Recap: Outlander, “The Gathering” (1×04)

If there’s one central point driven home by “The Gathering” it’s that everyone in Castle Leoch is in a precarious position, no matter how certain his power or status appears. Colum’s physical ailment means that he’s dependent on his brother Dougal’s willingness to complete certain lairdly tasks without staging a coup. Despite Dougal and young Hamish’s apparent position as heirs to the Lairdship, one oath from the strong and virile (and blood-related) Jamie MacTavish and they could be shunted to the side if Jamie has the support of the people. Jamie’s survival depends on a careful balance of keeping his head down and clever clan diplomacy. And Claire – well, we know where Claire stands, but her position may have been the only one to get a bit more secure after the events of the Clan MacKenzie gathering are said and done.

Unfortunately, the episode take a long time to get to that interesting moment. The last act of “The Gathering” is much better than what precedes it, which is a mish-mosh of mostly thwarted action and not particularly successful attempts to build tension. Whereas previous episodes had more storytelling purpose, this one functions as a waystation on the way to bigger and better things down the road. We’ve been assured for two weeks now that a gathering is a momentous affair for the clan, but of the two chief parts (oath-taking and boar hunting), only the boar hunt pays off.

Claire herself is unsuccessful in her plan to escape during the oath-taking ceremony, an outcome that was all but certain, but it happens anticlimactically when Jamie simply informs her that her well-plotted route now has extra guards. Geillis is once again a nosy Nellie, trying to smoke out Claire’s big secret using womanly wiles and the guise of friendship, but we’ve seen this before. Jamie walks a careful line between swearing an actual vow of fealty and offending Colum by refusing through promising obedience as a kinsman, sure. But, the lead-up to Jamie’s actual oath-taking was rushed and its import explained in a clumsy exposition dump as the event was unfolding, which denied us the chance to build up an investment in his seemingly impossible predicament. (I do love how Jamie’s friend points out that yet again, Jamie’s in danger and it is actually all Claire’s fault.)

But then comes the boar hunt. Shot like a horror movie with quick cuts and a jittery, low camera angle, beaters drive the boars out of hiding and Claire wanders around in the encroaching fog. Disoriented while trying to find an injured hunter, she’s nearly mauled herself until Dougal shoots a charging boar at the last moment. Upon finding the mortally wounded Geordie, she snaps into battlefield nurse mode, immediately deploying her triage skills. When they prove insufficient to the task, Claire guides the man to a calm end by asking him to tell her about his home as the man dies in Dougal’s arms. We don’t need voice over to tell us that Claire has performed this final kindness many, many times during the war, and neither does Dougal, who discerns that Claire has witnessed her share of violent death, which earns her new respect and understanding, if not Dougal’s real trust.

When the now somber hunting party returns to the festivities, Dougal launches himself into a particularly violent game of field hockey in manly denial of his grief, and the game quickly devolves into a battle between Dougal and Jamie. The two kinsman clearly have a past grounded in both affection and mutual suspicion, which is more easily worked through with fists and sticks than words. Jamie, who had been careful to show deference to his uncle at the previous night’s ceremony, refuses to be bested on the field, and wins decisively. (Claire’s face through all this is priceless – horrified disdain at the violence turns to bemused admiration for Jamie’s prowess.)

The whole episode is something of a showcase for Dougal. Graham McTavish does a fine job depicting Dougal’s compassion, anguish, fear, worry, loneliness, barely suppressed rage, and unleashed fury. Enriching Dougal’s character isn’t only important, but a way to deepen our understanding of the very real toll of life in the Scottish Highlands on those who are in charge of keeping it safe and stable while under constant threat of by the English.

Where does this lead Claire? On a road trip with Dougal, accompanying him to outlying farms to play healer as he collects taxes on Colum’s behalf. (Jamie is notably absent from the party, price on his head and all.) Claire’s coolness under pressure earned her a bit of freedom, but now she needs to come up with a new plan to see her home.

Odds & Ends

– Diana Gabaldon cameos as Iona, the noblewoman in the balcony who exchanges barbed compliments with Mrs. Fitz and shushes Claire.

– I haven’t commented much about the show’s sartorial choices, but between Claire’s knitted shawls and armwarmers, her plaid gown at the oath-taking, and even Brimstone’s decorative bridle, it manages to make the 18th century look chic.

– Claire uses The Wizard of Oz to improvise a hilarious love spell (sprinkle horse dung on the doorstep, click your heels three times while saying “There’s no place like love”) for Laoghaire to cast on Jamie in a clever incorporation of pop culture that both Claire and we understand.

– I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the use of 1940s music conveys Claire’s emotional state much better than the voiceover. The voiceover is diminishing, but I’ll be glad if and when it finally disappears.

– I was actually hoping that the scene where Dougal begins to force himself on Claire would be cut out entirely, but it wasn’t awful as awful on screen as I feared. It came across more as an inappropriately aggressive come-on to which he believes that she will eventually willingly submit than a full-on rape attempt. Still skeevy and terrible, but less awful.