“You will first be disoriented, and then angry,” advised my friend Laura who introduced me to Diana Gabaldon’s source novels of the Starz hit show Outlander. She was referring to the beginning of the second novel, Dragonfly in Amber. “Just keep going.”
Her suggestion of faith in the story flashed through my mind as the opening scene of Outlander’s second-season premiere, entitled “Through a Glass, Darkly” after Part 1 of Dragonfly, unfolded with Claire Fraser lying motionless on the grass, looking at the sky. As she pulls herself up, we realize where she is: back at Craig na Dun, the stone formation that embodied the membrane between her two lives. And she is alone. When she screams in agony and rage and terror it doesn’t take her voiceover narration to realize why. As instincts take over grief and despair, she has no choice but to move.
We know the ending before it began, and every ensuing scene of the first episode becomes an empathetic experience between the viewer and the characters on the other side of the glass of our television sets. At times this interplay becomes so visceral that it seems they might actually break the flimsy fourth wall like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo and receive our solace. What director Metin Hüseyin has brilliantly done with the first episode is honor and retain the involvement of the viewer in pulling us closer to that membrane; every detail of a face or room or spoken line becomes a postmodern feast for the senses. “Through a Glass, Darkly” is not just referring to characters within the episode but the viewing experience itself, a commentary on the sounds, sights, tastes, feelings, and smells that the viewer will receive. It is Diana Gabaldon’s and Ronald Moore’s assurance to keep moving, as painful as it may seem to do so, and to absorb every second.
“He was gone. They were all gone..dust.”
As the opening scene will doubtlessly hover like a specter over the ensuing episodes, references to and reflections of season one also peek out or linger over the events that unfold after Claire staggers from the stones onto the paved road. Her carriage is wobbly and mechanical, one foot in front of the other, until an oncoming car surprises us as much as her. To the driver, she must have looked like a ghost out of Brigadoon in her 18th century dress, hair unrestrained, eyes wild and large against her pale, gaunt face. Her gut tells her what happened at the moor, but she demands that the driver say aloud who won at Culloden. Like salt poured over a fresh wound, his reply takes the breath from her and her physical strength vanishes.
Later, we sit by that hospital bed next to Claire, our hopes for the happy life of the Frasers dashed mere minutes after Raya Yarborough’s lovely voice pealed the arrival of the show after almost a year with the famous “Skye Boat Song” sung partly in French for the second season theme. Frank Randall’s shoes clicking on the polished hospital floor is almost jolting in their intensity, the austere corridors and arrangement of Claire’s room lending a cold, medicinal quality to the atmosphere of the scene in which husband and wife (or “husband” and “wife”?) are reunited after two years. Claire in her hospital gown, propped up in a bed near the window, far from the door, casts a dim reflection of Jamie in his sick bed at the Abbey in the finale of the first season, when he was recovering from the torture and rape by Black Jack Randall. Seeing Frank approach her in the reflection of the window makes her gasp from fright rather than joy, and the intonation of her first word, “Hello,” is downward. It’s as if she is staring at her fate from the edge of a precipice, and isn’t sure whether or not to jump.
As their reunion unfolds at and after the hospital, Claire and Frank - the Randalls - walk a tightrope between the reality and simulacrum of their true selves. Stephen McNutt’s cinematography focuses on the windows and glass tumblers and mirrors through which the characters see themselves and each other. Kudos to Vince Balunas and his sound editing team for the sharpness of sounds in the episode: even normal sounds such as shoes clicking on a wooden floor and the clink of a gold wedding band against a glass of whisky highlighting the distance that Claire has come from her former life with Frank, the fresh wound of her recent separation from her life with Jamie, and the out-of-body experience of Claire as a stranger in a now-strange land.
Out of the pain and confusion, the mechanism of restraint bubbles over our characters and solidifies as a means of coping. The performance of Tobias Menzies, honed on the stage, is glorious to behold (why doesn’t he have all the awards?) as the physicality of his character is checked only by the emotional control he exerts every painstaking second. The ten feet between he and Claire the first time he sees her might have been one hundred, and his response to her refusal to let him touch her is most noticeable in the twitching and clenching of his jaw and crease between his eyes. The lump in his throat is growing bigger and more sour and will explode eventually from the tension, but Claire can’t help but see and feel and hear Black Jack when she looks at Frank. Her connection with Frank was not as deep or spiritual as it was with Jamie, and the more this becomes apparent to her, the more she withdraws into survival mode, arms crossed protectively over her chest. Her heart has withstood enough.
When a reporter sneaks into her room and gets a shot of her in her bed, the newspaper prints it with the caption “Kidnapped By the Fairies?” The supernatural undercurrent of Scottish life, juxtaposed against public perception of Claire, who now has another part of her identity ripped away from her control, make it even more necessary for her to withdraw from society both physically and emotionally. She and Frank go to stay with Reverend Wakefield (James Fleet) outside of Inverness, as the city noises threaten to swallow Claire like the buzzing of the stones at Craig na Dun. The countryside at last brings a modicum of peace, but she fills the vacuum of silence between her and Frank with a voracious examination of the Reverend’s collection of Scottish military history, especially concerning Culloden and the Jacobites.
It’s been two centuries, and Jamie is long gone by 1948. Why is she chasing a ghost, asks the housekeeper, Mrs. Graham (Tracey Wilkinson), when she has a man who loves her right here? Claire has sought Mrs. Graham in hopes of connecting with someone who might believe her, someone she and Frank had witnessed dancing at Craig na Dun in episode 1.01, who might share in the supernatural aspect of her experience. The good housekeeper, however, wants her focus to be on the tangible and the now rather than the now-spectral adventure of her past.
Frank also withdraws once they arrive, gazing at Claire in the garden from within the house. Her actions are regarded passively; he cannot fathom why she is interested so much in Culloden, why the clothes she was found in are such perfect replicas of a 18th century woman’s wardrobe. He wants her to come to him with the truth behind her disappearance, but his restraint is not without cracks. He delicately fondles the ribbons and braiding of her corset, recalling the wedding-night scene of episode 1.07, when another man was discovering pieces of Claire beyond the constraints of her costume. When the Reverend’s back is turned, he presses Claire’s chemise to his face and inhales deeply, longing to reclaim that familiar experience.
Costume designer Terry Dresbach adorns Claire in a series of muted or earth tones, pale pink robes and taupe cardigans wrapped protectively across her chest or cinched with a sash. Clothes that a few years back would have been routine to her are now costumes in a life she does not want but must play a role in, indefinitely.
As Claire and Frank sit in front of a fire for their first real talk, the science-fiction aspect of Diana’s story becomes more vivid, as I recalled the Ray Bradbury short story The Naming of Names (otherwise known as Dark they Were, and Golden-Eyed), originally published in 1949: What’s in a name? Old Claire. New Claire. Randall. A title? Wife. Husband. Ex-husband. A marriage? A line on a government-issued certificate? When does a name or title lose its meaning? When does it cease to become so?
After Claire tells Frank her story, he admits trying to “reconcile it with logic” or “natural law,” something that can be referenced in a history textbook - as subjective as those things are. To Frank, Claire is his wife and he is her husband - their roles are established and have not been broken in this day and age. Knowing she is losing her argument against him and his restraint now infuriating to her, Claire breaks him the only way she knows how: by admitting that there is life within her that does not belong to him. And Frank does break, and the tension of the that has been building for half and hour explodes as tears stream down his cheeks and the lump in his throat escapes in a half-growl, half-wail. He looms over her like the specter of Jack did to Jamie in the end of last season, not there but ever-present, the brief euphoria on his face turning to rage that must be extracted like a brand cut from the flesh. His destruction of the shed out back is heartbreaking, especially set against Bear McCreary's string-heavy score, as we finally see his objectification of Claire dissolve. She is flesh, and she is human, and she did this willingly.
McNutt shoots Frank’s face often in half-shadow (his confession of sterility to Reverend Wakefield is a perfect example), illustrating the duality of both his nature and physical appearance to Claire. Being a postmodern episode, it also communicates the job of Menzies himself in portraying two different but related characters who share similar expressions and carriage but with different meanings behind each. Frank wants to start life over with Claire, but his conditions are that they raise her child as their own and that he cannot share her with “an echo of a memory.” Contrary to Jamie, who allowed Claire to wear Frank’s ring on her finger and acknowledged the part of her separate from him, Frank demands a one-way street and uses the child as leverage to get his way. Claire is trapped as she cannot think of self over the child, so she agrees to his conditions. The duality of his face and nature is now solidified: she will never see him the same, feel him the same, hear him the same. He represents the living and the dead to her, but she keeps going forward for the sake of Jamie’s child.
Forty minutes into the show, we see Jamie as flesh, as Claire’s memories are provoked by Frank’s extension of his hand, escorting her to a new life in Boston. Her brown suit worn for the plane ride over the Atlantic is ill-fitting, something which might have come from her former closet but now hangs on her thin frame, but then we are transported back to the French sea port and she accepts Jamie’s hand to help her off the boat. They have arrived in France to change history, to rewrite lines in still-unwritten books Frank will teach in his university courses. It is a daunting task but Claire assures Jamie that each step is important, that they must trust in the end game even if their consciences are compromised by deceit. Jamie is still haunted by the spectre of Black Jack, can still feel him at times, but Claire is real and she is present. He is still recovering from his injuries at Wentworth, his face is more angular and left hand still bandaged. For the moment, Claire is the stronger one, and she commands the frame when they are together.
As spies, they must construct personas and inhabit them fully, acting in a play that reflects life in a Parisian world that reflects art in its daily existence, and they must balance the artifice with their own private truth. Naturally, there is a snake in the garden as Claire’s tenacity and stubbornness earn the Frasers a new enemy in the form of the Comte St. Germain (Stanley Weber) who looks to chew through the scenery with the cheekbones, jawline, and eyebrows of a young Robert Taylor and the menacing glower of an aristocrat used to his pomp and title being received with respect. Claire will continue to get herself into trouble with her mouth and attitude, and St. Germain makes no pretense of his feelings towards the Frasers after they discover his cargo ship has brought smallpox to the port, leaving the harbor master to order it destroyed. Jamie’s cousin, Jared (Robert Cavanah), assures them that St. Germain will not allow this affront to be settled quietly, and why would we ever expect a French villain in that wig to remain quiet and forgiving!
So the second season begins in heartbreak and death and fire and ashes floating towards the sky. The end is the beginning, life blurs with memory, and touch betrays feeling. Show fans, book fans, both: we are now in Claire’s world, fumbling between what is real and true, and whether in a hospital room, an opulent Parisian apartment, or a royal palace, we remain beside her.