war even though she is fighting against her own people. But it's something that happens and ultimately feels very formulaic and repetitive. Claire risks her life in order to safe her friends. It's a selfless decision on her part. But it still leads to a story the show has told time and time again over its two seasons. This year has done a great job at never relaxing comfortably into routine storytelling. So that makes the events of this episode seem even more glaring.

It all builds to Claire being taken to the Duke of Sandringham's house so they can have another back-and-forth about their shifting allegiances. Again, another plot detail and character relationship that has been original in the past but feels routine here. The Duke has been an unnerving and unpredictable presence on the show. He frequently pops up at the most unexpected times to complicate Claire and Jamie's lives. He has fun playing both sides of this conflict so that he can ultimately come out on top. He finds himself a prisoner in his own home because the British army believes him to be a secret Jacobite. He did help finance Charles' war. But that doesn't make him an ally to Claire right now. In fact, he's just another added complication that she has to deal with. It's all a rather circular way of the show giving definitive answers as to who attacked Claire and Mary in the alley back in Paris. A mystery that was important in the past but didn't really need any more closure at this point in time. It feels like something the show thought it should do. But it instead interrupts all of the wonderful momentum it had from its return to Scotland.

It's not surprising at all to see Mary pop up again. She is destined to marry Black Jack Randall. That was bound to lead her to Scotland at some point. She is an important part of this season. Her story wasn't just going to be over with once Claire and Jamie left Paris. She needed to pop up again in a surprising way to justify the importance she has in the narrative. And yet, she is still just a girl terrified by the arranged marriages being proposed to her. The Duke is apparently her godfather and he has found a suitor in Scotland who wants to be in a duke's family even if it means marrying a woman who is not a virgin. It's a terrifying prospect for Mary. But again, it plays as just another hassle Claire has to deal with in order to reunite with Jamie. She has been very careful with leaving clues for him to find. And yet, she is able to do so because of some massive plot contrivances. She runs into Hugh Munro again and informs him of what has happened to her and where to find Jamie to deliver a message. He appears solely to help in this endeavor but it's just way to plot-based for it to have any genuine stakes. It always seems like a certainty that Jamie will find Claire and save her from the trauma the Duke can inflict on her.

The Duke reveals that he was the one who arranged the attack on Claire and Mary in Paris in order to forgive a debt he had with St. Germain. Again, the show so aggressively told the audience that St. Germain was the perpetrator in that encounter. It only expanded on the one-note characterization of St. Germain. So now, Claire knows that she killed a man even though he wasn't behind that crime - though he was responsible for her poisoning so it doesn't lead to much nuance or doubt for Claire. But again, why is all of this happening right now? The season should be ramping up to its final battle at Culloden to show how Claire and Jamie's efforts to change time failed and Claire traveled through time once again to start a family with Frank. But instead, the show is looking back in order to wrap up a few details. It all happens so that Murtagh can follow through on his promise to learn who was responsible for the attack and handle it for Claire and Mary. He does so by beheading the Duke and handing the head to Claire and Mary. It's a brutal image. But it's a tad unnecessary as well. The show has always been so good with brutality and violence on screen. But here, it just feels like another detail to throw into the mix. This world is changing. The Duke is dead and Mary killed the man who raped her. But now what? Mary will join Claire and Jamie on their adventures but that leaves a lot of plot left to happen in the final two episodes of the season.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Vengeance Is Mine" was written by Diana Gabaldon and directed by Mike Barker.
  • Claire is really putting her medical skills to good use all across the countryside. She starts the hour by pulling teeth out of people. And then, she is just pulling out a splinter. But the stakes are then raised by needing to safe Rupert's live once again - though probably not his eye.
  • Dougal's exile really didn't last long. He's the one who delivers the message to Jamie that the generals have exiled him as well. And then, he aides Jamie and Claire once they find themselves cornered by the British soldiers. Though he parts ways in order to lead the rest of the troops to where they need to go.
  • If it weren't for the "Previously on Outlander" sequence, I would have completely forgotten about Munro and wondered how Claire knew this man could deliver such an important message to Jamie.
  • Jamie makes a comment about Claire being a terrible liar. That's not really true at all. She has been more than capable of being deceitful in order to get what she wants. So, why does Jamie say that at all as he prepares to deliver her to the British soldiers?
  • Fergus is also caught up in all of this mess. Though Claire is mostly surprised that he has a knife that Jamie gave him. Though it comes in handy when she needs it to treat Rupert's wounds.
  • Mary's return to the narrative also indicates that the Randall brothers will probably appear again soon. Her story is so connected to theirs. Claire cares about her. But she is also aware that being close to her will mean being close to Black Jack as well. Something she could really struggle with.