Sunday, September 10, 2017

REVIEW: 'Outlander' - Claire and Jamie Struggle to Survive Without Each Other in 'The Battle Joined'

Starz's Outlander - Episode 3.01 "The Battle Joined"

After living through the Battle of Culloden, Jamie finds himself at the mercy of unforgiving British victors, until a connection from his past provides his only hope for survival. Meanwhile, a pregnant Claire attempts to adjust to life in the modern world of 1940s Boston - and life with Frank.

The second season of Outlander saw Claire and Jamie wondering if they could change the events of time only to tragically reveal that they, in fact, could not. It was an interesting story arc that didn't always work. It got pretty crazy and erratic towards the end of its run. But the heart of the story was still intact through Claire and Jamie's relationship. Everything made sense because it was the two of them experiencing it together. In the end, Jamie needed to send Claire back through time in order to protect her and their baby. She needed to return to the world she came from. She needed to return to her place in time. It was his destiny to fight and die in the Battle of Culloden. It was her destiny to raise a family with Frank in the 20th century. It was tragic but a fitting way to end the season. Of course, the final twist was Claire living this life for twenty years only to then realize that what she thought about the past wasn't true at all. She and her daughter, Brianna, learned that Jamie survived this battle and was lost somewhere else in the history of time for them to find. That was a core mission that set up this season in an intriguing way. And yet, the show doesn't pick up in that moment with Claire having a renewed sense of purpose to being with Jamie again. Instead, the drama starts the season with Claire and Jamie apart dealing with their own stories in the immediate aftermath of the two of them being ripped apart. It's a fascinating approach to the start of the season that works once again because of the clear sense of longing and loss that both of them currently feel in their lives.

Jamie is passionate about leading his men into battle. He is armed with the knowledge that this battle is doomed to fail. The British will prevail and continue to oppose the Scottish highlanders. They will kill whomever they see as a traitor to the crown. But he still has to try because it's a cause he believes in. He believes in it so much that he's willing to die for it. He has led the men to this battlefield. They all stand united alongside him. But the show itself doesn't even open on the battle and giving the illusion that it could still possibly lead to victory for the highlanders. Instead, it opens on the aftermath as British soldiers are walking amongst the various dead bodies to kill anyone who is still clinging onto life. It's a bleak start to the season. It takes a beat before the camera even finds Jamie. In that moment, he is broken down and on death's door. He is falling in and out of consciousness. There's no reason for him to survive as long as he does beyond him being the lead character on a TV show. He sees a young man stabbed right in front of him. He sees the brutality on display in this field following the battle. And yet, he manages to survive out of luck. He was willing to die because his life is essentially over without his cause and his wife. And that's the true tragedy of the situation because he doesn't die. He must continue to live because of how infamous he is throughout the world.

Of course, the shots of the actual battle are pretty powerful and mesmerizing to watch as well. They are jumbled together in erratic ways too. And yet, that perfectly conveys the mentality of war. Jamie is remembering things in a non-linear way. He goes back to leading the charge. Then, he recalls the moment where he and the other generals are making the decision to fight. Then, he's in the midst of the battle. He's killing British soldiers alongside his brothers. He sees Murtagh still alive and a part of the good fight. There is no definitive answer for what happened to Murtagh either. This premiere sets it up as one of the mysteries of the season. He could have died on the battlefield and no one truly knows for sure. But he's been a significant character on the show. So without a body, there is still the likelihood of him showing up again. The same is not true for Black Jack Randall. That character has been so terrifying and important to the narrative since the beginning of the show. But now, the narrative is starting to shift. Black Jack's time on the show is over. Jamie is finally able to get his revenge. He kills him on the battlefield. It's the fight that truly wounds Jamie and renders him powerless to help his fellow soldiers win this battle. But it's compromising as well because even in death Black Jack is right there on top of Jamie as a reminder of all that has happened between them because of the cruelty of men in this world.

But again, Jamie survives all of this. It seems daunting and miraculous that he does. He's ready to be reunited with everyone he loves in the next life. He sees a vision of Claire hoping she is there to comfort him. But instead, he is carried to safety by Rupert. Of course, that safe hiding place isn't safe for very long. It's soon discovered by several British soldiers. However, the leader has a ton of respect for the dignity of men willing to die for a cause. He sees the highlanders as soldiers who deserve the best deaths possible. They have to die because they are traitors to the crown. But he respects them enough to give them the opportunity to write letters to their loved ones and to die standing up by bullet instead of a public hanging. It's brutal to watch the British systematically go through the injured highlanders in this place. There is no mercy for any of them. Even the youngest traitors have to die. Rupert is killed and allowed to reunite with his friends in the afterlife. That's the fate Jamie wants as well. But the British leader happens to be Lord Grey, the older brother of the young man Jamie didn't kill after he was caught spying. As such, he owes Jamie an honorable debt. He fulfills that obligation by allowing Jamie to return to Lallybroch. He doubts Jamie will survive the journey. But he does. He's reunited with Jenny and Ian. It's not the kind of family reunion Jamie was expecting. He survives despite everything that has happened. But he just doesn't know how to keep on living because he has lost everything. That's a tragic place to find the character at the start of the season.

Claire isn't doing a whole lot better even though she doesn't find herself in a life-or-death situation. She's just attempting to start over with a new life with Frank in a new city. She has traveled to America to start their family. She's pregnant with Jamie's baby but Frank is willing to raise it as his own because of his love for Claire. It was a difficult decision but one they both decided to make. But starting over is incredibly daunting. Claire is now having to live with the knowledge that she'll never see Jamie again. She has to find peace with that and struggles for a long time. Jamie's story happens over the course of a day or two. Meanwhile, Claire's story happens over the course of her entire pregnancy. Nine months go by. It's enough for her to want to apply for American citizenship in order to always provide a home for her child even without the stability of Frank's job. She wants this even knowing that the American culture is often incredibly harsh and cruel towards her. She's facing an incredible amount of sexism. No one is willing to take her seriously as a woman capable of more than being a housewife and a mother. She shares her opinions as well. She relies on Frank's support when the other men of this world are baffled by the idea of a woman being well read and opinionated. But it's one thing to be close in public and another thing entirely to be close in private.

Claire and Frank are still struggling to be intimate with each other. It's not even a story about sex. It's a story about feeling close and connected with another human being. They both want this arrangement to work. They need it to work in order to have some kind of purpose in their lives. But it's built on secrecy. Claire can never talk about the past and what she did in the 18th century with Jamie. Frank blames her for holding onto that idealistic view of romance even though it's completely foolish. She hasn't completely committed to this relationship. She's refusing to allow Frank to even get close with her. Their fight is big and important while also small and trivial. They only come together once more when Claire goes into labor. It's in that moment where they need the support from each other in order to cope. The doctor isn't being all that helpful or comforting. He just wants Frank in the waiting room and Claire knocked out during the delivery. They are silenced and not being informed of what's going on at all. It leaves Claire with the feeling of uncertainty when she wakes up not knowing what has happened to her child. It's what happened the last time she was pregnant and lost the baby. She never wanted to feel that way again. She never even told Frank about it. But now, she realizes she needs to do better for her daughter. The brief tease of the future in the second season finale shows that she and Frank didn't always succeed at that. Their relationship is always destined to be filled with awkwardness and a lack of intimacy. They want it to work but it's difficult because so much has changed. They are no longer the people they once were. They need to make this work. But they are both quietly living their own lives as well. They are never fully going to understand what's going on with the other person.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Battle Joined" was written by Ronald D. Moore and directed by Brendan Maher.
  • The brief reminders of all the awkward stories happening at the end of last season are still pretty lame and awkward. Prince Charles shows up to say "Mark me" one more time only to eventually get captured by the British. Meanwhile, Rupert needs to accept that Jamie killed Dougal and will face whatever judgment is right in the next life.
  • It's not particularly tragic to see Rupert go. He was always interchangeable with Angus in terms of basic plot function. But here, he is a seemingly important character because he pulls Jamie to safety and is the leader of this group of highlanders and is fighting for each of them with British even though it's a failed fight each time.
  • The show may be a little too overbearing with the sexism that Claire has to face in her new American environment. But it's not trying to sugarcoat it either. She's in the world of Harvard academia where the professors are a bunch of older white men stuck in their ways and complaining that Harry Truman would never make a good president - though he is destined to eventually win that election.
  • All that Jamie will say about Claire is that she is gone. For the highlanders, they just accept that as her having died in the battle. But will everyone accept that explanation once he heals and needs to talk more about what happened out there? Can he lie to Jenny and Ian about what actually happened? Can he talk openly with Murtagh if he's revealed to still be alive?
  • With Black Jack dying in the Battle of Culloden and Frank destined to die by the time Claire discovers evidence of Jamie's survival in the 1960s, this seems like the final year for Tobias Menzies on the show. He has always been so consistently strong playing two incredibly different characters. It's a huge moment when Black Jack dies. But it's also so rewarding to see him as Frank pushing to understand his wife once more after all that she has endured.