Recap: Outlander, “The Garrison Commander” (1×06)

If you still don’t believe that Tobias Menzies is incredible after “The Garrison Commander,” I may question your sanity. While it also featured some strong character work from Caitriona Balfe, this was Menzies’ episode through and through. I’ve raved about Menzies’ work on the site before, but without explaining why I’m such a fan of his performances. His turn as Black Jack Randall does the work for me. Menzies has a way of inhabiting characters with an intelligence (even when the character’s intelligence is questionable, ahem, Edmure Tully), and watching him, you never feel like you’re seeing the entirety of the character laid bare. He brings a stillness and depth that always suggests there’s more to a character than what you’re seeing, but you don’t know exactly what, so when Randall punches Claire in the stomach after lulling her into a sense of security, you’re startled and horrified, but you believe it.

Black Jack Randall is an utter and complete villain, one that sneers and snarls on the page so thoroughly that any depiction could easily devolve into mustache-twirling parody. It isn’t a spoiler to say that a competent and layered portrayal of Randall is crucial to the success of Outlander going forward. “I dwell in darkness and darkness is where I belong,” declares Randall, but that darkness needs to be smooth and seductive, as well as terrifyingly dangerous. Between Randall’s tête-à-tête with Claire and the flashback to Jamie’s excruciating lashing, Randall is revealed to be a menacing and coldly capable individual gifted with great insight into others, even as the darkness steals away his humanity to leave behind only a depraved, sociopathic madness. His artistry is perverted to the point where he calls the lashing that eviscerated Jamie’s back and horrified a crowd of Scots into submission “an exquisite, bloody masterpiece – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen” – brutality as performance art. Forget Frank; Randall may be Menzies’ finest role yet.

Claire, by the end of the hour, has had her hopes for escape back to her time eradicated so fully that she’s now – finally – only thinking of survival. After learning of the MacKenzies’ Jacobite sympathies, Claire mustered up enough loyalty not to betray her captive status to the English, but that doesn’t stop her from eagerly embracing the opportunity to once again be among her own. Yes, she’s still out of her time, but an English army is the closest thing to home she’s seen since coming to Scotland. After all, Claire’s beauty, graceful manners, and quick wit are timeless feminine virtues, which quickly endear her to officers hungry for a glimpse of home. She smiles ebulliently as she presides over the foot of Brigadier General Sir Oliver Lord Thomas’ table; finally, she knows the rules of the game and is confident she can win – at least until Randall’s entry brings her carefully cultivated image crashing down around her.

Even as Claire is thrilled to play English lady, she never loses her military nurse instincts. She’s willing to trust the soldiers fully because, whether ‘redcoats’ or ‘Tommys’, these are the men she witnessed fighting honorably for their country. She withstands an amputation (so gruesome sounding that I needed to cover my ears) with steely resolve. She believes that beneath Randall’s depravity, he can change, because she’s seen other men turned toward the dark by the horrors of war and come back, hard as it may be.

But, Claire’s experience in World War II can only be so analogous to her current situation. The Scots aren’t the Third Reich, and for every Private McGreevy decapitated by the Scots, there are men crucified at crossroads by the English. Between the two sides, there is no simple aggressor – unless, of course, we count men like Randall, who cannot be redeemed. The flashback to Jamie’s lashing at Randall’s hands becomes a macabre pas de deux between two equally strong willed men. Randall find beauty in the same things we find horrific – the bone-chilling sound of the lash on flesh, Randall’s increasingly frenetic delivery, Jamie’s steadfast refusal to break, and the way the spectators realize they’re witnessing a new, nightmarish level of depravity. Back in the officers’ dining room, Randall hits a new low as he commands a young, frightened English subordinate to kick Claire repeatedly and revel in how “soft” it is to kick a woman.

Faced with the prospect of more of this abuse, Claire has no choice to turn back to clan MacKenzie for her salvation. It turns out Dougal, who rescues her from her beating and whisks her away from the garrison, has been plotting for some time on how to keep Claire from the English, with the legal help of Ned Gowan. She finally convinces Dougal that she isn’t a spy by drinking from a magical, liar-killing spring (you can see Claire nearly driven mad by the fact that there existed a highland superstition that could have proved her innocence this entire time). Claire needs to become a Scot to become exempt from certain parts of English law, and the only way for a woman to do that is to marry one. Namely, one Jamie MacTavish. Oh.

Jamie is considerably more cheerful at the prospect of marrying Claire than she is (after all, Claire is technically possibly kind of maybe committing polygamy). Jamie doesn’t see why he wouldn’t marry her to protect her as her friend, but Claire worries as Jamie’s friend that she’ll keep him from true love and happiness, something he assures her an outlaw with no fortune like himself is unlikely to attain. Going for broke, Claire plays what she thinks will be a deal-breaker: does he care that’s she’s not a virgin? Nope, says Jamie, as long as she’s cool that he is. (Cue viewer jaw-dropping & swooning.) Poor, poor overwhelmed Claire storms back to the campsite. She could be doing worse – she could be marrying Angus.

I would like to point out that, if you came into this show knowing nothing aboutOutlander at all, this is your first glimpse of any budding romantic love story. I feel as if the show often gets dismissed unfairly as a “bodice-ripper”, but really, what bodices have been ravaged thus far? We’ve seen Scottish politics, some asymmetric warfare, time travel, brawling, drinking, singing, graphic wounds, history, and some sex between an already married couple. It’s true that more women are drawn to this show than men, but I do lament the fact that such a genre-bending work was dismissed so easily as a romance. Don Draper has extramarital love affairs, but nobody’s dismissingMad Men as ‘merely’ a romance. Yes, Claire has a developing romantic entanglement, but that’s hardly the entire point, and calling this show “the female ‘Game of Thrones’” because of its female protagnonist is reductive of both shows and audiences, unfair, and yeah, sexist.

Odds & Ends

– Even though I roll my eyes about the “the female ‘Game of Thrones’” thing, you should go read the interview with Tobias Menzies I linked to above because it’s great. I’ll even link to it again here. Then you should probably go rewatch Rome.

– Some of Claire’s desperate hope to see Randall redeemed clearly comes from her love for Frank and how much it devastates her to see that evil in his family tree, driven home by the razor that he shared with his ancestor.

– Besides Randall, I thought the Englishmen came off as more than just simple bad guys. Slight differentiations in the personalities of the officers in the dining room were clear, even without names, as they had varying degrees of callousness, pompousness, honor, traditionalism, and superiority.

– Randall asks Jamie if he’s scared because he’s shaking, and Jamie replies, “I’m just afraid I’ll freeze stiff afore yer done talkin’.” Jamie and Claire are well matched in sarcastic fury at the very least.