With “Vengeance is Mine,” Outlander’s eleventh episode of the season and the one written by Diana Gabaldon herself, I believe we all attended a class taught by the former ecologist on Saturday night, and it was awesome. The best teachers give themselves to each lesson - a tweak here, a personal story there - as well as adapt daily to the constraints of the job itself and the needs or interests of their students. If we all study Diana’s material, whether her books or the show or both, this is the moment where we realize that it is up to each of us to construct Jamie and Claire’s story in our own heads, that our engagement with the words on a page (or spoken in a scene) begins the second we read or hear them.
As a graduate student, one of my favorite theorists was Louise Rosenblatt, whose research into the transaction between reader and text can easily be transferred to viewer and screen. To apply her reader-response theory in to the visual realm would be to realize that each viewer’s experience with these episodes is unique according to their background knowledge, experiences, and emotions.
“Vengeance is Mine” is equal parts a meditation on the adaptation process from book to screen, an examination into the feminist metanarrative of the books, and a playful but pointed reflection on the perception of her story in and of itself, which is famously and gloriously difficult to classify by genre.
In a sense, Diana is analyzing her creation under a microscope, while we the viewers are studying Diana from the other side of the television screen. She posted a lengthy reflection on her experience writing “Vengeance is Mine” on Friday and shared the complex process of adapting pieces of her book, Dragonfly in Amber, to fit a one-hour episode. The Outlander series, after all is Ronald D. Moore’s visual response to the written books, not a Xerox copy of each page, line for line. Constraints of time, space, budget, location, and weather affect which pieces of the book are included in each episode, and different contexts and actor responses alter the lines of dialogue even more. Some words so beautifully rendered on the page and seen in our minds and felt in our bones simply don’t work when observed in rehearsal or through a camera. Characters’ lives are shortened or extended due to extenuating circumstances in the actors' lives, or because of future storylines or seasons to which the viewers aren’t privy yet. Fans who complain that episodes are not totally following the book should think of the show as a glimpse into Moore’s brain (think Being John Malcovich) and his ongoing and very active transaction with Diana’s story.
Never before on the show has the presence of a particular screenwriter been so viscerally felt, and all of Outlander’s screenwriters are excellent. To read interviews with the author such as this one, in which she talks about how hard it was to market the books at the beginning, and then to watch Episode 211 is like having a private chat with her about the perception of her books and characters. “Vengeance is Mine” is an episode structured as a fairy tale that also critically examines archetypes within the fairy tale itself.
As I finished watching the episode and was thinking about the transactional relationship between viewer and show, it occurred to me that the television screen is like a mirror: there’s what you perceive and what is. There is a great scene in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces where her character, Professor Morgan, engages her English literature class in a discussion of myths and archetypes of fairy tales. In the final scene of a fairy tale, she says, “they never tell you what happens after because there is no after,” and she poses that romantic love as seen on screen (big or small) may be a manipulation. “Why do we buy it?” She then asks the class, later admitting “whether a myth or a manipulation, we all want to fall in love…(and be) left with memories we treasure for the rest of our lives.” Whether a viewer has just discovered Outlander or has transacted with the stories for decades (thanks, Rosenblatt), our engagement with Jamie and Claire’s story evolves as their story evolves. As the books are cut and glued and stretched and sewn onto the screen, the essential elements that ensnared fans from the start still remain. As the scene in Mirror concludes, Professor Morgan asserts that we we long for such passion and romantic love in our lives, and when we engage with amazing books and music and movies (and television shows!), “a little bit of that love lives in us, too.”
Saturday was the late, great film critic Roger Ebert’s birthday, and Tribeca honored him by tweeting a quote of his: ““We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” Replace “movie” with television and Ebert’s quote encapsulates not only this episode, but Claire’s entire experience over the second season. She is one of the few people in her world (that she knows of) for whom space and time are fluid, for whom world events are seen differently, and whose responsibility to the world is greater.
When the eleventh episode opens, a manservant is preparing a gentleman’s wig on a stand, the daintiest of coiffure instruments at his disposal. He delicately sets the curls before accidentally knocking it onto the ground…or was it deliberate?
A few months have passed after Prestonpans, and the Jacobite army has moved steadily southward towards London, said to be only a five-day march away. Claire admits that while the army has collected much-needed artillery along the way, the reception in the Scottish lowlands and northern England has been scant. While encamped and awaiting orders from the Prince, Claire remains active as a healer in the community. Much like Diana the writer, Claire can practice anywhere, even a makeshift hut where the locals gather for dental work.
Inside the war room, Charles is losing the support of his commanding officers, as both Lord Murray and Quartermaster O’Sullivan agree that the Jacobites should not attempt to capture London and must turn back, as the British soldiers outnumber their own six to one. To Charles, this is madness, as London is within their grasp, but only Jamie voices his support out of concern that retreat may turn hope into doubt and fear. He endures the Prince’s Veruca Salt-level tantrum that fails to sway the room, and the group disbands in frustration and discord.
Jamie is trying to stay the hands that will write the history books, but it is becoming harder to find alternatives to the inevitable. His concern for his own, for Claire and the people of Lallybroch, remains unchanged, and he assures them that he will make sure they are safe. Foreshadowing Claire’s return to the 1940s before Culloden occurs in the season premiere, he promises Claire that “I’ll see you safe, no matter what happens.”
That night, as Claire sleeps, Jamie stands by their bed and recites a prayer in Gaelic, asking God to shield her and their future child, and to keep her from harm “in this place and every place; on this night and on every night,” another reference to the fluidity of space and time. Watching Jamie stand naked by his wife’s side is both a testament to the desperation and forcefulness of his plea and significant of the point he is at with their plan to change history. His heart is laid bare, and though his mention of a possible child indicates a tiny hope in the future, his ultimate goal, if all else fails, is the safety of his wife. As the couple settles to sleep, their hands clasped together, we are reminded of how precious few quiet moments they have left in the season.
Sure enough, Dougal bursts in the following morning with an unwelcome surprise: Charles is gone, whisked away by Lord Murray along with Jamie’s horse. Dougal brings Jamie instructions to march ahead to Inverness to secure quarters and provisions for the troops, a daunting task with no money to speak of, but the war chief interprets the note and the commanding officers’ behavior as exile for supporting Charles. Director Mike Barker, whose past episodes such as “Lallybroch” and “The Fox’s Lair” contained some of the most beautiful images of the harsh yet solemn Scottish countryside, collaborates again with cinematographer Stephen McNutt as the small band makes their way against snow-covered mountains and dense woods.
On the way, Jamie, Claire, Murtagh, Dougal, Rupert, Fergus, Ross, and the rest of the Lallybroch men set up camp next to a river but are ambushed by a company of British soldiers on a hill and a chase ensues through the forest. Rupert is shot in his right eye and nearly falls off his horse before Dougal catches him, and the group is narrowly able to escape the better equipped Redcoats.
Finding an empty church in which to hide and tend to Rupert, Jamie entrusts Ross to mind the horses and the group holes up to keep watch while Claire performs the tricky surgery as best she can. I love the treatment of Fergus in this scene as the precocious child is eternally prepared and curious. He lends Claire the knife Jamie gave him for the surgery and watches in fascination as she digs the musketball out of the ocular cavity. As Rupert screams in pain, the men anxiously scour the grounds outside, knowing there is nothing they can do to help him or their situation.
When Claire is bandaging Rupert’s eye later, she references Treasure Island, a book more than a century from initial publication, and the archetypal pirate it spawned. Her patient is completely confused, but it’s a wink to the audience about how such iconic images are developed.
Unfortunately, Ross and the horses are captured in the woods, and the Redcoats track the group to the church. They command the soldier within to surrender, and Dougal, Jamie, and Murtagh argue about whether to do so or stay and fight. Even Fergus grabs his knife because he is courageous and completely adorable. Dougal wants to unleash his inner Sonny Corleone, but Murtagh knows they would be outmanned and outgunned. When Jamie suggests that he give himself up as a wanted man in exchange for the group’s freedom, Dougal counters, “Oh, stop being such a hero!” Ha! As if he could even if he tried.
Claire interrupts the argument by taking control of the situation, shouting help as if she was a prisoner and informing the Redcoats that she is a British subject. Perhaps it was her Long John Silver analogy, or maybe Dougal’s mention of heroes, but Claire knows how to fake out the British. As she did in the Star Chamber in Episode 207, she appeals to the preconceptions of men that women need to be rescued, and she offers herself as a hostage so the group may be spared. Jamie, of course, does not want her out of his sight, but Dougal and Murtagh convince him that it is the only way. “We will find each other,” Claire promises Jamie, “Trust in that.” To further complete the show, Claire fakes a fainting spell and must be carried out by Dougal, as “Red Jamie” can not show his face and must stay inside the church.
Preconceptions do not just lie with female characters. Before handing Claire over, Dougal makes Captain Claremont (Brendan Patricks) and Lieutenant Barnes (Robert Curtis), give their word of honor that she will be safe, to which the British officers mock the reputation of Highlanders concerning honor. Claire “awakes” and assures the officers that she was not harmed, and they take her away towards the British garrison at Hazelmere. As soon as she leaves, Jamie prepares to leave and Murtagh insists on accompanying him. Book fans will snicker at Rupert’s request that Jamie “give her a wink” when he finds her, as Jamie can not physically wink, but show fans may interpret that as Rupert only having one eye now, so he will always be winking, haha!
Claire’s fairy tale continues as she laments not leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for Jamie to track her, especially as they stay overnight in the village of Crich. I love the reason they stop: it isn’t for the lady’s health or wellbeing, but concern for their horses. As they approach a tavern, Claire notices a wanted poster for Jamie nailed to the door, while the mute beggar Hugh Munro (Simon Meacock), who gave Claire the dragonfly in amber in Season One as a wedding present, spots her from the street.
While resting at a table by herself, an officer makes a double entendre and leans back in his chair, leering at her like a wolf. Wisely, Claire sleeps in her chair overnight and wakens the next morning to discover that plans have changed and she is being taken to a wealthy Englishman’s house for protection instead of Hazelmere, where Jamie is expecting to find her.
Fortunately, Munro has been waiting and approaches her before she leaves with Lieutenant Barnes, and she is able to communicate a message to him to meet up with Jamie and report her new location.
This is where the fairy tale really becomes Gothic in structure before Diana starts to systematically tear it down.
The stately house where Claire is taken? It is owned by none other than the smarmy, preening Duke of Sandringham (Simon Callow), whose forked tongue conveys outward concern and inward opportunism with every utterance. Bored over his confinement by the British troops quartered on his yard and perturbed over his reduced staff and amenities, the Duke appeals to Claire for a deal. Knowing Jamie will come to rescue his wife, the Duke wants to be rescued too, and promises to warn him of the trap outside with a note given to a secret emissary. Claire, again, must play the damsel in distress to appease the Duke so she can get word to Jamie, but she wisely pens the message in (poorly written) Gaelic.
Claire soon finds she is not the only female locked in the high tower, so to speak, as Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) emerges and runs to Claire for friendship and solace. She is about to be married to a wealthy merchant and Loyalist who will overlook the presumption of her as “soiled goods” in exchange for the political and social connections of the Duke’s family. Watching Rosie Day’s wonderful performance as Mary is heartbreaking not only in her treatment as an outcast and ruined woman (as well as a pawn in a business transaction), but that over 250 years later we are still battling rape culture and victim blaming in society.
While Sandringham’s messenger (Scott Hoatson) delivers the encrypted note to Munro in the woods, Claire attempts to talk to the Duke on Mary’s behalf. Every ogre must have a slimy sidekick, and the Duke has a French servant named Danton (Andrea Dolente) who watches Claire more intently than she would like. Ironically, this causes Claire to notice a scar on his hand, the same scar she witnessed on one of Mary’s attackers in Paris. She alerts the Duke, who is furious that Danton has been recognized, leading Claire to figure out that he was behind the attack all along. Sandringham explains that he owed the Comte San Germain a lot of money that couldn’t be repaid, so he owed him a favor. He rationalizes his role as sparing her from murder, as the Comte San Germain had wanted, settling for mere rape as a compromise. Again, he sees nothing wrong with what he did to his own goddaughter or Claire, and insists that they should be grateful that he spared their lives.
Further convincing the world of his depravity, he openly confesses to Claire - as villains often do when they become overconfident of their schemes - that he set up a trap for Jamie in order to endear himself again to the British crown and regain his damaged reputation. “Hanged side by side - how romantic,” he taunts before ordering Claire to be locked in her room.
While Claire needs to be rescued, she also must rescue Jamie, and Munro gets the message to Jamie and Murtagh in a humorous scene where the two men try to decipher her bad Gaelic. “She even misspelled ‘help,’” Murtagh observes.
Come on, now: what stately, gothic fairy-tale manor would be complete without hidden passages? Mary knows them all, which is probably why Danton calls her “little mouse.” She wants to leave with Claire but hesitates going outside and meeting Munro. Exasperated, Claire throws a little reverse psychology by saying, “Fine, stay here and be quiet” as a good damsel should, possibly waving a handkerchief from an upstairs window. None of Diana’s female characters are quiet, are they?
As Claire attempts to go out the back kitchen, she is surprised by Sandringham who insists she eat a late-night snack with him so he can grill her on all the rumors surrounding how she killed the Comte, each one more fantastical than the last. Mary musters the courage to meet Munro at the front door and warn him moments before Danton finds her, and she fights him off and runs to the kitchen, she whips out the frightened-puppy look and tells the infuriated Duke that she tried to flee but it was “so dark” and she was “so scared.”
At that moment, Jamie breaks in and Danton grabs Claire and threatens her with a knife. The Duke’s knee-jerk reaction is to put on his now-crazy-looking wig, an gesture he had not deigned to do for Claire since he never cares for her appreciation. After all that he has done, he still has it bad for Jamie, who looks revolted. When Claire exposes both men for their deeds in Paris, Jamie strikes Danton but it is Mary who grabs a kitchen knife and stabs the Frenchman in his side. For the first time, the girl takes control in an unblinking, clear-headed way.
Undoubtedly, Jamie would love to kill Sandringham, but he honors Murtagh’s vow and in a gruesome and unflinching scene, Murtagh decapitates the Duke and lays his head at Mary’s feet. Fainting and fluttering, be gone: Mary gazes upon the head and simply says, “I think we'd better go.”
Thus, our fairy tale in all its gruesome glory comes is upended, with our ladies fair using the guise of femininity to rescue their menfolk. In addition, the men never lost their sense of chivalry, even when they had to adopt the preconception of a brutish savage in order to survive. Vengeance was taken and given, and the characters press on.