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Current Events / Television PopWrapped | Current Events

Half-lives And Slow Burns: The Quiet Subtlety of Outlander 03x06, A.Malcolm

Brooke Corso | PopWrapped Author

Brooke Corso

10/25/2017 1:26 pm
PopWrapped | Current Events
Half-lives And Slow Burns: The Quiet Subtlety of Outlander 03x06, A.Malcolm | Outlander Voyager A.Malcolm
Media Courtesy of Starz

“I've been looking so long at these pictures of you

That I almost believe that they're real 

I've been living so long with my pictures of you

That I almost believe that the pictures 

Are all I can feel” 

The Cure, “Pictures of You” (1989, from the album Disintegration

 

“A. Malcolm,” the long-awaited sixth episode of Outlander’s third season is a study in contrasts: of time and pacing, of memory versus reality, of facades and secrets. Though Jamie and Claire’s reunion comprises most of the episode, their physical closeness is punctuated with moments of hesitation, of things left unsaid for another day, of truths deferred in favor of the immediacy of sensation. Our lovers exist in a momentary bubble, whisper-thin, and inevitably primed to burst - the audience knows it, the characters know it, and writer Matthew B. Roberts and director Norma Bailey take that dance on the razor’s edge and run with it. 

 

Even though I have read Voyager, I appreciated the changes the show made to the book’s timeline as it compacted the voluminous details while also retaining the essence of its characters isolation and fervent quest to recover identity and agency. For both of them, their quests do not come without sacrifice and compromise, people hurt and promises broken. Consider the episode title: it is about a pseudonym, based in truth but deliberately structured to conceal, revealing only a carefully constructed portion of its owner’s identity. At the end of “Freedom and Whisky,” Claire touched the name on the sign outside the shop. Could it really be Jamie? Has she found him? 

 

Yes and no. 75% yes. 25% no. 

 

As she gazes down at James Fraser on the work floor below the counter and he responds to her voice, turning around to gaze up at her, the soft lights christening her head like a halo, their respective dreams are finally made incarnate - as I wrote last week, “They have had only their memories of the other as consolation for twenty years, so having a two-dimensional, one-sided image suddenly become three-dimensional and interactive and responsive is a bit of sensory overload.” The awkward hesitancy we witness in their first moments together, as Claire rushes to the unconscious Jamie and he reacts to her hands on his face, is more a question of reality than each other’s presence. A voice vibrating through air; the reflection of light on skin; the placement of a body within an enclosed space: is this reality or another dream, and either way, are they existing within or without it? 

 

Episode 306 begins from Jamie’s perspective in a brief flashback to the morning’s events before Claire arrives at the print shop. Its cold open focuses on delicate, feminine fingers uncomfortably close to our titular character’s throat as their owner - a woman who is not Claire - helps ready him for the day. To a viewer who had not read the books, the familiarity between them is off-putting: is she a benefactor? Owner of a boarding house? Special friend? She and Jamie clearly have a connection, but non-book viewers aren’t sure to what extent. Even those who have read the book aren’t sure what direction the show is taking in her regard, as adaptations allow for liberties. One thing is evident: there are intimacies in Jamie's life, both personal and professional, that will need to be delineated. 

Starz 

Jamie then assumes his regular walk to work, the camera focusing on his placement on the streets amidst the people beginning their morning routines. Bailey is careful to linger just long enough on Jamie’s face as he walks through the narrow streets to illustrate his current situation, as well as portend his two-sided interaction with Claire. His air is one of confidence but solitude, at once integrated into a community as a business owner but willingly separate in his private affairs. As the majority of the last twenty years has seen him in various degrees of physical, spiritual, and emotional isolation, stripped not only of material possessions but his own identity and agency, he now exists almost as pure persona, assuming control of the very facades he had to originally adopt out of survival. If one lives outside himself as Jamie was forced to do, it isn’t hard to split that outward persona into multiple parts. If you’re a good enough actor, it’s all pantomime. Of course, when Claire reenters his life, it won’t be easy for Jamie to instantly abandon the act. 

 

For the last year or so, Jamie has owned, worked, and sometimes lived in a print shop. It isn’t easy to own a shop, especially in its first few years. All revenue goes back into the equipment and upkeep, advertising and shipping and inventory and staff. As the daughter of a print shop owner, I know this to be true. After twenty-two years, my father still comes home with black smudges in his cuticles and small cuts and burns on his hands and forearms from fixing the innards of a copier or press or drill. After centuries, the printing business still retains some similar aspects, namely the presentation of information: typesetting, fonts, colors, stock quality and weight, graphics, borders, raised or flat ink, it all affects how and to what extent the words on a page reach the intended audience. As Jamie later remarks, “The press was a weapon into my own hands again,” and he uses the press as a vehicle to regain his voice. Look at the order of the rooms, especially the living quarters in the back - a more civilized version of the Dunbonnet cave, organized because he often lives there on his single cot, immersed in reading, writing, and work. 

 

As this episode was named after one of Jamie’s aliases, this duality in which he has been existing is as visible in his surroundings as is implied by his behavior. It is soon clear that Mr. Malcolm has two businesses: the legit one as printer up front, and whatever comes in the backdoor as witnessed by two former prisoners from Ardsmuir who still refer to him as MacDubh. There is a trust between he and the men who transport the smuggled goods from the docks, as he also sends them to deliver treasonous pamphlets hidden in a false cabinet to a Papist client. So goes the underground camaraderie of those oppressed by the state, who have witnessed the hypocrisy of laws, politics, and media controlled by the ruling class, and who strive to beat them at their own game. 

 Starz

Thus, Jamie’s life in Edinburgh is a simulation of fulfillment, a copy of a copy, dull around the edges and blurred in the center. Light and happiness and love disappeared with Claire, and he has clawed his way out of the abyss of despair and heartache to achieve some modicum of satisfaction in his work. He can direct his passion towards his causes and his energy towards helping his family financially, leaving no time or space left to pursue matters of the heart beyond dreams. And I believe those dreams are constant, as they are for Claire, which is both a blessing and a curse. She becomes the unattainable ideal that no other woman could possibly mirror, but she is also the cynosure of home and love and desire and pleasure and complete peace, so that nothing could ever supplant those feelings to him. Comfortably numb in a half-life. 

 

Ironically, when Claire unexpectedly arrives, she cannot be compartmentalized into the simulated order of his current existence. She is not a dream or vision or fantasy, but flesh and bone which can be cause for worry amidst the newfound joy. She herself feared competing against that picture of her twenty-something self that had left him, of being as worthy and appealing at 50 as she was at 30. Jamie, too, wonders if he doesn’t look like an old man with his spectacles and facial lines. Both Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan are exquisite in their heightened states, as she searches his eyes for approval and he tries to rectify his past with his present. 

 

I loved the hesitancy and awkwardness they display, as if the scab of grief and heartache is suddenly ripped away from the soul, leaving it hypersensitive to feeling and emotion. When you are apart from a loved one, they are both everywhere and nowhere. You see them in everything beautiful - sights, smells, tastes, sounds - and while that can be comforting, the fact that you can not share such beauty with them and receive their response is what fosters that sense of incompleteness. Claire was never far from Jamie in his thoughts and dreams, his brief moments of contentment or appreciation for something that felt good, but he could not share that “good” with her. Now that he can, it challenges his very reality by breaking open those compartments that he had long buried away. 

 

With both the book and the episode, I initially thought, “Why don’t they just attack each other? Why are they taking so long?” However, with such a jarring event, the mind prevents a complete breakdown of the senses by retreating to the surface niceties of decorum, first in the delicate mannerisms of their first kiss at the print shop. When she bends over him and he says her name out loud, his voice almost breaks as it sounds out each letter, as if a rusted door, long shut, was forcibly pried open, as if their souls were remembering the heat of a touch, how tears look as they fall down a cheek, how a breath feels against the skin. Again, Sam Heughan is brilliant in his facial reactions, as Jamie both immerses himself in Claire’s touch and voice and presence and subtly withdraws as a defense mechanism. After he is sure Claire is real, he isn’t sure that she is permanent, and he watches her cautiously, repeatedly asking if she will come with him when he has to leave the room. 

 

He touches her wedding ring at the print shop: she is his wife, Mrs. Fraser. “We are married,” Claire had said, “At least, I suppose we are.” And what is marriage inside and outside the constraints of the law? I took a linguistics class at university where we discussed the context of language such as in marriage vows, which is why a wedding scene in a movie or television show is not binding to the actors themselves (as disappointing as that may be to some fans!). What makes a marriage real? Is it the name and new identity that comes with it? Claire Fraser in Lallybroch and Paris. Claire Randall in the 20th century. First, Claire Beauchamp. At present, Claire Malcolm in Edinburgh. Alexander Malcolm in society. MacDubh among his men. Jamie Roy for less public clientele. Jamie Fraser in memory. Who is married to whom? 

 

As Jamie has dual professional lives, it isn’t surprising then that he would have two bedrooms: one at the back of the print shop and one at the brothel where he does business with its owner, the aforementioned woman who adjusted his morning attire, Madame Jeanne (Cyrielle Debreuil). Even though Claire worries that he stays there as a paying customer or as part of his agreement with Madame Jeanne, I can understand why Jamie would consent to live there. Both he and Jeanne understand the duality of their professions, operating outside the boundaries of acceptable society but provide goods or services to clients from among the upper echelons. Their businesses are conducted illicitly, depending on utmost discretion. The sexual escapades going on at the brothel are business transactions, as black and white as the ash and paper on A. Malcolm’s printing press. 

 Starz

For the moment, Jamie makes a decision to envelop himself and Claire in a sort of fantasy womb in his bedroom in the brothel, trade and clients and shadowy dealings be damned. There is a willful detachment from the world, and no one would blame him for wanting to take Claire to a secret place and return, as his sister Jenny said to Claire in Season One, to that peace that comes from sexual congress. When he directly asks why she has come back and whether she wants him as he is, a changed man after two decades, it feels like an ultimatum - wanting her to agree without knowing all the facts. I was reminded of the scene in Jane Eyre where Jane accepts Rochester’s marriage proposal and he whispers into their embrace: "God pardon me!" he subjoined ere long; "and man meddle not with me: I have her, and will hold her.” 

 

 Starz

The long-awaited sexual reunion between the lovers pokes gentle fun at the more salacious perceptions of such dramatic love scenes while also doing the unthinkable: taking its damn time. First, the episode cleverly switches to Claire’s perspective as she narrates the delicate pacing of the dinner scene, the couple “savoring each other as the meal before [them].” After twenty years, EVERYTHING is erotic concerning the mouth and fingers: lips, tongue, teeth, throat. The twitch of a jaw, the rise and fall of a chest, the twinkle in an eye. As I wrote before, “they’ve regarded each other from a distance -- spiritually, chronologically, geographically -- for so long that once they are close enough to touch, that physical immediacy becomes a feast for the senses as well as the spirit.” When they do finally agree that there is more to eat in that room than fruit, the disrobing scene again tells Time to sod off as each layer of clothing chips away at their respective shells, leaving them exposed beyond just nakedness. It makes the brief fumbling on the bed a silly reprieve from the gravity of their reunion: again, they need these moments to avoid collapsing in a complete emotional breakdown. Fingers and tongues explore. Bodies waver a bit before reclaiming their natural rhythm.  Claire finally, blissfully gets to be loud. Jamie finds his release. 

 Starz

Later, as they lay in bed together, we see more glimpses of Rochester in Jamie as they discuss his business dealings and what he has been through in the last twenty years. At the print shop, Claire had told him that she found him through research with a historian, and she reveals she knew he had been in prison, but he must have thought, what else did she find out? Claire is the only one who briefly narrates a scene; we are never privy to Jamie's thoughts. Thus, as most of the episode is from Jamie's perspective, what information Claire receives in their conversations is framed by Jamie. This extends to the supporting characters in the episode who Claire encounters. All are dependent on Jamie for some reason: by relation, as with his teenaged nephew, Ian (John Bell); for trade, as with Madame Jeanne; in business, as with the now-adult Fergus (César Domboy); or for protection, as with the Chinese immigrant Yi Tien Cho (Gary Young). Jamie keeps the latter three at a distance from Claire, curbing too much conversation or clarity on her sudden appearance. Ian meets Claire at the brothel after Jamie leaves on business, but even he is taken aback by his legendary aunt, about whom he had only heard through stories. Fergus is the only one who knows Claire from before, but even his warm greeting is clipped short. 

 

Again, the duality of history works both for and against the couple, as there is what is written down for posterity and what is left out, what is spoken, implied, and intentionally omitted. Jamie continues to exist with her, minute by minute, in this bubble of intimacy that has momentarily isolated them from the outside world, but it is a flimsy shelter as evidenced in the last scene as Claire is confronted by a sinister figure in the bedroom that has ties to Jamie's smuggling activities and isn't averse to using violence as a means to an end. The shadows and light of their past and present have to come together eventually if they are ever going to move forward, as painful or incendiary as it may be.


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