I hope you enjoyed last week’s episode, in which first Claire and Jenny, and later Claire and Murtagh, gallivanted around the Scottish countryside tracking Jamie, with plenty of breaks for singing, dancing, and the occasional well-placed profanity. Because this episode, while gripping, is a lot less fun.
The Outlander series’ biggest drawback is the way it seems to equate homosexuality with sadism in the character of bad guy extraordinaire Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall. That is a historically loaded suggestion. Until the 1980s, the DSM listed homosexuality a “mental disorder,” and sadism was often seen as the way closeted gay men — which was virtually all of them — acted out: As one famous psychoanalyst wrote, “Unconscious but aggressive homosexual tendencies and sadism are inseparable phenomena.”
To find such retrograde thinking in an otherwise often progressive novel is disturbing. Though the series partly redeems itself later on by introducing a gay character with no sadistic tendencies at all as a hero, I wondered how the TV adaption would handle the more problematic details of the story. Would it gloss over Randall’s monstrosity? Or double down, and count on the fierce, controlled charisma of actor Tobias Menzies to carry the day?
Starz decides to do the latter and, to my mind, at least, the decision works. Menzies plays Randall as a villain for the ages, yet he doesn’t make the man into a flaming caricature; he imbues Randall with the same dignity as he does Randall’s descendant – and Claire’s long-suffering 20th-century husband — Frank. One believes in Randall as a terrifying, intelligent, complicated human being, and one fears him, and, even when he shares the screen with the captivating male beauty that is Sam Heughan, one cannot look away.
When the episode begins, Jamie is scheduled to be hanged at Wentworth Prison. As we see early on when McGibberish goes to his (messy, shout-y) death at the end of a rope, executions there are done assembly-line style without emotion or ceremony. Claire, Murtagh, and their clansmen have nothing going for them but foolhardy desperation. How can that be enough to take on cold English bureaucracy?
Worse still, Claire discovers when she poses as a friend of the Frasers and asks the Warden to see the condemned man that Jamie has been granted a brief reprieve and delivered from the gallows into the hands of his nemesis Black Jack. A classic case of out of the frying pan and into the Pit of Despair.
Randall, who seems distressed when he rides up and sees his favorite hulking Scot poised to die on the gibbet, regains his composure after getting Jamie alone in the dungeons and sending him some food to eat. He arrives for an ominous tête-à-tête conducted by torchlight. “Make no mistake, I will have your surrender before you leave this world,” Randall tells Jamie. “I can cope with torture,” Jamie says with his eyes. He can, too. But nobody withstands the Machine.
Meanwhile, Claire and the others use information gathered by two of the clansmen — who are like an 18th-century Jay and Silent Bob — to hatch a plan. The Warden leaves his office for an hour every evening. Like all good invaders, they come in through the front door and are escorted to the Warden’s office to wait for his return. Once left there, they tear the place apart searching for keys (yes!) and a map (no) until, of course, they’re caught in media res.
The soldier who discovers them stands there shocked until Murtagh fisticuffs the man into unconsciousness. Then Murtagh and Claire split up: He stays to clean, she takes the keys and hopes luck leads her to Jamie. Luck, or the sound of ultimate suffering.
Jamie acquits himself well in the Pit of Despair, refusing to give Randall the “surrender” he’s looking for; fighting back, despite his manacles, against Black Jack and his hired muscle, a brute named Marley. As we know, though, resistance only gets Randall excited. Once he and Marley subdue our hero, Randall picks up the biggest, bluntest phallic object in the room — which looks like the Hammer of Thor — and brings it down over and over on Jamie’s hand.
“Why do you force me to hurt you?” Randall asks, as Jamie clutches his mangled, bloody limb. Then, in a pretty impressive feat of villainy, Randall forces Jamie to jack him off using his other hand. Even Marley looks a little unsure about this. Randall changes his mind midway: He stops abruptly, knocks Jamie down, and disappears — presumably to take a cold shower — giving Claire an opportunity to find her man at last and try to set him free.
“You beast,” says Claire, with venom, when Randall returns and finds her.
“You can do better than that,” he says.
“You fucking sadistic piece of shit. I should have slit your throat when you were lying on the ground at Fort William.”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m afraid you will come to regret that small act of humanity.”
Indeed she will. Marley restrains Claire easily and relieves her of the Hammer of Thor before groping her, inside and out, and then smelling his fingers. (Attempted murder? Check. Attempted rape? Check. No naked breasts yet but we still have plenty of time on the clock.) Before he can really go to town, Claire and Jamie lash out and succeed in killing the brute. That’s okay: Randall enjoys doing his own dirty work. He grabs Claire by the thin, pale neck until, to keep him from strangling her, Jamie calls out, “Wait!” He will surrender to Randall, allow Randall to do whatever Black Jack likes with him, so long as Randall lets Claire go safely.
To test his sincerity, as Claire and we viewers whimper, Randall nails Jamie’s wounded hand to the table. At least that’s what I gather happens: By now, I am watching with my eyes and ears closed. Claire’s anguished scream echoes through the dungeon and I pause to take several deep breaths.
Worst is over, right? Not yet. Randall grabs Jamie by the curls, tilts our hero’s head back, and says, “Now kiss me.” Man. Pontius Pilate may have had Jesus scourged and bloodied and nailed to a cross, but even he didn’t make improper advances to Jesus during the crucifixion. I guess this is what you might call “cruci-fiction.” “Cruci-slash-fiction,” even.
After letting her bid Jamie one last tearful good-bye, Randall drags Claire away. In the hall, he asks her, in a just-making-conversation kind of way, whether it’s true that she was tried for witchcraft. Claire draws herself to her full height and says, yes, she is a witch, and she curses Randall with the hour of his death. That’s scary and all, but Claire, couldn’t you have also warned him that if he harmed another hair on your husband’s head, Randall’s balls would shrivel up like salted slugs?
She doesn’t get a chance: Randall shoves her through a trapdoor into a pit of corpses, and she crawls away toward the woods to reconnoiter with Murtagh.
Randall goes back to his handsome, redheaded Christ-figure and starts cutting off Jamie’s shirt to admire the “masterpiece” of Jamie’s wounded back. Lust thickens Randall’s voice. “Shall we begin?” asks Randall. Begin? So this has been preamble? One solitary tear slides down our hero’s face.
Her compatriots bring Claire into the house of a man who has offered them temporary shelter. He is another old admirer of Ellen Mackenzie’s, Jamie’s mother, and he would help if he could, but he can’t put his men or his family at risk. And then — yes! — salvation arrives, in the form of a drunken shepherd and 19 head of cattle. Murtagh smiles. He has a plan. Well, thank God someone does.