Outlander "The Gathering" Review and 4-Episode Test: Characters Worth Studying

By Lily Sparks

Aug 31, 2014

Outlander S01E04: "The Gathering"

Outlander’s fourth episode, “The Gathering,” opened with Claire frolicking in a damp field with a bunch of ragamuffins, the kiddies deliriously laughing at their protean game of tag. But the joke was on them as Claire had been engaging in the game primarily to chart an escape route from the castle out into the wilderness, and from there to the standing stones! That’s right, our fourth episode was Outlander: Prison Break, and Claire was determined to get back to Frank if it was the last thing she ever did! (“Why?” we all wondered, silently. “He seems so dull?”)

Claire had cleverly (or perhaps stupidly) decided to make a break for freedom during the titular Gathering, a time when every member of the clan MacKenzie would descend on Castle Leoch to pledge fealty to the Laird and get a fine sip of his rennish in return. She'd bundled up a bindle of food, counted out the number of watchmen, memorized their positions throughout the day. Even though Miss Fitzmuffin pressured her into putting on some extremely drab formalwear and making an appearance at the oath-takings, Claire suavely drugged her personal guard, snuck past the watchman, clouted Dougal on the head when he made a pass at her in a corridor, and successfully made it to the stables! Freedom was in sight!

And then, she tripped over Jamie.

Freud says there are no mistakes, and faced with braining Jamie and riding for the standing stones (and back to Frank) or just sheepishly confessing the whole plot to Jamie and hanging out with him for a while, guess what she did? She told Jamie all her problems. We don’t blame you, Claire. It’s hard to whip up a sense of urgency in getting back to old Frankie boy. Wouldn’t we all rather bundle down in the hay with Jamie and crack jokes and drink whiskey while everyone else pledges oaths than return to Frank, with his genealogy obsession and utter refusal to crack a smile?

“The Gathering” was the first episode of Outlander that pitted Claire against a ticking clock. She had a limited window of time in which to achieve a goal, and when she failed, the conflict shifted. Naturally, it shifted to the primary concern of the series: Beautiful Jamie is at RISK! Yes, because of Claire’s shenanigans, Jamie’s own, more humble plot (to hide out with the horses) was discovered, and he was dragged forcefully to the Gathering where he would be faced with a terrible choice. Either (A) pledge fealty to the MacKenzies and put a target on his head for emerging as a strong contender to be the next Laird, or (B) not pledge fealty and be killed by a thousand drunken MacKenzies for disrespecting the Gathering. But Jamie, because he is Perfect, came up with option (C): Sweet-talk the Laird, assuring him of his loyalty but assuring all other concerned parties that he was not interested in ascending to the throne (chair? tuffet?) of Laird Mackenzie.

Well done, Jamie. Thanks to his smooth diplomacy, everyone could just relax and go on a boar hunt, except boars are apparently faster and deadlier than Batman and managed to kill poor Jody, which meant that Claire, who was brought along on the boar hunt as a protean EMT, had to hold his hand and talk him through dying. Thanks to a truly amazing performance by Caitriona Balfe, we understood immediately that Claire had done this many, many, many times, too many times dear Lord, as a nurse during World War ll.

Then everyone played field hockey, a sport beloved by hot high school girls on the East Coast and a crazy Laird-to-be who wanted to crack some balls and send people face-first into campfires.

"The Gathering" was a weird episode, I’m not going to lie. It featured a premise with a lot of urgency that promised thrills and chills but was deflated almost immediately, and then it moved through several arbitrary moments that didn’t branch organically from the A-story but attempted to naturalistically convey what a “gathering” would've been like for a healer. That’s kind of the stumble of Outlander as a series; the show is following a book with a lot of detail that wasn't written to any real standard format, because it’s hard to apply a realist approach to time travel. It's admirable and enjoyable as a concept, but challenging for those viewers used to a show hitting very specific story beats. 

There was also the unforgivable line, “There’s no place like love” which Claire gave Laoghaire as a spell to use to win Jamie’s heart through magick (along with some powdered horse dung).

The hour ended with a very promising cliffhanger (though, honestly, every episode so far has ended with a very promising cliffhanger): Next week, Claire is on the road with Dougal and Jamie collecting the rents! Scenery is going to change! Stasis will shift! Normal will be no more!

As the final sample in our 4-Episode test, “The Gathering” affirmed what has been apparent from the outset: Though Outlander boasts a beautiful setting and incredible art direction, it’s a series about INTERNAL drives and conflicts. The real action takes place in the characters' hearts and minds, and you have to identify strongly with the proxy to feel those highs and lows. The primary arc will always focus on Claire’s experience in the Highlands, her decisions regarding Frank, and her decisions regarding Jamie.

Personally, I love that. I love character studies, I love naturalism—especially in period entertainment—and I love stories that chart emotional geography. To viewers who are looking for peppy battle scenes or a traditional A-story/B-story, false defeat/catharsis/resolution/return to the status quo story wheel, a character study will at times feel quite slow. Outlander is “slow” in that Claire's experience is unfolding in real time, just as it does in the book, taking us through the day-by-day of a surreal situation. This series is not by any means giving us the “best parts” version of a huge, wordy tome. It’s developing the themes and events of the book with painstaking faithfulness.

So, my 4-Episode Test verdict is a little tricky. There are a couple caveats. But here’s what I want to say: If you’re a fan of the books by any means, you’re a fool not to watch Outlander. Like, you are the Grinch on Christmas. You’ll never find a production as highly budgeted, as faithful, as dedicated to the source material. Hell, the author herself, Diana Gabaldon, even guest-starred in this episode. The production is LEGIT.

If you are someone who rolls your eyes at a character study and a slower, more thoughtful pace, this series is simply not for you. God bless and move on. Gotham is premiering soon and looks AMAZING. Enjoy. 

If you’re on the fence, I implore you to stick with this series. Outlander has only scratched the surface of the themes explored the books and the relationship between Jamie and Claire. However, let me add this disclosure: If you are someone who is going to experience PTSD from depictions or discussion of sexual assault, know that these themes will come into play both on and offscreen. I don’t want to spoil anything, maybe I just saw Clarissa too young, but TRIGGER WARNING. A million times a trigger warning.

All told, I love Outlander. If I were Diana Gabaldon I’d worry that I'd somehow sold my soul to the devil to get such a prestige retelling that’s so faithful to its source. The cast is amazing, the setting and overall production are captivating. The thoughtfulness invested in developing Claire and Jamie as individuals and as a couple is perfect. The books couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation. Four episodes in, Outlander has left a lasting impression thanks to the overall quality of the production. More of this please, and thank you, Starz. 

What is your 4-Episode Test verdict on Outlander? Keep watching or head for the inlands?

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  • ludoTV Sep 06, 2014

    I agree wholeheartedly with @LilySparks review and 4-ep test. I've binged this weekend watching the 4 whole episodes and I am very impressed.

    • Not only the scenery is fantastic but the characters are heartfelt and properly fleshed out ie not one-dimensional: from the Mrs. Fitz to the complex brothers in charge Colum and Dougal and Claire's girlfrenemy (Geillis Duncan I think), you can tell they have their good and not so good sides. The lack of cliche is such a rarity these days.
    • I especially love that Claire hasn't suddenly fallen in love with the bucolic lifestyle of the highlands (in fact we have seen plenty of harsh reality) nor with Jamie even if she has the hots for him (obvs. who doesn't?!?). I actually appreciate that the unavoidable hook up with Jamie hasn't happened yet.
    • Even the small plots around a boar hunt or a boy's 'exorcism' are a good watch even if the most interesting is of course the time travelling
    • The actress playing Claire is doing an amazing job and kudos to her because most of her experience before 2012 was being a model. So WOW lady!
    Esp. considering all the total trash there's on TV right now this show is a total winner... Well done Starz and it doesn't even have too much gratuitous nudity/sex (or at least not for now minus perhaps the pilot)

  • bluemorphotat Sep 05, 2014

    For me it's definitely a keeper... I like slow and in depth, well acted and staged. What else can I say? I feel like reading a book!

    Will try to look for and read the books as well LOL

  • AkiraHideyo Sep 02, 2014

    Claire and Jamie should just get it on already. All the sexual tension is just plain silly dilly. Can't wait to see how Claire is gonna escape and if those magic rocks of hers will work to bring her back to her boring present.

  • KateGildersleeveMatthews Sep 02, 2014

    I think what you just said in a very nice way is that Outlander is not for dummies. ☺️

  • LilyRoRoSparks Sep 06, 2014

    Well I like it and I'm sort of a dummy so that can't be true!

  • left4dead Sep 02, 2014

    The field hockey is either called hurling if you're Irish and shinty if you're Scottish.That oath ceremony was long wasn't it? I bet Laird Squinty Legs wa dying for a nice sitdown and cup of rhennish made from fresh rhenns picked only that morning..

  • HubBubRay Sep 01, 2014

    It passed my 4-epsidoe test and I'll keep watching it, really because I am devoted fan and I know this is only the start of a much more compelling and riveting story. And because of Jamie ;) But, as an avid fan of the books, I am finding myself in a situation very similar to when I saw the Harry Potter movies and took it personally (as an fan would!) to any plot alterations/exclusions. That aside, I can see that the writers are dragging on the episodes so that the 1st quater of the season dealt with Claire accepting the fact that she time traveled, getting acustomed to 18th century life, and using Leoch to set the stage for the much subtler political tension between Dougal and Jamie. Meanwhile, the writers are building on certain characters that didn't have many scenes in the books (Mrs. Fitzgibbons, Father Baine, Loaghaire, etc.) I understand that they're are doing it so that by the time they get to the "Cranesmuir" scene (side note--with things going so slow will that even make it to this 1st half of the season this fall, or will we have to wait until the 2nd half of the season this spring to see it?) it will all make more sense that it transpired from all of the tension building from the start. But I'm still agitated that they're pissing taking so much time on this and not getting to the good stuff-- i.e. the epic trip Claire is about to take with Jamie and the crew (IDK why, but I am so excited to meet Ned Gowan-- love me some Ned!)
    I still have trouble with the fact that Claire's surgery is this huge dungeon and that she sleeps down there (...?) and feels like a prisoner. And what is up with Dougal's poor excuses for having her accompanying them on boar hunts and the rent collections because she is a physician and she'll be handy to have nearby. The boar hunt one I can forgive, but the rent collecting trip...why do the writers feel the need to keep inserting more conflict and aggression between Dougal, Collum and Claire when there is not that much (or at least that obvious) in the original plot? The reason she goes on the trip is because they say that there is an English officer they believe may be of some help to her and getting back on track to France (when really Dougal and Collum want to see how Claire interacts with a British officer and if it'll reveal whether or not she is an English or French spy).
    Last but not least, I've been noticing some other viewers have posted about Claire's signature curse line: "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ" and about her constant motivation to return to Frank.
    1.) She's said "JHRC" at least once per episode, so I don't think it is overused. I love this line because of the back story of its origin, and it is just so 20th century. However, as much as I love Caitrione Balfe's portrayal of Claire, I don't think she's mastered saying it as naturally/effortlessly as it reads in the books, which makes it stand out as a little awkward to viewers.
    2.) And yes, every one is waxing on about how much Claire waxes on about escaping and getting back to the stones and back to (boring) Frank. I believe it is the writers just trying to reiterate to viewers (esp. those who haven't read the books) that Claire has just survived a MAJOR war, finally been reunited with her husband and starting a fresh life, free of danger or dilemmas. So I don't blame her for acknowledging that it is unnatural for her to be in the 18th century, and that she doesn't particularly want to be there. Of course she doesn't! Someone she cares about (no matter how boring he may seem) is home worried about her, and she about him. There is no electricity, modern medicine, science, nor a place for her as a woman. Plus, there is danger around every corner for her as a woman, and because she is English. She knows her history and that more war is ahead.

  • ukeishiro Sep 01, 2014

    I liked the show a lot, the only "little" problem I have with it is that I'm not Scottish!!!!
    Then I lost a lot of what they say :D!

  • Cuttlefish Sep 08, 2014

    A lot of it is in unsubtitled Gaillic, so you get the feeling of how Claire would have felt being in a place where she doesn't speak the language. You're not alone!

  • ukeishiro Sep 08, 2014

    It is more an accent's problem than a vocubulary’s problem.
    I know the word but too "badly" spoken.

  • pa-tan Sep 01, 2014

    I think Claire thinks of going home mainly cause she is suppossed to want to get back.
    And I do think that she has been treated exceptionally well for an outlander and a woman with different ideals and customs, for now... I hope. In a series like this I want confrontation, action and more of Jaime shirtless! Not everything can be easy and with a hint of suspicion.

  • ArkhamNative Sep 01, 2014

    Four episode test score: Full marks. Extreme win.

  • lsbloom Aug 31, 2014

    It doesn't need to be this slow. I appreciate a good character study and it is a good way to think of it. But the characters are mainly defined by actions--especially Jamie and his sense of responsibility. Claire ineffectually trying to get home to a boring unattractive man isn't a compelling plot. I keep hoping it will pick up and get out of Claire's head, but faithful to the books it is remaining. I find myself constantly wanting to read faster. Instead like the cast, the show is overly emphatically emphasizing every. single. word.

    Please: we can walk and talk at the same time, we can say more than two words without stopping, we don't need to reiterate the plainly obvious with voice over. Oh Claire wants to go home? She is lonely? She is ready? Packing a bag and staking out ways to disappear makes it perfectly clear she is plotting an escape, don't retell. They actually had conversations this episode and that is so so much better than listening to Claire talk.

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